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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Review: Act III in Patagonia - People and Wildlife

"Ultimately, preserving nature in parts of the steppes must be for Argentines and for forever, not just for tourists and for now."

Zoos and aquariums have a sometimes irritating quality of acting like the wilderness of the world is limited to a few select spots, which are endlessly recreated in exhibits.  Foremost among these are the grasslands of East Africa, and islands of Southeast Asia, and the Amazon rainforest.  These are all spectacular places filled with spectacular wildlife.  There is, however, an entire world beyond these habitats... and if we don't pay sufficient attention to these other Edens, we risk losing them.

For much of his life, William Conway, Director Emeritus of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has devoted his time, his energy, and the resources of his institution to saving one such place - Patagonia.  Between the Amazon and the Antarctic, much of southern South America is made up of windswept plains, semi-deserts in the shadow of the Andes, and some of the most productive coastal waters in the world.  It's a rich land, but one that has been exploited mercilessly for centuries, taking a devastating toll on its wildlife.  Guanaco and rhea, once roaming in herds that rivaled the bison of North America, have been exterminated to make room for sheep.  The waters have been fished out, threatening the penguins and other seabirds who rely upon them with starvation.  Seals and sea lion numbers are only now beginning to bounce back from catastrophic overhunting.

Conway has spent years among the wildlife of the Southern Cone (he's most well known for his work with the little-studied flamingos of the Andes) and his knowledge and affection for his subject matter shines through every page.  The subject matter is somewhat depressing (as conservation books frequently are), but still full of charm and winsome characters, from a hitchhiking tortoise to a scientist forced to lie on his back for what seems like hours to avoid being trampled by belligerent elephant seals.  Making frequent cameos (via journal entries, anyway) is the region's most famous chronicler, a young Charles Darwin, who visited these lands during his voyage on the HMS Beagle.

"Act III" denotes that there must have been an "Act I" and an "Act II", and Conway explores those - being the history of humans and Patagonian wildlife - skillfully.  He paints a picture of a land inhabited only the native Indians living off the resources of the land, then displaced by colonizers and settlers, who are then pushed out by outside industries, such as international fishing behemoths.  Finally, tourists arrive on the scene, looking for their own little slice of wilderness.  Amid all of these players with different agendas, Conway asks, what is the future for the wildlife, both terrestrial and marine?  It is that question which the book seeks to explore.

As Director of WCS and its flagship Bronx Zoo, William Conway was responsible for the establishment of perhaps the greatest zoo-led conservation initiative in history, covering dozens of countries with countless projects in the field.  The success of WCS has been its early adoption of the simple fact that, if wildlife is going to survive, it needs to do so with the support of the people that share the landscape.  Act III in Patagonia is a story of the effort to find balance between a nation and its wildlife.  Sometimes that means confronting lies and misinformation, such as farmers who insist that a single endangered goose is somehow out-eating three of their sheep.  Sometimes it means helping local peoples find ways to make a livelihood off of animals in a sustainable manner.  And sometimes its a question of building pride and enthusiasm for wildlife - as Conway experiences when taking part in a condor release.

Too often, conservationists fall into a lazy narrative, wildlife = good, people = bad, or simply shrug and say, "What can we do about it?"  William Conway acknowledges that saving Patagonia is a hard fight, but one that must - and can - be won.  The first step is introducing a magical place to the rest of the world, of showing where it has been and where it is going.  With a little help and support, his book suggests, Patagonia's third act doesn't have to be its last.

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