Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

January 27, 2002


     A mile-long, hundred-meter-wide hillside in one of our regional parks is covered with nothing but chaparral -- mostly coyote bush, with occasional coast live oak, bay laurel, coffee berry, California sagebrush, manzanita, gooseberry, poison oak, blackberry, sticky (bush) monkeyflower, and smaller plants. It hosts blacktail deer, fence lizards, rabbits, spotted skunks, red-tailed hawks, rattlesnakes, ringneck snakes, and other snakes.


     The area is pristine. In forty years I have never seen a human being there. It's obvious that no one has an interest, nor a need, to go there, or they would have done so. So I thought, Why not make it official -- declare it off-limits to humans, and thereby protect the wildlife whose home it is, in perpetuity! I made this suggestion in a letter to the East Bay Regional Park District. Silly me! The Park District replied that as soon as they put up a sign, people would immediately want to go there!


     And so it has gone, for six million years of human evolution: there has never been one square inch of the Earth that is off-limits to all humans. Wildlife lived here for four billion years before we showed up, and adapted to habitat that was human-free. Then we arrived, and decided that the entire Earth belongs to us -- every square inch! We have, we think, the right to go wherever we want, and do whatever we want there. And to assuage our conscience, we have developed an art of rationalization second to none.


     Humans are the ants at every other species’ picnic. The first thing that every child learns about wildlife is that, with few exceptions (mosquitoes seem to like us, at least up to a point), they don't want us around. As soon as we try to get close to them, they run, slither, fly, or swim away. And with good reason! Even our own research (see e.g. Boyle and Samson, or Knight and Gutzwiller) shows that the presence of humans is harmful to wildlife. We bring disease, cause energy-draining stress, drive animals away from their preferred mates and resources, and alert predators to their location. But do we try to look at things from the wildlife's point of view, so that we can provide them what they need, and thereby ensure their survival? No. In fact, anyone who tries to make use of our natural talent for empathy, and apply it to other species, is accused of the sin of "anthropomorphizing".


     As I said, not every species is sensitive to the presence of humans, but in every area, there are at least some that are. Therefore, if we are to reach our goal of not causing any more extinctions, we will need to start setting aside some habitat that will be off-limits to all humans. Try to find the concept in any library! It isn't recognized. Perhaps closest is the concept of "wilderness". But wilderness has, unfortunately, come to mean "human playground". In ancient and recent times there were "sacred lands", but these have always been open to the priests and shamans. Now we have "wildlife refuges", but these are still open to biologists -- and to drilling for oil.


     Our most protected lands -- national parks, still provide inadequate protection for the wildlife they host: they continue to lose species and populations. Another reason for setting aside human-free habitat is that many animals are too dangerous for us or our livestock -- e.g. grizzlies, tigers, wolves, elephants, crocodiles, sharks, etc.


     The Scots have shown us the way. All gardens in Scotland, I am told, have a section "for the fairies". I have set aside a 20x20 foot area in my back yard as human-free habitat. Many others have done likewise. If you own land, set aside a section of it for the exclusive use of the wildlife. Investigate putting a clause in your will that will maintain its human-free status after your death. Note how you and others react. Then ask every landowner whom you know, especially park managers, to do the same. Watershed lands (whose purpose is protecting water and wildlife, not recreation), military reservations, lands with radiation and other hazards (e.g. volcanoes and Chernoble), private land, trail-less sections of public lands, sanctuaries and critical habitat for endangered species (e.g. the Condor Sanctuary), and any land where humans can't get along with each other (e.g. Palestine or Kashmir), are good candidates. Even if you meet resistance, as I have, the process of discussing human-free habitat is beneficial and very educational.


     But aren't humans a part of nature, just like everything else? Sure we are a part of nature, or we wouldn't be able to interact with it. The real question is what part of nature are we? Clearly, the most destructive part. Or to put it another way, we are a species that is native to part of Africa, and everywhere else is a rank newcomer -- an exotic species. I don't think this means that we have to all move back to Africa, but it does mean that we need to practice restraint -- assume the manners of a guest. We obviously need to experience wilderness in order to appreciate it, but equally obviously, we need to stay out of it, if it is to be preserved.




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