On a January morning in 2006, I stood directly in front of the harp wire that separates the Amur tiger exhibit from the public at the Indianapolis Zoo. It was cold and early, and I hadn’t seen anyone else out yet. As I gazed into the exhibit, an adult male tiger silently appeared from behind the rocks and looked straight into my eyes. Perhaps eight feet and a few thin vertical wires separated me from a totally-unafraid representative of the largest cat species on Earth, and we just stood there gazing at each other.
And I’m thinking, “Crowther, you are not at home…”
Then I realized that he wasn’t, either. In fact, there are no Siberian tigers in Siberia any more, which is why they’re now known as Amur tigers.
Siberia is an incredible chunk of this planet. It’s nearly four million square miles of swamp, forest, and tundra, but there wasn’t enough room for both people and tigers, and the tigers lost.
You see, a big tiger can be ten feet long and weigh six hundred pounds. You’ve seen a house cat stalk and leap, and what they can do to a bird, a rabbit, or a mouse. Now imagine a cat that’s up to one hundred times larger, with absolutely no desire to curl up on your lap.
I don’t know whether this tiger was looking at me as an opportunity or just a curiosity, but I do know that the spark within him passed through that harp wire and touched me. And I also know that I will do whatever I can to help ensure that his cousins continue to have wild places in which to be wild.
I believe Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist, when he said “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, love only what we know, and know only what we are taught.” Zoos send hundreds of scientists into the field to work on species conservation, but those efforts will be largely futile until the rest of the world comes to value wild things and wild places.
Our planet is a complex, living organism that functions much like our own bodies. Sure, the Earth can survive the loss of a species just as we can survive the loss of a hand or a kidney. But it has to compensate for that loss, and you just can’t keep losing parts before you see some serious diminishing of the quality of life. It’s sad to lose a species, but it also weakens our own sustainability in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
I believe that that there’s no greater gift we can give our children and grandchildren than a world they would choose to live in as opposed to one they are forced to endure. And I believe we have no greater responsibility than to understand and respect the importance of wild things and wild places in the world we share.
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