“A Window on Eternity”, in Gorongosa and Chernobyl

Destruction of our natural habitat comes in many many different forms. Edward O. Wilson writes about destruction and rebirth in one such place, Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. And Timothy Mousseau, professor of Biology at University of South Carolina, studies destruction and its impact on rebirth in another location, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

A Window on EternityIn A Window on Eternity, A biologist’s walk through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster 2014), Wilson briefly recounts the history of Mozambique’s 16 year civil war ending in 1994 which resulted in nearly a million people killed and the creation of several million refugees. A collateral effect of the war was near extinction of what Wilson describes as “the megafauna” of Gorongosa National Park, a wildlife refuge located in Mozambique, but too close to the fighting. Large edible and/or valuable animals were killed for food or profit. Elephants decreased by 80-90% in number. Cape buffalos went from 13,000 in 1972 to 15 in 2001, Wilson writes. Wildebeest went from 6,400 to one and zebras from 3,300 to just 12 he adds.

Thanks to the great efforts of U.S. businessman and philanthropist Gregory Carr who began over seeing the reintroduction of large animlas back into the park, Gorongosa is staging a slow resurrection.

“Another several decades may be needed for Gorongosa to return to its old preeminence, but given the persistence of its undergirding of plants and invertebrates which largely survived the war intact, I believe this  will surely come to pass,” Wilson concludes in the chapter called ‘War and Redemption’. In the chapters that follow Dr. Wilson describes findings from his and his colleague’s expeditions to Gorongosa as he shares their ground-eye view of ants, katydids, praying mantises and others. “None to me is a bug,” he writes, “Each instead is one kind of insect, the ancient legatee of an ancient history adapted to the natural world in its own special way. I wish I had a hundred lifetimes to study them all,”  he writes in the beginning of chapter eight, ‘The Clash of Insect Civilizations’.

But while E.O.Wilson is sanguine about ‘The Conservation of Eternity’ (title of chapter eleven) in nature’s ability to recover from war in Gorongosa park, fellow biologist   Timothy Mousseau, professor at University of South Carolina is less optimistic about the resilience of various phyla of the animal kingdom to survive nuclear fallout. Dr. Mousseau has been studying how various species of birds, spiders and insects have fared in and around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which exploded 25 years ago, releasing large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. His work was featured on Newyorktimes.com.

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Still a hot zone, the area around the old plant has been off limits to humans, making it an interesting living laboratory to study flora and fauna without the day to day interference of human life (though one could make an easy argument that after contaminating an entire region with radioactive waste, day to day human activity is kind of negligible). Since 1999 Mousseau and Dr. Pape Moeller have been documenting aberrations in spider webs, bird beaks,  insects and rodents, all of which they say reflect genetic mutations in animals living in the most radioactive zones around Chernobyl. And, while some researchers take issue with Mousseau and  have pointed to the fact that any wildlife that persists around Chernobyl is proof of the resilience of  various species, Dr. Mousseau cautions that if you look more carefully, life has persisted but not robustly and not in good health.

Neither scenario is appealing. Dr. Wilson documents a resurgence of wildlife in an area that witnessed almost a million human deaths, thousands of animal deaths and which required importing ‘megafauna’ species to help repopulate the area. Dr. Mousseau documents the persistence of weakened and wounded life which, however, has been able to survive a near direct nuclear explosion but which has little hope of ever returning to full health. Perhaps for either scenario, Edward O.Wilson was prescient in selecting the opening quote in his latest book: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live . – Moses at Mount Nebo, Deuteronomy 30:19.”

Howard E. Friedman

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