The trouble with Nature in the grand and ultimate sense is that her concern for fleas is as profound and tender as her concern for Fido or for us. Or put another way, she sees nothing wrong with human deaths from plagues, nothing wrong with a nice tiger making supper of a nice National Football League tackle.
Her indifference is both a comfort and a terror. It is generally assumed that only humans have worked out in their heads a lot of objections to nature's ways. We, for our part, can accept the tiger-tackle trade-off as an elegant solution to several problems, but we would balk at Mother Teresa trampled by a rhinoceros. There has to be a golden mean.
In my boyhood town on the Mississippi River a third of the city died or fled from a yellow fever epidemic in the last century. We had a very advanced health department then, and they scrubbed the main streets with carbolic acid and fired cannons to raise the effluvia from the swamps. Eventually it was learned mosquitoes spread the plague (and the cannons and scrubbings were just money down the drain) so the mosquitoes were slaughtered, and we had no more plague.
Those mosquitoes were part of an elaborate life system, and undoubtedly some damage was done by killing them. But the humans of my town (arrogant to this day, I might add) said never mind that, kill them anyway.
This is a pretty example of the general human preference for human survival, even at the cost of meddling with complex ecological systems of which we know extremely little.
All the men in my family were doctors until I came along, and my father took germs and viruses as a personal insult. You could usually get a rise from him by saying well, the little virus has to live, too, you know. The hell it does, he said.
The entire conservation movement is an uneasy compromise between admiration for all life (and a conviction that even the most loathsome beasts have their place) and a realistic understanding that humans think they are more valuable than, say, mosquitoes.
Even the most dedicated and pure conservationists acknowledge that desperately poor people have a claim on wood for kitchen fires (however grim the final results of deforestation may be) and some of them even thought the snail darter fish in Tennessee was not the right cause to fight to the death for.
At the other extreme you have those who would kill all the tigers, all the butterflies, because they ate something inconvenient, occasionally, or because some trifling profit could be made from their dead bodies.
In the mountain kingdom of Nepal they are trying to hit a just compromise, and the King Mahendra Trust has become a leading conservation force in the Third World.
Recently the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize, the glory of which is worth more than the $50,000 that accompanies it, was given to Dr. Hemanta Mishra, a young, sophisticated and dedicated official of that trust. A high-voltage audience of conservationists whooped and clapped till the ballroom chandeliers rang like wind chimes at the Park Hyatt, as Mishra showed films of some of the wonders of Nepal and without telling any jokes, really, got the room to laughing just on the force of his radiant good humor.
Not to split hairs, he single-handedly brought the greater one-horned rhinoceros of the Chitwan Park from the verge of extinction to a healthy colony. His tiger project is considered to be one of the grandest conservation efforts of all Asia. His environmental surveys near Mount Everest led to the establishment of a national park, and he is celebrated for the skill with which he weighs the inevitable conflict between the needs of people and the survival of wildlife.
He has bred gavials (or gharials as they are sometimes known -- crocodiles with soft inflatable noses, long narrow jaws, uniform teeth and webbed feet) and introduced them into the Rivers Rapti and Narayani in the Chitwan reserve. As everyone knows, the American alligators have made a fine comeback and are no longer threatened. Alligators and all crocodilians have a dreadful habit of eating dogs -- it is understandable one might kill an alligator in a rage. Still, nobody would want a world without them.
The prize, to get back to it, is given by the World Wildlife Fund, whose president, William K. Reilly, joined with Russell E. Train, chairman; Bruce W. Bunting, director of the Asia program; and some others in what may be called pep talks at the ceremony -- brief, since only enthusiastic people were present. Very satisfying to see so many friends of varmints milling about at the reception and supper. Naturally, if you visit Nepal you should not skinny-dip in the Rapti -- a small price for the blessing of flourishing crocodiles. A small price for the glory of the natural world, of which we are neither the most ornamental, most fantastic, nor most necessary members. The world's life could get on admirably without us, but not without termites and beetles.