‘Beloved Beasts’ Is a Riveting History of Conservation
A new book by the acclaimed science journalist Michelle Nijhuis looks at human attempts to save other species from extinction, from John Muir to the World Wildlife Fund
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In physics, the Doppler effect describes how a noise like a coming train will always sound different when it approaches than when it recedes. The noise itself is the same, but your perspective changes, and with it, the pitch enters a new frequency. Reading about history can ignite a similar feeling, showing how, say, social battles that once seemed futile were actually progressing all along. Such is the case with Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, a new book by former biologist and acclaimed science journalist and editor Michelle Nijhuis. Beloved Beasts unwinds a history of human efforts to protect the loss of other species, an impulse, Nijhuis writes, “likely as old as the images of steppe bison painted on cave walls.” She reveals how policies and habits that once seemed unmovable were, through the intervention of passionate human advocates, changed. “Fantasy and despair are tempting, but history can help us resist them,” she writes. “The past accomplishments of conservation were not inevitable, and neither are its future failures.”
Beloved Beasts is a capacious, engrossing, and timely examination of worldwide conservation movements since the late 19th century, tracing not just their triumphs but the tendrils of racism and colonialism that have all too often undergirded the science. Beginning with the plight of bison in the American West, the book moves chronologically through turning points in species conservation, with each chapter tethered to an actor or two and the animals they were—or are still—working to protect. This structure is surprisingly buoying, not just because it’s more fun to follow people than policies, but because it’s evidence of just how many ripples one life can make. Aldo Leopold described conservation as a movement of individuals, each “a member of a community of interdependent parts,” and the book attains a similar patchwork of viewpoints and priorities, while never succumbing to the myth that change stems from one voice alone.
Conservation history, Nijhuis writes, is “full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons,” and her portraits of these movers and shakers are multifaceted. John Muir’s ecstatic meditations on the natural world may have become “part of conservation scripture,” but when he came across a group of Mono people while hiking in the Sierra Nevada, he wrote that they “ha[d] no right place in the landscape.” This ethos reverberated through the 20th-century creation of national parks in Africa, which were initially spearheaded by colonial governments and which evicted nomadic inhabitants as “squatters” in order to create a definition of “wilderness” palatable to foreign safari-goers.
Human control over wild animals has long been a way of exerting dominance over the animals’ habitat, the same habitat, of course, that we rely on too. Nijhuis describes President Ulysses S. Grant’s interior secretary, Columbus Delano, believing that the decimation of American bison populations would, in his words, “confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs”—paving the way, implicitly, for white men to dominate the landscape.
Beloved Beasts also details the rise of well-known organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, which was launched in 1961 by a few dozen British naturalists, most of them male and white. One of them was author Aldous Huxley’s brother Julian, an adventurous biologist whose three-month, Unesco-funded trip through Central and East Africa had just been chronicled in a series of newspaper articles published in the London Observer. As would happen a year later in the U.S. with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Huxley’s writing won the hearts and minds of those with power and pocketbooks; the WWF formed as a fundraising machine in the wake of his publication. (As for the WWF panda mascot? It was sketched during an early planning meeting, chosen because it was cute, threatened globally, and its black-and-white fur would be cheap to print.)
Meanwhile, Nijhuis’s account of the “crisis discipline” of conservation biology that emerged in the 1970s—the concept that the field needed to move urgently to address environmental threats—is enriched by her own account of knowing one of its earliest advocates, biologist Michael Soulé, who was her neighbor in the foothills of the western Colorado Rockies decades later. “What really bothered him, he often said, was not the prospect of death but that of the end of birth—the end of evolution, the end of possibility,” she writes.
In addition to covering these central movements, Nijhuis describes battles I knew little about, from the bird-watching suffragists who fought feathered fashion at the turn of the 20th century, to the Maori who successfully classified the longest navigable river in New Zealand as a legal person in 2017, to the Namibian conservationists currently reliant on budgets funded by trophy hunters. Though at times I hoped she would cover more of these smaller-scale conservation efforts—perhaps shedding a light on the Nez Perce spearheading wolf reintroduction in Idaho or the Indigenous communities in Myanmar fighting for ownership over the scientific data collected about fish in their rivers—the book seems to me successful if, after reading Nijhuis’s history, readers are left wanting to hunt down more.
