22 November 2010


TIGER EXTINCTION. It should come as no surprise to readers of this forum that the natural world is in trouble at the hands of humans. Our pollution of air and water, our degradation of natural habitat through the metastasizing needs of our own overpopulation, and our systematic slaughter of both food species and predator species, have combined to destroy entire ecosystems daily, and to drive entire species to extinction hourly.

Among these species, few are as compelling to this writer as are the larger predators -- sharks, wolves, the world's big cats. All are on the brink of extinction, with only token programs for protection in a few countries. Thus my attention was brought to a razor edge by the news that tigers have become a global focus for protection and recovery. Of nine former subspecies of tigers, three are already extinct. Of those still surviving, population sizes are fast approaching the threshold beyond which recovery will be impossible. Outside of zoos, here is an estimate of the population breakdown among subspecies --

~ Bengal tiger (India and Bangladesh) -- 1400.
~ Indonesian tiger (Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam) -- 1500.
~ Malayan tiger (Malay peninsula) -- 700.
~ Sumatran tiger (Sumatra) -- 450.
~ Siberian tiger (Siberia) -- 450.
~ South China tiger (China) -- none?

Though these numbers total 4500 individuals, more recent studies indicate that only a few more than 3000 tigers remain in the wild.

Given the tiger's iconic cultural status, it has become the focus of recovery efforts by the World Bank and by ministers from several nations, who are now meeting in St. Petersberg, Russia. Their host is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an ardent tiger admirer. It remains to be seen whether even this high-profile support will be too little, too late. I grieve at the numbers of species which have been driven to extinction just during my lifetime.

JFK. The details of certain world events are indelibly etched into the memories of individuals and entire cultures. For those who lived through them, nearly all can tell you where they were when they heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. Add to this list the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place on this date in 1963. All three instances shocked us out of our collective torpor. The world is not a safe place.

On 22 November 1963, I was a junior in high school. I lived only a block away from school, so generally walked home for the lunch hour. As I approached my home, my mother was standing at the back steps, her face a mask of sorrow and loss. "They've shot the President."

For the remainder of that day, and for many days to come, our world was turned upside-down. The memory of the American flag flying at half-staff, just outside my chemistry classroom, and of classmates crying openly, haunts me still. How could this happen? To this day, controversy lingers over who shot Kennedy -- was it Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, as the Warren Commission eventually concluded? Or was it a conspiracy involving various combinations of the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, Cuba, the KGB, and/or hired assassins from France? I'm normally skeptical of conspiracy theories, but I've seen credible evidence that in the instance of Kennedy's death, a conspiracy was responsible. One lone gunman using a bolt-action rifle from an awkward angle could not possible have fired three well-aimed shots at a moving target several hundred yards away, in a span of two to three seconds.

We will likely never know the entire story. Kennedy was not a perfect man, but had he survived, there would have been no Vietnam war, the civil rights movement would have flourished, the Supreme Court would not subsequently have become packed with reactionary conservative Justices, and the world would be a far different (and I submit a far better) place than the world that exists today. We would still face turmoil and challenges, as ever we shall. But what does it say about a nation whose politics are so violently polarized that assassination is an acceptable means of suppressing the opposition?

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