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26 November 2022

Fantastic beasts and how to save them

Katherine Rundell’s new book is a treasury of extraordinary animals endangered by human negligence and greed.

By Kathleen Jamie

Events of recent weeks may have encouraged some to think about longevity and constancy. But when we value “living memory” we seem able only to measure it in human terms. To be truly long-memoried on this Earth, you would probably have to be a Greenland shark. As Katherine Rundell reports, a Greenland shark presently cruising the dark depths of the Arctic Ocean might have been doing so even as the plague swept London. Its great-great-grandparents may have known Julius Caesar, so to speak. It takes 150 years for a female to reach sexual maturity. “For thousands of years Greenland sharks have swum in silence, as above ground the world has burned, rebuilt, burned again.” They also smell strongly of pee.

By title alone The Golden Mole sounds as though it would be a charming book, a cross between a treasury and a bestiary. The subtitle is indeed “And Other Living Treasure”. At first glance its structure, short essays each prefaced with a beautiful, grey-on-gold illustration by Talya Baldwin, might suggest a children’s wildlife encyclopaedia or a coffee-table Christmas gift book. Rundell is indeed a children’s author and has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal; the book is indeed charming. She has mastered a sprightly, enthused tone for her essays, which come at their subjects from unexpected angles. She is good with the arresting opening line: “It was, perhaps, a hermit crab that ate Amelia Earhart.” “Hares have always been thought magic.” There is much lore and plenty of what the Americans call “fun facts”. Take hermit crabs, for example. Coconut hermit crabs are land crabs, so called because they can prise open a coconut. They can live to be 100 and grow to a metre across, “too large to fit in a bathtub, exactly the right size for a nightmare”. Fun facts, perhaps, but her purpose is serious.

If you include humans, she features 22 creatures, 21 of which – from the giraffe to the seahorse – are endangered or threatened in some serious way. It’s the bleak litany we have become so accustomed to: poaching, overfishing, habitat loss, sheer gross negligence. Alas for the various hermit crabs, we are their nightmare: plastic reaches them not only on beaches but at great depths. Some can live at 2,000 metres under the sea; pollution affects them even there.

[See also: A new age of climate migration]

Some of the creatures included are our daily companions, at least in these northern latitudes. The common crow, being smart, knows us and watches us. They will reward their friends. (I can confirm that corvids bring gifts to their human allies; our neighbour here has for some time fed and studied the local jackdaw tribe. In return she has received a 5p piece, a single amber earring, and a small coin. Strangely, the coin came from Hong Kong.) More prosaically, in a theme park in France, rooks are gainfully employed to pick up litter, cigarette ends in particular. In Hawaii, corvids have entered folklore in a profound way. The “exuberantly declarative” Hawaiian crow, or ‘alalā, is a soul guide, said to accompany the human dead safely into the afterlife. But the souls now wander lost, because the once-common ‘alalā is extinct in the wild. Reintroduction efforts are ongoing but with limited success. As Rundell writes: “It is so much intelligence wiped out. And if the ‘alalā are not saved, one of the ways in which humans have painstakingly and generously explained death to one another will be dead.” For the less spiritually minded, the fact is that without them, plants that relied on the ‘alalā for seed dispersal are also vanishing.

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Rundell’s desire is to reignite a sense of wonder, and to show us where we might find real earthly treasure, literally at our feet. But golden moles and hedgehogs are soft stuff to those who simply don’t care, who are deliberately trashing the natural world for profit. In fact, the chapter on tuna, that mainstay of the lunchtime sandwich and cat food, is quite harrowing. We rarely think of the tuna fish as a living creature at all, just something convenient in a tin. But they’re warm-blooded, fast (the name means “dart along”) and can grow as big as a grizzly bear. Apparently the Mitsubishi conglomeration holds a 40 per cent share of the world’s bluefin tuna market. Rundell says it has huge stacks of the fish deep- frozen. Conservationists believe it’s because the conglomeration expects to make a killing from its stockpile should the fish become extinct.

This kind of hoarding is a practice known as extinction speculation, and it’s not confined to tuna. Rundell calls it a “uniquely vile game” whereby some of our own species collect rare bear bladders, rhino horn and tiger pelts against the day those creatures vanish from the Earth. If and when that happens, they believe value of these “assets” will soar, and they will be laughing all the way to the bank. She quotes a study that says “profit-maximising individuals may have an incentive to subsidise the slaughter… until the wild stock collapses”. And then, what will they spend all their money on, on a depleted planet? As Rundell says of a certain pangolin she once knew: “Her loveliness makes other forms of loveliness – diamonds, rubies, wrists bedecked with Rolexes – look like a con.”

There is a constant joy in the book, nonetheless. A sense throughout of delight and wonder, and a reminder that these emotions also matter – may even save us. This is the point. None of the creatures considered is extinct, they all remain our companions in our long evolutionary journey. Indeed, many have been on the planet in their present form much longer than we have. It is their ill luck that they have to try to coexist with one overwhelming species that is by turns stupid and brilliant, short-termist and compassionate, knowledgeable and greedy.

Because it has achieved a beguiling dance between fact and lore, description, classical authors, poets and biologists, it might be said that this book is more entertainment than science. Hard-line environmentalists or ecologists may disapprove of the cherry-picking of charismatic species considered in isolation from the ecological web that sustains them. However, in her “further reading” Rundell lists the sources she has so elegantly distilled, from the classical authors like Pliny (who wrote that hedgehogs carry apples on their spines) to the Mahabharata, through folklorists to modern biologists and taxonomists.

What of the golden mole itself? There are 21 species of golden mole, and they are more iridescent than golden: “If we lose them, we will have lost the world’s only rainbow mammal, a stupidity so grotesque we could not expect to be forgiven.” So how will we save the world? We could start by paying proper heed to the creatures we have, these “imperilled astonishments”. “Each single seahorse contains enough wonder to knock the whole of humanity off its feet, if we would but pay attention,” she says. “Our competent and attentive love will have to be what fuels us.” What our earthly fellows need from us now is a simple change of attitude, “our more furious, more iron-willed treasuring”.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and editor of “Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland” (Canongate)

The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure
Katherine Rundell
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £14.99

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[See also: The natural world is vanishing before it has even reached our eyes]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak