Leading Primatologist Weighs in on Controversy Surrounding Shooting and Killing of Harambe
[Editor's Note: Leading primatologist Frans de Waal weighs in on the controversy surrounding the shooting and killing of a rare gorilla Saturday at the Cincinnati Zoo to save a 4-year-old boy that slipped into the animal's enclosure.]
I find it very hard to decide what the Cincinnati Zoo should have done in the case of the human toddler and Harambe, the silverback male gorilla. Seeing more of the videos, I got the impression that Harambe was mostly protective. He showed a combination of protection and confusion. He stood over the child, held him up, moved/dragged him through the water (at least once very roughly), stood over him again. Much of his reaction may have been triggered by public noise and yelling.
There was no moment of acute aggression, as also admitted by the zoo director. If the gorilla had wanted to kill the child, one bang of his fist would have done it. People have no idea of their superhuman strength. Yet, he didn’t perform any killing move. I should also clarify, since people on Facebook have said that gorillas are dangerous predators, that this is entirely wrong. A gorilla doesn’t look at a human child as something edible.
The species is not interested in catching moving objects, the way cats are. Lions or tigers are predators, but gorillas are peaceful vegetarians. They prefer a juicy fruit over a piece of meat any time of the day. The one thing that reliably makes a gorilla male mad is another male who enters his territory or gets too close to his females and young. Haramba surely knew that he was not dealing with competition, hence had no reason to attack. There are several previous cases of toddlers falling into gorilla enclosures, one at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and another at Jersey Zoo (UK). In both cases, the children survived the attention of the apes, in one case even receiving assistance from them.
At Rotterdam Zoo, a gorilla jumped the moat to get close to a woman who often visited and also here the incident ended without a gorilla death. So, why was Harambe shot? First of all, the zoo director did not have the benefit of the video by now seen by everyone on the internet. A decision like this needs to be taken in a matter of minutes: there is no time to hear different opinions or look at video evidence. Second, all alternatives had big IF’s attached to them. Caretakers could have distracted Harambe and get him to move away from the child (which I understood was tried to no avail).
They could have tried to lure him away with food or even have asked him to exchange the child for food (a process that apes understand very well). Another option might have been to tranquilize Harambe. But a tranquilizer dart sometimes upsets the target, which would have produced exactly the wrong reaction. None of these options offered a solid solution, one the director could count on.
I honestly don’t know what I would have decided under the circumstances—it would have depended on the precise information that would have reached me—but at the same time can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the public been moved out of the way and also the veterinary and security staff would have been held back, so that only animal care staff familiar to Harambe would have been left around. Under such circumstances, calm might have returned and, who knows, the child might have been left unharmed.
It is a horrible dilemma. I am sure the zoo staff is devastated (even though activists often depict zoos as prisons, they are full of people who deeply care about and greatly respect animals) and I myself am devastated that such a beautiful primate was killed. It is a great loss for the species, but we also mourn the individual life of a primate who had done nothing wrong. At least, we can all agree that people should watch their children! A special petition is going around calling for the boy's parents to "be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life."
P.S. I have now seen an unedited video, which makes the situation look even worse because apart from the gorilla’s behavior, the water also poses a danger to the child. Watch the video here.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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