A Vietnamese environmental studies student believes that animal species going extinct is part of the theory behind Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, while an Australian wildlife conservationist disagrees. He blames extinction on manmade greed. Follow their heated debate


The Argument


For a few decades there’s been a permeating sense that with ‘x’ number of species approaching extinction and ‘y’ number of species already extinct, it is the moral responsibility of humans to ‘make amends’ or prevent what may well be the ‘inevitable’. With such unique biodiversity, when it comes to conservation and saving anything that may go extinct, Vietnam comes under the spotlight.


A friend of mine recently sent me an article claiming that there are only approximately 30 tigers left in Vietnam. Surely, the extinction of the Asian tiger would be a tremendous loss for the ecosystem and the spirit of Vietnamese people both here and overseas. I can practically feel their palpable distress and the permeating, crying tears that some say gives Vietnam its humid weather.


I’m sure Charlie Sheen, son of Apocalypse Now lead Martin, would worry about the loss of all that ‘tiger blood’, something which he claims to flow through his veins. Poachers and their customers will be mourning too, but over the impending depletion of money and ‘medicine’.


‘Natural selection’, or another misleading term, ‘survival of the fittest’, coined by Herbert Spencer, was Charles Darwin’s theory that describes the process in nature in which organisms inherit favourable traits that make them survive better in the wild.


In other words, if an ‘x’ animal has a ‘y’ trait that helps it get more food, it will be able to produce more offspring and therefore there will be a bigger population of that animal. Natural selection is a crucial concept in evolution, and humans are products of evolution. While we are certainly at fault, we are not the only reason why tigers are approaching extinction.


According to Darwin’s theory, if the tigers inherited favourable traits that help them survive in an environment where poachers and natural disasters are their threats, then they would not be in the position they are now. The tigers are endangered because they cannot adapt to their changing environment, or in terms of natural selection, they fail to inherit the traits that keep them alive longer.


However, there is another puzzling question that needs to be answered in order to definitively justify whether poachers should or should not be slaughtering tigers. Do humans exist as predators of tigers or as a coexisting species?


One can make an argument that humans have the right traits to survive and outlive tigers, but what if we exist to prevent tigers from approaching extinction? We have the skills to do both, and we do the latter to ourselves all the time when we go to the doctors.


The moral decision would be to protect tigers, but is that up to us to decide? Should we be the ones responsible for the lives of endangered species?


I say, do it the laissez-faire way, and let nature handle the bulk of it. We are part of nature, which means that all poachers and animal lovers are, too. Let them hash it out to see if the tigers will end up extinct or endangered. There is nothing wrong with trying to save tigers, but not trying to save them or even kill them is not egregiously inappropriate either. It’s always good to maintain biodiversity, but trying to preserve species that will be extinct is defying nature, or God [doesn’t] forbid, Darwin himself.


The reason why this argument is controversial is humans. I believe they are the first species to be able to defy it. We are intelligent enough to create medicine and perform surgeries to prolong our otherwise short lives. Now that humans exist, the concept of ‘nature’ falls into an increasingly grey area. For us, living ‘naturally’ in the way that other species have lived and are living would be avoiding the doctors and medicines that treat innate or developed diseases. But since we never do this, we are defying nature.


We may be responsible for the deaths of many endangered animals, but no one should be criticising us because living as we do is our way of surviving, of dealing with the pressures imposed on us by nature. We are at once poachers and animal lovers. We are also a nonchalant species who in so many ways are superior to other life forms on this planet. That is why there are so many of us!


— Thao Bach is a native Vietnamese, recent high school graduate in Massachusetts and will be entering college this year, double majoring in philosophy and environmental studies.


The Rebuttal


Dinosaurs became extinct due to a natural phenomenon, not due to human arrogance thinking that every living creature is for our taking; that creatures should either evolve quicker to due human pressure or become extinct. Humans are THE most evolved and complex species on earth in terms of thinking, problem solving and social structure, and with these increased skill sets comes responsibility, sometimes at very high costs.
Anybody with half a brain should understand that all living creatures play a vital role in maintaining a healthy working ecosystem. Removing an apex predator will have detrimental consequences for humans in terms of increased disease transmission, let alone a profound lingering sadness over the loss of the world’s most charismatic visually stunning creatures.


There are still many people living around the world who live in harmony or in co-existence with the world’s wildlife (some of which sees us a potential food source). It is down to pure arrogance and some nations’ drive for ‘exotic’ meats and the illegal wildlife trade that Vietnam’s wildlife is under serious threat.


Evolution of the world’s species (both flora and fauna) is a process that takes thousands of years under somewhat controlled conditions (a slight change in air temperature for instance). People heading to South Africa with AK47s and shooting dead up to two rhinos a day for pure greed because some people believe that rhino horn can cure cancer or cures alcoholic hangovers is pure stupidity. This is not natural evolution or an “unfavourable trait”.


Greed was once again highlighted in May 2010, when poachers shot dead Vietnam’s last remaining Javan Rhino in Cat Tien National Park for its precious horn.


Now that it is not to say, that due to such a small sub-population of the above species, it would have become extinct in the future anyway, but surely that decision was not ours, it certainly shouldn’t have been left to some greedy poacher.


Many of the world’s medicines have come directly from our forests and ecosystems, having their raw chemical elements altered to help treat diseases. We must also accept that traditional medicines play a vital role to many people worldwide and have been used over thousands of years to heal aliments. But thinking that a dried tiger penis can help a man’s libido is simply quite mystifying if not downright strange.


Personally I have no problem with forest-living communities living off the land as such. Namibian bushmen and women, the Aboriginals and so on have a connection to their land that only they understand. They respect the living animals they share their lives with and hunt only when needed, to feed their families and themselves. From what I have learnt since being in Vietnam, this precious and valued trait was lost a long time ago and now it is simply for greed.


Vietnam has already lost its rhinos. Its wild elephant populations, and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (one of the rarest creatures on earth) are on the brink of collapsing and Vietnam’s large cats are rarely seen. What will traders and poachers do when there is no more wildlife left in Vietnam? Maybe become conservationists? That'll be the day.


—Simon Faithfull is an Enlgish wildlife conservationist who currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City managing an animal rescue centre in Cu Chi.

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