2014 marks the release of a film called, Wolf Totem, based on the novel by Jiang Rong (Lu Jiamin). The book’s wild success in China reveals that it is not only the United States that has a paralyzing ambivalence when it comes to the radical ecological changes that beset the next few generations. Ultimately, the tome of over five hundred pages (english hardback edition) proved to be political, violent , preachy, informative, full of beautiful description, desperate and sad, and ultimately visual and moving for me. The warnings that it evokes will likely fall unheeded by those uninterested in its arguments, but Wolf Totem can stand on its own as a wildlife adventure novel or as an elegy to the Mongolian grasslands and will not fade from the collective conscience, especially China’s, for some time. In fact, its radical success evidences growing concerns about sustainability, agricultural capacity and urban expansion in China. Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, has said, “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller, second in circulation only to Mao’s little red book.” Scientifically minded readers have criticized the book for its anthropomorphizing of wolves. This, to me, is a failure to see that the animal is tied up in the spiritual beliefs of the Mongolian people as well multiple metaphors for the writer.
In the United States, the Obama administration recently removed federal protections for the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. Obviously, the goal of any recovery program is to deem an animal recovered. But even as recoveries are pronounced a success, problems persist. The California Condor made a modest comeback after intense recovery efforts were made. But the nature of the animal is scavenging. Recent studies show that lead from shot has been killing the birds, and now efforts move forward to ban lead shot from the Condor’s range.
Heated arguments over wolf recovery fly between wildlife groups, legislators, ranchers and special interests, such as the International Safari Club which gave a presentation at a state hearing in Wisconsin recently where legislators such as Scott Suder are adamant about hunting wolves (the current kill quota discussion for next year stands at 275 but is likely to change). Suder wants to allow dogs to hunt down and fight wolves on the ground in addition to trapping, shooting and archery making Wisconsin the only state to use dogs in such a manner. Both sides insist that science is on their side. The hunters in Wisconsin say recovery is complete and the original quota (set in the nineteen-seventies at around 350) has far been surpassed. Arguments from wildlife advocates say it is obvious the state can sustain the current numbers and the original numbers were arbitrary estimates or even inventions. In addition, current numbers (750) may be leveling off, suggesting a natural carrying capacity. From a personal perspective, I haven’t ever heard a rationale for the use of dogs. It strikes me as heinous in nature, and I have been frustrated every time I have asked for an explanation from anyone.
But like so many political arguments, I feel the big picture has been lost. The truth of the matter is wolves, along with dozens of other wildlife, are losing their habitat to expansion, often of energy mining but also to suburban sprawl. Foxes, and to some extent coyotes, have adapted to this. Chicago even released coyotes into one of its largest parks to control rodent populations.
But wolves are different creatures.
In Wolf Totem, the book’s primary voice, Chen Zhen says,
“You can tame a bear, a tiger, a lion, or an elephant, but you cannot tame a Mongolian wolf…These thoughts made Chen aware that his understanding of wolves was still incredibly shallow. For a long time he had thought that food, and hence killing, was the most important thing for wolves; obviously that was not the case. He had based that assumption on his understanding of human behavior. Neither food nor killing was the purpose of the wolves’ existence; rather, it was their sacred, inviolable freedom, their independence, and their dignity.”
The existence of wolves will depend almost entirely on human’s ability to recognize an intelligent, outside entity that will not bend or bow to humans’ demands—in short, it will depend on tolerance. What is the cost if we don’t protect wolves and their contributions to a thriving ecosystem? Would deer populations become unmanageable in states like Wisconsin? Would they become more unhealthy and eventually be ravaged by disease or famine? We can only speculate.
Great Britain eradicated its land of wolves long ago. Would their eco-systems be richer if they had not? Evidence is growing in support of how biological entities are essential to the whole.
But again, we can only speculate. Wolf Totem describes transformation of the thousands-of-years-old Mongolian grassland’s ecosystem into a desert in a matter of years, recalling Aldo Leopold’s words, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Conservation (1938), RR 145-146)
Wolves represent the last remnant of whatever anyone means when they say the wild. But if we allow wolves to slowly lose their habitat, to slowly lose their range, we are condoning the anesthetizing and amputation of what we now define as wild. If the wolf is eradicated, we will need a new definition of wild—one that is less fierce, less independent, less dangerous, less beautiful. This new definition will look less vital and inspiring and more like something we cultivated in our backyard.