The New Times (Kigali)

5 February 2013

Rwanda: African Chimp, Trafficking and Climate Change

opinion

In our time, there is nothing that shapes our thinking about a host of issues as the all-pervasive media. Twenty-four hour news broadcasts, the internet, commentary by all sorts of experts ensure that we are never far from momentous happenings across the world.

As a result, we are taken up by the big events that shake up the world - like wars and huge natural and man-made disasters. Apart from their being ever present, we notice them because they pose a threat to our very existence and in that sense, represent a grave form of insecurity to our world. When they occur and are brought to our living rooms in all their ferocity and destructive power, they jolt us out of our comfort and remind us of so many things we would rather not think about.

The wars that continue to break out in various parts of the world, remind us of humanity's capacity for cruelty and brutality. Equally, the various conflicts reveal an amazing collective inclination towards self-destruction. And despite so many centuries of civilisation and the moralising efforts of spiritual movements, savage instincts are never far from the surface and tend to emerge rather too frequently.

The many natural disasters - wildfires that lay to waste thousands of square miles of land, hurricanes that flatten everything in their path, mega storms that even the most economically powerful countries cannot prevent or contain, and many others - are a reminder of our inability to submit nature to our will. The most advanced technology in human history cannot control nature. It has actually increased humanity's capacity to mess with the environment and increase the possibility of disasters occurring.

Because of preoccupation with the big things, sometimes we miss the small ones, which also reflect the impact of the big ones.

I saw one such small thing nearly two weeks ago. It came at the end of Christiane Amanpour's show on CNN on January 24 this year - a very moving scene in terms of the feelings it evoked and also significant in the environmental issues it brought to the fore.

The footage showed a chimpanzee trying to keep warm in freezing winter in Wales. The chimp was shown tightly wrapping a bright blue blanket around itself so as to leave no room for the cold. The blanket was clearly not warm enough to keep out the biting cold.

As the chimp made every effort to stay warm, it looked at the cameraman with a mixture of appeal and bewilderment. The usual monkey playfulness and mischief were absent. Quite understandably because it was in an unusual and hostile environment. In its tropical habitat, it would never have needed a blanket.

The presence of the chimp in sub-zero temperatures raises a number of questions.

Why was it there in the first place? It was probably a victim of animal trafficking and had luckily been rescued by animal lovers. Now, much more is reported about human trafficking and the untold suffering it causes. Still, not much has been done to stem it. Smuggling of animals across borders and continents is just as widespread and equally physically and emotionally distressing as was evident in the chimp's eyes in Wales.

Trafficking of any sort is a result of greed and the savage instinct in humans. Like the environmental degradation also caused by greed, if unchecked, it will lead to ecological problems with dire consequences for our planet.

Extreme weather conditions as the cold in Wales showed and also experienced in rising temperatures, unusual floods, fires and drought, we are told, are a result of our messing up with the delicate ecological balance and the earth's atmosphere. We see the effects of this in the eyes of victims of famine and of such happenings like Superstorm Sandy.

For me, the frantic effort of the chimpanzee in Wales to keep warm in a foreign environment was the face of both climate change and dislocation caused by greed. Both are unconscionable.

A few days after the chimp story, there were news reports of dead sea birds, and some live ones, washed ashore in Britain. Those still alive had their feathers glued together by some unknown substance. The birds were clearly victims of some man-made disaster, probably a chemical or oil spill in the sea.

Oil tankers spilling their cargo into the sea, or oil spilling from wells as a result of accidents or negligence are fairly common occurrences particularly in the developing world. That is what is worrying. Some of these accidents might be happening in Africa and we don't know about it.

Oil is increasingly being discovered in many African countries. Many of them do not have sufficient environmental controls to check the damage oil exploitation could cause. Or where they exist, greed will prevent their implementation. In the event of an occurrence like what is happening to the sea birds washing ashore in the United Kingdom, few of our countries have the capacity to rescue and treat them, and identify the cause.

All this is quite disturbing. The distress on the face of the chimpanzee, used to warmer tropical climes, but dislocated to the frozen north, was a more powerful reminder of all sorts of hazards than volumes of conference papers on the effects of climate change and animal trafficking could ever do.

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