A Century Without Fences?

01/10/2011 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

I missed the Great Serengeti Migration. Zebra and wildebeest have gathered in sprawling herds in the forests on the periphery of this great plain, and the gazelles are waiting on the southern grasslands, but the short rains failed this December. The million wildebeest that drive the world's greatest wildlife spectacle have not yet scented enough rain to trust their destinies to the grasslands. The migration, which follows the rain, must also wait for it.

The resident impala, elephants, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, topi, and zebra, their instincts and muscles honed to their peak by the Sergengeti's lion, cheetah, leopard, and hyena are, to North American eyes, an unimaginable spectacle -- there are thousands of animals. But the year-round forage can nourish only a fragment of the wildlife abundance that Africa's grasslands can sustain when animals are able to roam -- and so almost two million grazers wait for the rains to unleash their annual 800-kilometer journey.

It's no accident that this unrivalled density of wildlife makes its journey through the largest and richest rangeland on earth where homo sapiens has never intruded -- neither man nor his livestock can survive the bite of the Serengeti's endemic tsetse fly.

Human beings, particularly Westerners, have a hard time with giving animals the space that they need to roam freely. We like fences -- in some ways they are the archetypical Western artifact, and we have spread them everywhere.

(The world's second-greatest wildlife migration, that of the Porcupine caribou herd, takes place in the high Arctic, where man is resident, but only in tiny numbers, and not as a farmer or a herder. And it blithely crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. No TSA in the Arctic.)

Indeed, toward the end of Africa's colonial period, the British tried to implement Western-style separation of uses, with wildlife in fixed preserves and the rest reserved for livestock or farming. The region that was then Serengeti Park was partitioned into two sections. One, renamed Ngorongoro National Preserve, was to be for the grazing use of the Maasai. The other, the remaining Serengeti Park, was to be for the wildlife. To keep them separate, the British erected an enormous fence.

The Maasai respected the new order -- their preserve had fewer tsetse flies. The wildebeest, however, promptly trampled the fence into firewood. Since that abortive experiment, the Maasai and the migration coexist as they have for generations. Indeed, if the wildebeest had not destroyed the boundary fence, they would not have survived in years like this one or last one when the short rains failed -- north of the boundary there is not enough forage.

Climate disruption means that migration, a key to both animal and human survival over the millennia, will be an even more vital survival strategy in the twenty-first century. Wildlife that could have survived within the fixed boundaries of a park, preserve, or wilderness as long as the climate remained highly predictable will now need to follow the grass or the pine nuts or the spawning date of horseshoe crabs.

"Climate refugees" will come in all sizes and shapes -- some will be human communities forced out of their homelands by typhoon, flood, drought, or fire. But many will be other creatures, following the unyielding demands of the new climate that our carbon pollution has set in motion. Fences and boundaries of all kinds must make way for corridors in this century -- including those currently enshrined as private property and national borders.

The success of the Maasai at sharing the Ngorongoro with large numbers of wild animals shows that humans can make room for roaming wildlife -- but only if, like the Maasai, we come to understand that protecting natural cycles makes us, not just the wildebeest and zebra, safer. We'll need large, functioning common spaces to give our civilization the resilience it will require as we restore the climate. In fact, large, functioning common spaces are what all of the natural world, not just homo sapiens, will require. But while man is not the only creature that will need the freedom to roam in a climate-disrupted world, only homo sapiens threatens that freedom -- and the resilience and security it can offer.

We have a few things to learn from the Maasai.