Nijhuis is the sort of writer who makes excavating arcane facts and dinner-party-worthy anecdotes look effortless. I often found myself shouting to my boyfriend in the other room, compelled to share, for example, that a species of Slovenian cave beetle was now nearly extinct because its scientific name (A. hitleri) had made it a neo-Nazi collector’s item. Her eye knows just where to linger when she’s in the field, as with her description of watching a rhino in the sparse, spiky shade of a mopani tree as he “worked his droopy upper lip … vast haunches jiggling as he disappeared into the sun-bleached brush.” Even accounts of committee meetings—one with 1920s Audubon members, another with contemporary seminomadic Namibian herders—had my heart pounding, tickled to be so immersed in bureaucratic Ping-Pong.
Nijhuis is the sort of writer who makes excavating arcane facts and dinner-party-worthy anecdotes look effortless.
I would have marveled at the scope of Nijhuis’s research in any moment, but the book feels particularly timely now. In late January, President Biden announced an unprecedented plan to conserve 30 percent of the United States’ lands and waters by 2030 as part of his day-one executive order on climate. In practice, this will mean more than doubling the area of currently protected land held by both private and public parties—adding an area twice the size of Texas—with no obvious path for which land should be targeted first. Scientists talk about “unnatural selection,” where an animal’s chance for survival depends on how “useful” we see it, and Beloved Beasts made me consider the value we assign not only to animals but to their—to our—habitats, often prioritizing the conservation of the landscapes we most want to recreate in. The scope of Biden’s plan would require transcending those sorts of calculations. In the 1990s, Soulé was one of the first biologists to suggest that we should be building “habitat corridors” between natural reserves, creating pathways for animals to migrate and move across the whole continent, from Canada to Mexico. Proposals of this nature have traditionally been a tough sell, but Biden has created an opening to discuss the preservation of habitat connectivity once again.
When humans invented agriculture around 8,000 B.C., we were outnumbered by many other primates, including baboons. Ten thousand years later, we rule the earth, and it’s the animals around us that keep disappearing, at a rate of about 9,000 human-caused species extinctions every year. The idea that we are entering a sixth mass extinction now is well-documented. Biologist Paul Ehrlich tells Nijhuis that though the scale of species extinctions is already sobering, it doesn’t capture how many more local animal populations are declining or going extinct even as their species holds on. In her 2016 book Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species, Ursula Heise asks, “Is it possible to acknowledge the realities of large-scale species extinction and yet to move beyond mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia to a more affirmative vision of our biological future?”
After reading Beloved Beasts, I am confident the answer is yes. Nijhuis defines the mission of conservation biology as “the preservation of possibility,” but in her introduction, she explains that she will use the word hope sparingly, because the emotion did not motivate many early conservationists. They were swayed by other things (“love, outrage, data”), but they did not persevere because they felt they would succeed at saving the animals they loved—they just felt it was worth doing regardless. So I was surprised, on closing the book, to feel that rare flutter: hope. It wasn’t that I now believed humans could save every animal, but that in owning up to the harmful rhetoric within conservation’s lineage, and acknowledging the persistence of colonial and racist environmental policies, we will be able to collaborate more efficiently and more equitably. As Nijhuis suggests, to cultivate habitat for other animals, we must find connectivity in our own communities first.
Though a conservation biologist will emphasize the similarities between humans and other animals, Nijhuis notes that Homo sapiens are the only ones aware of ourselves as a species, capable of identifying and acting as part of a larger “we.” “The assumption that only particular kinds of humans are distinctive—that a subset of the ‘we’ is different from other animals, but ‘they’ are not—underlies some of the darkest chapters of the conservation movement,” writes Nijhuis toward the end of the book. We need a future built on multispecies solidarity, she writes, and an awareness that we are all in it together on this warming planet. Humans can destroy, but so can we protect, conserve, rebuild. We must not forget we are “capable of protecting the rest of life from ourselves.”