Homeostasis is the tendency towards equilibrium in a system, particularly in reference to biological or physiological systems.
Our bodies maintain the right levels of salt in our bloodstream through filtration via the nephrons in the kidneys, sweating, oral ingestion of more salts, and a number of other processes (that’s the simplified version), and this allows the body to function as expected.
On a far more microscopic level, turgor pressure in cells is regulated through osmosis via the cell’s semi-permeable membrane, with water flowing into or out of the cell depending on the surrounding ion concentration.
These are just random examples of homeostasis, but what I want to talk about today is the homeostasis to be found in ecosystems, and our understanding thereof. Or mis-understanding.
I certainly don’t profess to be anything like an expert on the subject, but I want to bandy around an idea that I came across recently, an idea that is slowly starting to make people rethink their approach to conservation. It’s all about ecological timeframes, and how the homeostasis of the wilderness is a far more cyclical system than we are aware.
I think I read the idea in a superb book by Mitch Reardon called Shaping Kruger. The book examines the natural history of a number of different animals species, from impalas to leopards, but the one that resonated with me the most was the chapter on elephants.
I don’t know how aware of the elephant history of the Kruger National Park everyone is, but I’ll give you the ultra-condensed version here. In 1967 a culling program was initiated in the Kruger Park, in an effort to control the population at around 7000-7500 animals (as far as I recall this was specifically worked out to be roughly one elephant per square mile). Culling operations continued until 1994, when, largely under pressure from animal rights activists, it was stopped. The elephant population has been rising ever since, and now stands at well over 20,000. The question on everyone’s mind is, “What next?”. With the numbers rising into what is now considered an overpopulation, this keystone species is starting to have a negative impact on much of the Park’s vegetation, and officials are considering what to do. Fast.
Let me stop right here and say emphatically that this is not a discussion about a solution to the elephant population. That was simply used as the most pertinent example in order to get to the point in Shaping Kruger, which is how natural cycles are so much longer than our human lives can appreciate.
Reardon states that while previously the homeostasis in managed ecosystems was attempted to be maintained on an annual basis, that may have been the wrong approach, as in natural terms, the ebb and flow of systems could be centuries between peaks and troughs. Homeostasis as far as the African wilderness understood it, didnt occur daily, but over centuries and aeons.
Conservation as we understand it today is barely a century old – less, in many parts of the globe – and our tendency as a species will almost always be to try and match things to our timeframes. Yet mankind has only been around for the tiniest fraction of geological time, and only in the tiniest fraction of this part of our – and the earth’s – history have been advanced enough as a species to try and control things the natural environment.
The new way of thinking revolves around an appreciation of the true insignificance of human timeframes.
The earth and its processes have been ticking over for millions of years, with by far the majority of that being without us. The tendency now is to be more hands-off. Fewer artificial water points. Less population control. The earth was fine without us before and it should be fine without us again. Of course the difficulty lies in the fact that no matter how big ecosystems are these days, eventually they run out of room and start butting up against humans. Certain measures of control are necessary, but just how much or how little is so hard to say, as we’ll only know in 100 years or so what the results will be of the changes and policies that are implemented today.
I’m starting to waffle a bit now, but I just wanted to get across this idea of time frames. I’ll go into it in more detail later this week as it pertains to Londolozi, especially in the context of the drought we recently experienced, but mull it over for a while. The earth is far wiser than we can appreciate, and it is only now that people are truly starting to fathom the intricacies of the relationships that exist in nature’s great web. More to come on this in a few days time…