Kolbert travels to the Cincinnati Zoo to meet Suci, an enormous rhinoceros. Dr. Terri Roth, the conservation director for the zoo, tells Kolbert that Suci, a Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicorohinus sumatrensis), is one of only five rhino species left on the planet. Sumatran rhinos are small and endangered. Thus, Roth has been trying to artificially inseminate Suci with no success.
The chapter begins with another endangered species: the Sumatran rhinoceros. However, unlike the previous chapter, Chapter Eleven begins by discussing conservationists like Dr. Roth, who have devoted their lives to preserving endangered species.
Sumatran rhinos used to live in the Himalayas, as well as on Sumatra and Borneo. They were once common, but they’re now headed for extinction. Recognizing their inevitable extinction, a conservation group decided to send a small number of Sumatran rhinos to American zoos in hopes of perpetuating the species in captivity. However, five of these rhinos died almost immediately, thanks to a disease spread by flies. Then, several rhinos captured in Borneo died from tetanus and other injuries. To compound the problem, zookeepers then realized that rhinos couldn’t eat dry hay—they needed fresh leaves to survive. By this time, there were only three Sumatran rhinos in the U.S. Roth’s job is to inseminate a Sumatran rhino and perhaps prevent the species from dying out forever.
In this passage, Kolbert presents readers with a “before” and an “after”—rhinos were once very common throughout the world, but after the 20th century, rhinos began to go extinct. For the rest of the chapter, Kolbert will fill in the middle period, attempting to explain the role human beings played in the extinction of the rhinoceros. Kolbert’s immediate highlighting of unexpected problems in rhino breeding also shows the extent to which the natural world is not within human control.
Roth had tried to inseminate a rhino named Emi, who was living in a zoo in Los Angeles. After many false starts, Emi birthed Suci and a male named Harapan. These are “pretty much” the only Sumatran rhinos born anywhere in the last thirty years. Much the same is true for other rhino species—humans have wiped out rhinos and scientists are now trying to preserve their numbers in captivity. Other large mammals, such as elephants, jaguars, pandas, and cheetahs, now exist mostly or entirely in zoos and preserves, where scientists are trying to get them to bear offspring.
In general, there has been a notable decline in the populations of large wild mammals, such as rhinos, cheetahs, elephants, and pandas. Here, Kolbert illuminates the Quixotic phenomenon of humans nearly wiping out large mammal species and then going to great lengths to protect them—by putting them in artificial, human-designed environments, of course.
Kolbert observes Suci eating food and is later permitted to pet Suci. “Face to face” with Suci, Kolbert is struck by the animal’s awesome, “majestic” size. Many of the largest mammals in the world are peaceful herbivores; their size keeps them safe from dangerous predators like tigers and jaguars. At the end of the last Ice Age, the planet was full of enormous animals—cave bears, giant elk, mastodons, etc. As early as the mid-19th century, biologists had posed an important question—why is it that so many extinct species are exceptionally large, by modern-day standards? And, similarly, why did so many of these enormous creatures go extinct?
This passage blends together Kolbert’s personal experiences (her face-to-face experience with Suci the rhino) and her more abstract thoughts about extinction in general. Thus, the question of why large mammals have gone extinct, as Kolbert presents it, is both abstract and personal; or, put another way, scientific and yet very poignant. With the extinction of large, peaceful mammals, humans are losing touch with some of the natural world’s most majestic, beautiful creatures.
To answer the question, Kolbert travels to a famous fossil site, Big Bone Lick. Here, 19th century fossil-hunters discovered some of the world’s most famous fossils. Some 19th century thinkers, such as Charles Lyell, argued that the creatures whose remains were discovered at Big Bone Lick went extinct because of a “great modification in climate.” Charles Darwin agreed, writing that the end of an Ice Age must have killed off creatures like the mastodon. Other scientists, however, argued that these large creatures died out because human beings hunted them. The implications of such a theory are startling—the modern era of mass extinction, then, might actually have begun “in the middle of the last ice age,” suggesting that human beings have always been capable of—or even prone to—bringing about extinction.
For most of the 19th century, scientists believed that large mammals went extinct because of the end of the last ice age, which reduced the evolutionary advantages of such traits as warm fur and large body mass. Only within the last few decades have scientists begun to suspect that large mammals went extinct because human beings hunted them. Such a theory has large implications for our understanding of human nature: it would seem that human beings have been murderous and destructive for as long as they’ve lived on the Earth. This is further support for Kolbert’s decision to define humans by what they do, which is alter their environment.
There are a few good reasons to believe that humans were responsible for the mass-extinction of large mammals. First, it’s likely that the extinction of large mammals took place in “pulses,” not as one continuous event. This suggests that extinction “syncs up” with human colonization of the globe. Second, large mammals had survived numerous droughts and other environment catastrophes before the arrival of human beings. Third, the fossilized remains of large mammals’ excrement show no signs of death from malnutrition. In all, the insufficiency of purely environmental explanations for large mammals’ mass-extinction make it very likely that humans, not environmental factors, were responsible for the mass-extinction.
Kolbert acknowledges that prehistoric humans may not have hunted large prehistoric mammals into extinction—there are scientific theories with merit that suggest causes other than humans. However, the evidence Kolbert gives here suggests that it’s at least feasible that humans played a major role in the mass-extinction of large prehistoric mammals. She is laying the groundwork here for a knockout blow to the notion that humans are not inherently prone to irrevocably altering and destroying the natural world.
There are also some researchers who argue that human beings did not wipe out the large mammals of the late Ice Age because humans couldn’t have been that dangerous so many millennia ago. However, the scientist John Alroy has tested the hypothesis that small nomadic bands of humans could have wiped out large mammals, and he found that “humans could have done in” the large mammals with “only modest effort.” Alroy’s findings suggest that the Anthropocene really began many thousands of years ago, long before the Industrial Revolution.
Alroy’s findings further strengthen the hypothesis that human beings played a decisive role in the extinction of large prehistoric mammals. Put another way, humans have been causing mass-extinction for as long as they’ve been in existence. This suggests that, in a way, the destruction of other life forms is one of the most basic facets of human nature. It also complicates the association of the Anthropocene era with modernity.
Before the dawn of man, it was an excellent “survival strategy” to be a large, peaceful mammal. However, environmental changes—above all, the new presence of human beings—made being a large mammal a “loser’s game.” Large mammals were slow to reproduce and were easy prey to human hunters. Today, most of the large mammals of the ancient world have died out, and smaller mammals like the rhinoceros are on the verge of extinction. It seems that there was never a time when “man lived in harmony with nature”—humans have always hunted other creatures.
The extinction of the mastodon, the wooly mammoth, and other large prehistoric mammals, confirms the random, unpredictable nature of survival. The arrival of human beings on the Earth meant that traits such as size and slowness, which had previously been evolutionary advantages, became major disadvantages. This passage also, importantly, positions the dawn of man as an environmental change comparable to an Ice Age or asteroid impact.