Saturday, April 20

Invasive or evasive – that’s the question?


Prehistoric horse teeth, at least 12,000 years old, found on a riverbank in Somerset.

AS we witness ever increasing migrations of people from war-torn areas or poverty- stricken regions to perceived freer societies, where earnings and living conditions are betters, so we find that animals, insects, fish and birds also follow their instincts to find “greener pastures.”

There is little doubt that 21st century climate change has led to an increase of fauna, flora and, indeed, human movements. Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of North African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in their search for work and freedom.

Sadly human traffickers exploit these people by charging exorbitant costs in unseaworthy and perilous vessels. This year alone, already nearly 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean waters.

One tenth of the total size of a South East Asian hornets’ nest found at a neighbour’s property in Somerset, UK.

Recently, while visiting Southern Italy’s Mezzogiorno (land of the mid-day sun), I stayed at a small hotel in southern Sicily.

It was located in large piazza where, by day, African immigrants played football and in the early evening, enlivened the square with their drum beating and singing.

None begged for money. Why?

They were proud people, still seeking their dreams as they moved from villages to urban areas in their own countries before literally taking the plunge to seek work overseas.

No one can criticise the admirable work at ground level of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international aid agencies in feeding, clothing and sheltering migrants. Just look at the size of the refugee camps, housing 800,000 plus Rohingya people from Myanmar at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

Sadly, the European Union does little to ease the plight of the Italian government in its attempts to alleviate such aggregations of immigrants.

Some European countries have fenced or walled their borders to deny immigrants access much as is happening at the US-Mexican border.

As the old adage states, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” and thus, illegal border crossing points have been found by unscrupulous traffickers.

We live in a multicultural world where immigrants should be treated with respect, kindness and an understanding of their misfortunes in their attempts to escape repression or poverty.

Alas, many countries see immigrants only as a menace and a threat to their native labour force and economy! These are the evasive countries of our 21st century world.

Invasive uproars in the natural world

Certainly our climates have been rapidly changing since the mid-18th century industrial revolution, with the inevitable spread of human and industrial growth across the globe.

Our atmosphere and oceans are more polluted, holes are appearing in the ozone layer, icecaps are melting and our sea-levels rising. Typhoons, hurricanes and strong cyclones are more numerous, with increasing aridity in other regions.

Let us think back to the more recent geological past of Pleistocene times (1.4 million to 11,000 years ago) when our planet was subjected to intense cold, only broken occasionally by Interglacial episode. Continental glaciers developed southwards and northwards from the Polar icecaps.

In the northern hemisphere, animals migrated southwards from the edges of the ice sheets to simply get a better life.

Bones and teeth of tigers, primeval horses and other exotic animals have been found in caves in the South West of England in areas only marginally touched by the advancing ice sheets.

Many caves in both temperate and tropical regions are gradually revealing animal and human parts where both once sheltered from earlier climate changes.

In ancestral forms, horses first evolved in North America and, via land bridges or a fall in sea levels during the Ice Ages, moved to Eurasia and thus became extinct in North America.

However, it was the reintroduction of horses by the Spanish Conquistadores to the Americas that led a few centuries later to General Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There, thousands of horse-mobile native Indians assembled to overcome a relatively smaller force of US troopers.

We must, therefore, be more aware of what are or are not, invasive species. Definitions of what is an invasive species are confusing.

The European Union’s definition of invasive species is most apposite — “Invasive alien species which are found outside of the regions of their natural distribution and can threaten biological diversity.

Such invading species can, with an aptitude to spread, cause environmental, economic and health hazards to a receiving country. Many years ago, Wallabies escaped from a Peak District zoo in the UK and Muntjac deer escaped from Woburn Abbey wildlife park, again in the UK.

These animals have spread to other areas of the UK and very recently, my near neighbour has witnessed, at dawn, Muntjac deer nibbling in her garden’s vegetable patch!

The same neighbour detected a huge South East Asian hornet’s nest in her garage earlier this summer. I last saw such a huge hornet’s nest 10 years ago in a tree in a school playground in Kuching!

With climate change these bee-destroying insects have invaded France and Belgium and flown across the English Channel to infest western and southern parts England.

They thrive on attacking bees by ripping off their heads. No wonder I’ve seen more wasps and hornets than bees on my garden plants this hot summer. However, they are great pollinators!

In the UK, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, introduced by 19th century exploratory horticulturalists to beautify country mansions, have become a farming menace, colonising grass fields so much so that the government has issued a directive to farmers to eradicate them as “weeds.”

With climate change, farmers are facing a losing battle, for these irksome plant-seeds are scattered by wind dispersal, wild animal and cattle movements.

Such insects and plants which are considered as invasive species have fast growth rates, rapid reproduction, a high dispersal rate and an ability to easily adapt to changing environmental conditions.

We are also accountable for the movement of invasive species and diseases. Ships and aircraft may transmit diseases and insects such as tarantulas in banana crates.

A car driven through the countryside may collect seedlings to be deposited in an urban garden. Brown tree snakes, escaping from ships on the Pacific island of Guam, have almost decimated the native bird population there. Ship rats have done the same on other islands worldwide.

The European plague, accounting for hundreds of thousands deaths in the 14th and 16th centuries came via camel traders from the Middle East to be spread by rats.

The Spanish invasion of North America decimated the native Indian peoples by spreading smallpox — a hitherto unknown disease. The more recent outbreaks of SARS and the Ebola viruses spring readily to mind.

With climate change, malaria may well break out again in wetlands in the UK, as once occurred in a warmer climatic phase in the 14th century!

Where do we stand today?

Governments, worldwide, tend to direct us to environmental issues concerning invasive plants, insects and animals which may affect our well-being.

There is a yet bigger problem for us all to address, however, which concerns the resettlement of migrants. As with migrating plants, insects, birds, fish and animals, humans too can find a niche in their new environments and societies but they need welcoming without nationalistic prejudices which sadly prevail in some countries.

We do, after all, live in a multicultural and multiracial world. Countries need to address the disparities of rural life compared with ever increasing urban living. This imbalance only leads to greater discontent and the desire to seek new pastures.

Human nature does matter but are we evading the solution to unprecedented population movements worldwide?

May I add that throughout my life, I have remained and will remain apolitical but I do care about the ever growing number of refugees in our only world.