An elephant’s journey

by Hilal Sezgin

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

As you leaf through this book, you get the feeling that your childhood dreams are taking shape: We float high above the surface of the earth, over the mountains and the African savannah, above the Antarctic, the everglades and the oceans … and from up here, weightless and unobserved, you can see what all the non-human residents of this earth are getting up to. Where the elephants and giraffes are going, how the whales swim around the world’s oceans, which swamps the crocodiles prefer and the absurd paths that turtles and migratory birds like to travel.

The paths that animals take, from one contrasting corner of the world to another, is shown in bold colours, on 50 often-full-page maps. Sometimes the roaming creatures are even named – such as the elephants, Kenani, Rukinga and Ndara or the jaguars, Rocky and Manu.

Special events and interesting habits are noted. For example: On March 16, 2016, on this spot in Kenya, the elephant Rukinga crossed the train tracks at nine o’clock. And this is the grove of trees where the hyenas being observed in Botswana like to sleep. In this bay on Alexander Island, in Antarctica, a seal named Rudolf came ashore for a month for some rest and recuperation.

Data like this is gathered by countless scientists from around the world and entered into a global archive. For this book, geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti came together to make their research more accessible to the layperson.

There are many aspects to this science including things like animal-tracking, bio-logging and wildlife radio telemetry. One of the most common techniques is tracking animals using GPS where the observed beast is chipped. The GPS-enabled chips don’t send a signal but can be tracked by triangulating where the chip is, between three satellites, part of the Global Positioning System, more commonly known as GPS.

Later on the chip and its data will be recovered, when the animal dies or if the chip has been designed so that it eventually detaches itself. Some of the chips used on sea creatures make their way to the water’s surface and then send out a radio signal while afloat, broadcasting their position, so they can be more easily recovered. In other cases, animals are tracked more creatively. For example, GPS is no good for badgers because they build their homes underground. So instead these animals get a collar that orients itself to the earth’s magnetic field, to show locations.

The results of bio-logging are many and positive. First of all they allow scientists more insight as they research certain species: How the animals move around, where they meet one another and find food and where and when they rest.

Some of the work simply assuages curiosity. For example, the apparently arbitrary journey that certain pheasants in the Himalaya make up and down the mountains. (On the other hand, where else is a bird supposed to go?). But much of the work brings practical discoveries useful for the care of the environment such as the fact that pumas are being hemmed in by California highway builders, and that sea otters actually prefer estuaries to the open sea and need protection in those places, or that giraffes don’t actually remain in the national parks that have been made for them.

Obviously it doesn’t help to put a line around an area and say this area is now “protected”, if the animals themselves don’t want to stay there. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that national borders are ignored by wildlife like elephants. There have been occasional discoveries of illegal poaching and at times elephants – such as the female, equipped with a transmitter, who was badly wounded – have been able to be treated by vets.

Suddenly the focus in the book changes and we move from the overarching scene to just a single animal and their fate. We discover how Kulling, the wounded female, was found and then treated, how she tried to defend herself and, sadly, how she later died. Behind every line on the map and every set of data there are wild lives, and behind every migratory pattern there are individual animals, hunted or motivated by hunger, thirst, fear, family, sex or even curiosity.

And that is one of this book’s problems: The fact that the welfare of the individual animal and its irreplaceable life slips into the background, even while the authors remain fascinated with the protection of whole species.

After the first magic of the book fades, you start to wonder more and more what it means for an animal to roam around while chipped or fitted with a GPS device. How is a tracking device even fitted and how did the animal end up with it? It would have been caught, sedated and then chipped.

The simple act of "catching an animal is about the most horrible thing that can occur to it," biologist Rory Wilson says in the book. Not being able to move freely is terrible for a wild animal. Even if you "catch it and let it go, it'll have the heebie-jeebies for weeks," he notes.

Anyone who has ever put a protective collar on their housecat after it’s just been operated on and tried to convince the domestic pet that it can live with this collar for a day or so, can only imagine how pumas, lions or badgers feel about a collar. On the other hand, modern methods of tracking are far more humane than they used to be.

The book tells us that in 1803, US ornithologist John James Audubon wrapped threads around the legs of songbirds so he could document their return after winter. And the first tracking of whales took place using barbed skewers on which a number and address was engraved. The whale would swim around with the harpoon in its side, until it was killed by whalers who would then deliver the engraved device to the researchers for a fee.

That’s how this kind of thing was done hundreds of years ago. Today penguins are equipped with devices like the so-called “beakometer” that measures how much the bird eats in a day by counting how often and how wide it opens its beak. The book doesn’t go into further detail on the beakometer but it’s not hard to imagine that it must be an externally fitted device and not something a penguin would necessarily enjoy wearing.

The old-fashioned way of looking at an animal as a “research object” rather than a sentient being persists and is well represented in this book. Earlier globe-trotting researchers happily shot dozens of exotic birds and land animals every time they reached a new shore in the name of science and sample collection. Today, “we have 3,000 to 4,000 samples,” one entomologist says in the book. And “sample” is the word that gives it away. The individual animal is only seen as an example of its kind, carrying one gene or another, whose secrets can, and should, reveal the greater mysteries of life. But the life of the individual animal is not respected, and in fact, may have been cruelly ended.

But that is not something that this particular book is good at reflecting upon. In general, the texts are a little short, a little bit systematic, only offering us soundbites and anecdotes to accompany the maps. That is completely acceptable for a book that is mostly visual. But after you’ve been around the world a few times with these pages, after you have gained intimate knowledge about the movements of owls, sharks and plankton and you zoom back out, then you get the uncomfortable feeling that all these beakometers, badger-grams and GPS chips are not about to help save the world.

Nothing against the new technology, nothing against the desire for scientific knowledge. It’s just that plain facts won’t help us save species and individual animals. Instead it is man’s attitude toward the non-human – animals, the earth and resources – that will make a difference. We don’t really need bio-logging to tell us that building houses and streets destroys natural habitats, or that our dietary habits damage or kill dozens of millions of unchipped animals annually.

Where elephants roam and where felines sleep – yes, these maps are like a childhood dream of the jungle come true. But in order to protect the earth, the only habitat for both human and non-human creatures, we need new and more radical dreams for adults.

Where the Animals Go - Tracking Wildlife with Technology in 50 Maps and Graphics. By James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti © 2017 W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

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