September 17, 2013
Periodically, Eco News Network features eco essays written by individuals with the environment close to their heart. The opinions expressed in these essays are those of the writers.
Less than a decade prior to the chaos and tragedy that has befallen the world’s ancient and beloved Syria, scientists discovered members of the allegedly extinct Northern Bald Ibis in a Syrian desert. Found upon a cliff face, this “oriental sub-species” had disappeared many years before. This is one reason, albeit only infrequently proved to be right, that zoologists as a rule wait one hundred years before conceding that a species is officially extinct in the wild.
Similarly, doomsayers currently debating the future of this amazing nation, her people and traditions, should recognize that nature can teach us everything, particularly patience, humility and non-violence, if we are attuned. But amid the horrors of chemical weapons and a rising human death toll, the other all too real fall-out concerning Syria’s biological crisis, has received little attention. But it is there, simmering, awaiting 11th hour recognition.
There are ecological remedies that have been outlined by the Syrian government herself; by NGOs and international consultants to Syria’s Environmental and Agricultural Ministries, most assuredly. But the issues are time, the capacity for eco-assessment, human resources, infrastructure, and restoration policies amid a welter of clearly more pressing emergencies.
And yet, time and again as competing priorities absorb humankind at the price of biodiversity, the aftermath will necessarily be all the more difficult with every lost opportunity.
Syria represents a unique mix of ecological wealth, vulnerability and weariness. For those steeped in such poems as Emily Dickinson’s famed “Hope” –pertaining to the feathers of a bird. Syria is a globally critical piece of precious turf. The country is located in the wild and wonderful hub of stopover spots and staging grounds (food, water and sleep) for migratory birds on one of the world’s seven most important avian migration routes, or flyways – the Rift Valley, which courses southward from northern Syria to Mozambique in East Africa. While the spiritual evocations of “the road to Damascus” resonate throughout human history, if you are a bird then Damascus and the surrounding steppes have their own critical allures.
There are a known “386 present or migratory species” in Syria, a nation that affords a drink of cool water in the desert, as well as food for pigeons in the Old City of Damascus on the very doorstep of the second oldest Mosque, the Great Umayyad Ğām’ Banī ‘Umayya al-Kabīr wherein local imams convey prayer beside the tomb of St. John the Baptist.
Despite nearly two-dozen protected areas, the country is nonetheless under siege ecologically. In part, this is fueled by the nation’s dry steppe expanse, thirst for water and food to satisfy the needs of a population growing at some 1.8 – 2.0% per year, or nearly 75% higher than that of the world average (not accounting for the current exodus of refugees leaving Syria). Her primeval Palearctic ecosystems, part of the vast corridors encompassing Europe, northwestern Africa and all of Asia north of the Himalayas, are home to numerous threatened tree species including cedar, fir and oak, as well as wild relic domestic fruit tree species, are part of a fragile tapestry of flora and fauna at great risk given the narrow margins of rainfall.
There are an estimated 2,500 animal species in the country. Many of the large vertebrates, amongst a known 125, are gone from Syria, including the wild desert burros (Onagers), the Arabian ostrich, and what were once described as huge wild herds of Reem gazelle. Lions and leopards are no more. Moreover, the country has one of the lowest percentages of protected areas in the world, 0.6%, versus 12% of protected land area across most other nations. Syrian scientists and others have recommended numerous sites for protection, but there are now unprecedented obstacles to enshrining such sanctuaries.
Hence, little wonder that some 500 known Syrian plant species are threatened and half of these are endemic. That is a biological situation of a coldspot –regions of high biological vulnerability still beneath the “official” radar screen of listed species – quickly becoming one of the 35 known terrestrial “hotspots” where the vast majority of life forms on land can be found, and a huge percentage of them are at some risk of extinction. In addition, an estimated 40 million shrubs are extirpated each year for fuel across Syria’s rangelands, or Badia.
