As many of you know I have just returned from a fabulous trip to São Tomé and Príncipe (highly recommended) and following my adventures I always like to share a bit of what I’ve learnt.
Much of what people eat in São Tomé and Príncipe comes from the forest. When our driver joined us on walks he was always lagging behind and filling his bag with food: coconuts, bits of a climber which adds flavour to soup, land snails… Collecting meat, however, seemed to be a task mainly reserved for children. Boys were often seen with a collection of elastic bands round their wrists, ready for emergency repairs to their catapults. Birds are their main targets, and they’re pretty good at catching them.
This abundance of free food means most people are well fed, but seeing endemic birds floppy in someone’s hands ready for the cooking pot and knowing that the spectacular Dwarf Olive Ibis is in danger of being hunted to extinction can be hard to deal with. To us this is putting valuable wildlife at risk; to them it is a tasty meal.
All we could do when we saw this going on was dream up education schemes or tourism projects that would mean the birds were more valuable alive. I also begrudge hunting less when I think of all the ways in which the food I eat damages wildlife in more subtle ways.
While I was away I read an article in New Scientist about how widespread corruption is and, while most of us see ourselves as honest, we are very easily corrupted. It quoted experiments showing we are happier to do corrupt acts if we are more detached from them. One example was a gambling experiment where participants had the chance to cheat. Cheating was more common when people played with chips which could be exchanged for money than when they played directly with money. The same applies when you instruct someone else to do a corrupt act rather than doing it yourself.
I couldn’t help but see the parallel with wildlife. It was very clear for me to see the link with killing a wild bird to eat it and the species becoming endangered. But with my own food I don’t do the dirty work. When I eat bread I’m detached from the habitat that was destroyed to make way for farmland, or the carbon footprint involved in the growing, transporting and making etc etc. If, when I eat fish, it was me who threw back the bycatch or saw fish numbers dwindling, would I eat it so readily?
Maybe this is one of the reasons why environmentally conscious people such as me continue doing things that threaten biodiversity: we’re sufficiently detached from the problems we cause.
If anyone has any ideas how to tackle this problem I’d love to hear them.
I’ve written another blog post about our trip for the Society of Biology’s blog.