63. Ghosts of Plenty (07/2013)

by brettthevet

On a warm Winter’s day I found myself keeping vigil over a juvenile jackass penguin(‘Gwen’) at the water’s edge on the beautiful beach at Wilderness. Passersby of all ages stopped, curiously capturing the silent agony of the ailing bird on cellphone cameras. As I sat down on the dry sand nearby trying to imagine the tale of this lonesome creature I noticed that she was not alone in her displacement and distress. Writhing in the sand between me and her was a dying bee, while a languishing ladybird explored the fresh corpse of a tiny ghost crab. I wondered what could possibly have occurred to disorientate and damage these finely tuned navigators of the air, earth, or waters. Penguins move in social groups playing in the waves or chatting on shore. Bees are synonymous with perpetual work, pollinating plants for our mutual benefit. Ladybirds thrive among our organically grown vegetables devouring aphids. Crabs celebrate the fine sands of these shores. This valedictory vignette depicting the global demise of our animal friends who we need for survival, made me unbearably sad. Set against a backdrop of the vast, ebbing ocean appeared the last penguin, the ultimate ladybird, the final crab to grace the earth, and the concluding sting. Human animals have robbed them of their sustenance, polluted their environment with poisons, gases, and radiation, relentlessly destroying life on this once flourishing planet. In so doing we also deprived ourselves of experiencing the bountiful biodiversity of which we were once an integral part.

In the twenty minutes it took the people from SAPREC (Seabird And Penguin Rehabilitation Centre) to collect ‘Gwen’ I reflected on the extent of our collective loss. Ruthless massacres of species have occurred everywhere even in my short lifetime to a greater extent than any other period in the history of our planet. Once plentiful, fish are fast disappearing from the sea. Sharks, dolphins, and whales are butchered for meat and sport, fat and fin. Seal cubs clubbed to death mercilessly for their fur bloody the icy landscapes in their thousands. Sea birds perish smothered in crude, obstructed by plastic, sinking deep down to trawled ocean beds still simmering with disintegrating drums of nuclear waste designating the denial of our catastrophic impact. We photograph glimpses of the beauty in lieu of experiencing the wonder first hand. Sterile films are all that will remain for future generations as we slump in front of our screens watching paradise slip away irrevocably.

The SAPREC team have saved seven young penguins in the area over the past two weeks. They are the lucky and magnifiscent seven who made it to shore alive having prematurely left their nests in the breeding colonies over 300 kms away. Moulting disrupted the integrity of their feathers causing ineffective waterproofing and insulation when the birds took to the water. The local dearth of fish forced their parents to hunt for food further away, abandoning their starving chicks who then set off in despair carried by strong currents to these distant beaches arriving exhausted, dehydrated, weak, and sick. They will be rehabilitated and returned to the dying ocean.

Whose authority do we need to reverse the cycle of destruction? What is required to restore the abundance of life on earth? The WHO (World Health Organization) promotes a diet based on plenty of fruit and vegetables for optimal health. A recent UN report has urged for a vital ‘global shift towards a more vegan diet to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change’. Greater numbers of individuals and groups are heeding this call and advocating a shift towards plant based organic agriculture as a survival imperative.

PS. Two months after writing this ghost story on 12 August 2013 a cargo ship carrying 350 tons of heavy oil ran aground off the coast of George spilling its slick load into the ocean smothering all life forms in its wake. SAPREC have been inundated with oil soaked sea birds.

Minister Joemat-Petterson’s Fisheries department is responsible for managing South Africa’s six Environmental Protection Vessels, which are to be used in the event of threats to the safety of the country’s coastlines, including oil spills. These are the only vessels in South Africa with a mechanism to prevent leaked oil from drifting further into the ocean.

These six vessels are currently sitting in dry dock in Cape Town Harbour and Simon’s Town Naval Base due to a failure by the Fisheries Department to properly manage them. They therefore cannot be deployed to contain and clean up of the oil spill.