The sum total of such statistics is biologically ill-boding, indeed; but to add civil war to these ecological gasps and data-deficient gaps is nothing short of catastrophic. For the more than 160 breeding bird species in Syria, 11 globally threatened, the woes of the nation are taking more tolls than can possibly be accounted for at this point in time across the myriad of ecosystem levels.
Unlike, for example, the 50 scientists immediately dispatched to Yosemite National Park to ascertain biological fall-out and eco-restoration needs in the ongoing wake of a 400-square mile disastrous fire, Syria’s scientific gaps are only likely to widen. The scientific community will probably have to wait on Syria.
For the 143 reptile and amphibian species, many already known to be threatened, attrition is likely to be extreme, as habitat, both urban and rural, is increasingly fragmented and, for now, no one knows what’s coming; nor how such accelerated fragmentation translates into new bio-invasives and the migration of pathogens.
As for the 1,434 known insect species, including so many pollinators, well, it’s pretty obvious that insects are not the first thing peacekeepers are going to worry about. And yet, no scenario in a nation as large and complex as Syria will survive without pollinators who provide critical services of nature in the form of food, soil stabilization, biomass and water purity; all those preconditions for biological bounty that can only be undermined by the human folly which is war.
Syria’s Ecological Commitments and Her Future?
It is worth recalling the country’s numerous statutory protocols as spelled out in the Syrian Arab Republic National Report (data from which much of the species inventories in this essay have been utilized), “Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan” (NBSAP Project SY/97/G31). Write its authors, Dr. Youssef Barkoudah, Dr. Akram Issa Darwish and Dr. Michel Abi Antoun, “Syria is committed to the protection of its environment.” To that end, numerous international treaties have been signed, including “the Convention to Combat Desertification,” the “Ramsar Convention” (on wetlands), the “Convention on Biodiversity” (in 1995), treaties on marine pollution (“MARPOL”), “Ozone,” and of particular interest at present, “The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes,” adopted in 1991.
The more than 100,000 murdered, human victims of Syria’s tumult mirrors the same kinds of ecological unraveling that historians of nature and culture have long dissected. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its tallies of hunger and ecological disruption, in nation after nation, including Syria has shown the obvious correlations between violence between people and the attrition upon nature.
More than half of the nation’s population is less than 15 years of age, which means that this dry-steppes collection of biomes, under the aforementioned demographic, biological and internecine conditions, have desperate need for a global coalition of sincere support. A gentle but effective rallying cry in response to so many prayers of the human voices heard around the world, but also of the voiceless.
Time tests ecosystems, as it does people, communities, whole civilizations. At stake in Syria’s extraordinary mosaic of distinct biological corridors is an oasis that, if left in peace, would deliver future genetic evolution in a crucial region of the planet. If abandoned, or left to teeter upon an ongoing abyss, then all ecological bets are off the table, not just for Syria, but a vast surrounding region of dependent life forms.
-Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison
The photographs in this essay were taken a few months prior to the beginning of Syria’s Civil War. Copyright 2013 by Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation.
About the Authors
Dr. Michael Charles Tobias (www.michaeltobias.org) is a global ecologist whose field research has taken him to over 90 countries. He has worked in ecological anthropology, bio-cultural ethics, and large-scale biodiversity conservation; eco-restoration, the saving of endangered species, animal rights, and has a particular focus upon the future prospects for biological evolution. His nearly 50 books (non-fiction as well as fiction) and more than 170 films have been read and broadcast throughout the world. Recipient of the “Courage of Conscience Prize” and a myriad of other awards and distinctions, Tobias has been a Professor at numerous universities and is the President of the Dancing Star Foundation.
Jane Gray Morrison is an author, ecologist and filmmaker who has done field work in dozens of countries, productions for many networks around the world, and written numerous books, including God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, and Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence (www.sanctuary-thebook.org). She has served as a Director on several arts organizations, and is the Executive Vice President of Dancing Star Foundation. Among her recent film productions are the PBS feature documentaries, No Vacancy, and Hotspots (www.hotspots-thefilm.org).
The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers.