What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VIII)

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) Image via WildlifeExtra.com

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)
Image via WildlifeExtra.com

When I first wrote about the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) two years ago, the civil conflict in Syria had already been wreaking havoc on citizens and landscape for over 24 months. It was suspected that chemical weapons had been used on civilians, and historical monuments were being destroyed.

A bit of good news was that a tiny breeding group of northern bald ibis, once common around the Mediterranean and thought to have been extinct, had been discovered near Palmyra and was quietly expanding. One female, dubbed Zenobia, was still making the annual migratory crossing to Ethiopia. By the time I wrote my post in May 2013, she was the lone survivor of the group.

Back in May 2013, few had yet heard of a group calling themselves Islamic State of Iraq. Now this group, known as ISIS or DAESH, is notorious around the world for its expansion, media savvy, extreme brutality and wanton destruction, dismantling and sale of historical treasures.

The group captured the town of Palmyra this week and has been subjecting the place and its inhabitants to deplorable atrocities.

Amongst all this horror, the  guards assigned to protect four captive breeding ibis disappeared, as have the birds.

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

Meanwhile, Zenobia herself hasn’t been spotted. Even if the captive birds are recovered, if they are ever to be set free in the wild they will need a guide to the wintering grounds. Without Zenobia, they will remain captive. If they are found, of course.

As I wrote in my previous post, “The ibis was considered to be one of the first birds released by Noah off the Ark as a symbol of fertility, and in ancient Egypt the bird symbolized excellence, glory, honour, and virtue, as well as the signifier of the soul.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon told the BBC  that the species could go extinct in the wild in Syria.

Zenobia, the last wild ibis who knows the way to Ethiopia, was named for 3rd-century Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a warrior queen who successfully protected Palmyra for many years against Roman expansion.

“Culture and nature they go hand in hand, and war stops, but nobody can bring back a species from extinction,” said head of the society Asaad Serhal.

Here’s hoping Zenobia takes after her namesake and returns to hold back the tide.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra
Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

On a slightly more encouraging note: A project is underway in Europe to reintroduce the ibis 300 years after it went extinct in the region. But the challenges faced by that project underline how important it is to prevent local extinction in the first place.



What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VII)

According to the website Wars in the World, as of 11 September 2014, there are currently ongoing conflicts classified as ‘wars’ in 64 countries; there are conflicts involving of 567 militias, guerrilla and separatist groups.

The conflicts are based on everything from ideological and religious issues to narcotics to territorial disputes. There are a few very high profile confrontations, hundreds of others that, like dangerous embers, continue to burn and flare into flame.

Armed aggression is immediate, it’s acute, it demands an answer and it threatens force regardless of the answer given. We usually have a good idea of who threw the first stone, or at least, who is throwing stones at one another.

The Consequences of War (1637-38) Peter Paul Rubens

The Consequences of War (1637-38)
Peter Paul Rubens

Of course we pay attention when conflict requires. Conflict demands all our energy, our resources, our media focus, our politics.

This month marks the world’s highest number of refugees displaced by conflict – over 51 million – since WWII. There are entire groups of displaced persons who have not been able to return to their homelands for years, sometimes decades, after the initial conflict has ended.

If we measure the level of conflict by the number of people affected and displaced, we are at a sad high-water mark.

When it comes to people displaced by environmental deterioration, including land loss and degradation, as well as natural disaster, the estimated number of refugees varies wildly. The very definition of environmental refugees is disputed and complicated, because the fundamentals of environmental change are complicated in themselves.

How many people have been displaced due to loss of habitat? It’s estimated that the Dust Bowl drought (1930-1940) in the United States initiated a migration of 3.5 million people. Current estimates around the world place numbers in the tens of millions.

From the photo series 'A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh' Photo: Munem Wasif

From the photo series ‘A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh’
Photo: Munem Wasif

There is no obvious aggressor when rivers overflow and flood – was it a rainy year? Was the water infrastructure poorly conceived? Was land for housing and industry located too close to flooding areas? When water runs out, is it due to drought, or land mismanagement, poor farming techniques, or livestock overgrazing, or all of the above?

And the fix is just as complicated as the problem, maybe more so, because it requires a complete rethinking of how we do things.

But we know how to do aggression, violence, war and we know how to react.

Which is why what we talk about when we talk about war is just one thing: War.

While we focus all our resources on the immediate threat, the bright spotlight of world attention leaves everything else in the shadows.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (IV)

We were walking on one of our forest hikes in Norway when we came upon this construction.

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

It had a circular, snail-shell form that invited investigation. We weren’t sure what it was until we walked into it. It turned out to be a part of a military bunker from WWII. There were others, as well.

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

As it turns out, the bunkers were an extended part of the German submarine base, Dora I, which was built by the German occupation force in the early 1940s. Trondheim was the largest German naval base in northern Europe from its construction until liberation in 1945.

Old supply tracks atop one of the hillsides lead to nowhere.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The idyllic forest setting, the fjord nearby, the birds flying overhead and the myriad flowers all around these objects of conflict – it put me in mind of the great Jorge Luis Borges short story, The Circular Ruins (an online version is here).

Thousand-year dreams of dominance that still exist only in these structures meant to defend a force which has long since dissolved. All that remains are mossy reminders that many visitors most likely little know or care about, but which have become a permanent part of the environment.

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

The submarine docks of Dora I, too large and expensive to be destroyed, now form a busy harbor for private boats, the docksides are packed with outdoor restaurants and shops.

For our part we continued on, and found a large field of wild raspberries, with the occasional hiker standing in the midst of a rich harvest, eating as they stood in the afternoon shade.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

And the only creatures watching the skies for intruders were these birds along the fjord.

Trondheimsfjord Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read