In all of the sound and fury surrounding the death of Macho B, the last known U.S. jaguar, some larger truths have emerged that invite reflection on Earth Day 2009.
Multiple investigations now under way should address at least some of the many questions and inconsistencies that have arisen in the wake of the tragic death of this wildest of cats.
But whatever we may learn of the mistakes that were made in the handling of Macho B’s capture and the conservation of jaguars in Arizona, we may have already learned something larger about ourselves as human beings and our relationship to what is left of the wild in our world.
Macho B touched many hearts, and more than a few nerves, in a way that few individual wild animals ever do. In his death, he has become more than a solitary cat that prowled the tangled canyons and high crags of our beloved Sky Islands. He is now a symbol of a wild Earth that is fading before our eyes.
It is a place to which we are still fundamentally and inescapably connected, notwithstanding our busy, technological lives. And his was a life with which we somehow feel a kinship, despite how little we know of it.
Moreover, it would seem that we humans still harbor a deep need to feel this connection, and that it is profoundly unsettling when life itself is so obviously diminishing around us.
This is an amazing and hopeful phenomenon, considering how disconnected most of us are from the wild Earth in our daily lives. Macho B was photographed 80 times by remote sensor cameras in southern Arizona over the last 13 years, but only seen by a few people.
Other species in our region may be slightly less rare, but no less mysterious. The Tucson shovel-nosed snake hides its beautiful colors beneath the desert floor, figuratively swimming through the sand in search of spiders and scorpions for its next meal. It emerges infrequently and is rarely seen, though it has felt the effects of our ever-expanding footprint on its home.
The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, despite becoming a media star at the center of a controversy that wrongly pitted schoolchildren against their natural surroundings, was a secretive bird that few ever had the pleasure to see in its native habitat. Now it has virtually disappeared from the Northwest Side of Tucson, crowded out by our exploding population.
The irony is that these wild, mysterious species now largely depend upon us for their survival.
Sadly, our habits are landing them on the endangered species list and diminishing their numbers to the point of crisis. But the hope that emerges from our reaction to Macho B’s death is that we no only have the tools and capability to protect and recover these species, but also have it in our hearts to care enough to make the effort.
Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, more than 99 percent of the species it lists for protection have survived, and some have recovered and flourished to the point of being removed from the list. That makes it one of the most successful environmental laws ever passed.
The original vision of the act is rooted in the wisdom that we humans are utterly dependent on functioning ecosystems and other species for our own survival. Its premise is simple: No species is so small or unimportant that it can be sacrificed without conscience, consequences or an effort to save it.
Unfortunately, one of the final acts of the Bush administration last fall was to seriously weaken the act by declaring new rules that remove some of the most important and effective facets of its legal mandate.
The Bush rules also prevent the act from being employed to address the gravest threat to our world’s biodiversity – catastrophic climate disruption due to a buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Our world is shrinking, in more ways than one. The best available science has made it clear that our habits not only affect the hidden cats and snakes and birds of our Sonoran Desert home, but also polar bears and seals and penguins struggling to survive in their melting homes thousands of miles away.
New Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should use his authority to rescind the Bush rules before the rapidly approaching May 9 deadline. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should give the jaguar full protection of the law.
And the rest of us should spend this Earth Day thoughtfully reflecting upon our place in this mysterious world and the responsibility we bear for keeping it healthy and whole.
Randy Serraglio is a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity and has lived in Tucson for almost 20 years.