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I recently travelled to the picturesque town of Hamilton, New Zealand, through which the ethereally beautiful Waikato River courses, a body of water deemed sacred to the Maori people who refer to it as a tupuna (ancestor), a taonga (treasure), and a mauri (life force).

Featuring in the headlines of this far-off place were regular updates regarding our own beloved Madiba. I spoke to Maori people who had met Mandela and who said he had inspired their own struggle for cultural recognition and access to natural resources. In much of the small talk I engaged in with the locals, Madiba and his health featured as the predominant known “thing” about South Africa. I was touched to see how much meaning swirls around this great man in a place so far removed from our shores. I realised that here, too, the sad day of his passing would be mourned as the loss of something precious.

During the same week another tragic story flickered across the news — the rare sighting of a white-throated needletail off the coast of Scotland had “twitchers” all aflutter as the bird (which follows migratory paths in Australasia) appeared off the coast of Scotland for the first time in 22 years. About 40 birding enthusiasts chartered flights to descend upon the rural area where the bird could be sighted but were left aghast when it flew into a community wind turbine and met its end. A very sad end to a delightful bird, the onlookers agreed. Tragic too, another added, that some people would have lost the cost of their flights. It might well have attracted many more birders to Harris had it not met its untimely demise, said another. Since the reports the bird’s death has been grist for the mill of those opposing wind farms in Scotland and the debate has since turned to the relative killing rates of different forms of energy.

The story impacted me. I felt like something terribly precious had been lost. The tale seemed to speak volumes about our incapacity to live in harmony alongside our fellow earthlings and our continued need to justify their value in terms of economic factors (cost of flights, visitors to Harris). But the juxtaposition of this single report against the many and continuing reports of Madiba’s health caused me to think about the difference between the passing of great men and women and the passing of species as their capacity to regenerate is diminished through the particular deaths of individuals succumbing to the brutal externalities associated with meeting our needs.

It is interesting to reflect, for instance, on what the passing of this one precious thing — an individual of the species Hirundapus caudacutus, considered to be the fastest bird on the planet — has not led. It has not, for instance, sparked an interest or on-going preoccupation with the white-throated needletail. Although it is categorised as a species of “least concern” with a population trend of “stable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, according to the Australian government much about this bird is unknown: the total population is unknown, there is no published information on generation length, and nothing in the way of active management in any conservation area. And while this one little fellow made the news after doing a kamakazi in the Scottish Highlands, I predict that we will not be receiving regular news updates on the state of this species, or indeed any species.

Is South Africa the exception with the regular updates on our beleaguered rhinos? Maybe so, but apart from the work done by organisations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust conservation updates on the fate of less glamorous creatures rarely if ever make the news. Think about the African Wild Dog (less than 250 left), the oribi (endangered in SA), the blue swallow (less than 40 pairs left in SA) and so many less glamorous squishy and leafy things.
Why is this so? Perhaps the problem just seems too overwhelming. The work being done on planetary boundaries by Rockstrom and others has identified the extinction of species as the very first planetary boundary that we have already massively exceeded. We are apparently in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, an event characterised by the loss of 17 000 to 100 000 species each year.

The reason I would suggest however is that for most people these creatures simply have no meaning in their daily life. The Sixth Extinction is a crisis of meaning. We have reduced these creatures to mere objects of scientific inquiry measurable by habitat, range, population size, valued in terms of their functional contributions to ecosystems, gauged for concern by their assessment on the IUCN Red Data list. And increasingly we are seeing them as commodities — and indeed all of nature — as commodities. The annual illegal trade in wildlife is estimated at between $5 billion and $20 billion, annually, second only to the global trade in drugs. Carbon trading and water trading are now the norm but payment for ecosystem services and even nutrient trading is not far down the line.

Along with the demise of these creatures goes the extinction of indigenous peoples for whom nature is part of lore and contributes to a world view that brings order without prisons, old-age homes, guns, drones and a global spying panopticon. Increasingly these peoples are also under threat.

For individuals concerned about preserving a life space for our fellow earthlings, science and economics cannot be ignored, in many cases they are our only hope in what Jacklyn Cock calls “the war against ourselves”. But they are a double-edged sword. For without meaning that touches upon daily life there will never be common concern. So we need to listen to, safeguard and protect cultures like the Maori and our own African cultures in which individuals can still see in nature meanings non-scientific and non-commercial, the meanings we have so tragically lost.


  • Tracy Humby is passionate about exploring the multiple intersections of environmental and social justice. Weary of sustainability-talk, wary of sufficiency she wonders whether sacrifice is the better metaphor to capture the transformations needed in an age of massive ecological degradation. But with increasing global inequality, who and what will be sacrificed? She is an associate professor of law at the University of the Witwatersrand, a mother and a lover of poetry, art and music. She has degrees in music, law and the humanities.


Tracy Humby

Tracy Humby is passionate about exploring the multiple intersections of environmental and social justice. Weary of sustainability-talk, wary of sufficiency she wonders whether sacrifice is the better metaphor...

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