Halfway from Norway to the North Pole, north of the Arctic Circle and east of Greenland, lies the Svalbard Archipelago. It belongs to Norway; about 2,500 people live there, mostly miners and Arctic researchers. During the war, it was occupied by the Germans. After the war, part of it was occupied by the Soviets. It’s reported to be the home of the two most northerly Lenin statues in the world. Mostly, though, it’s known for its seed bank.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a Noah’s ark for plant life: a backup for Earth’s flora in case of a cataclysm. It was built 430 feet above sea level, in case of a flood. It’s buried 390 feet inside a mountain on a tectonically inert island covered by permafrost, in case of anything else. This gives the seeds a dry, cool, cozy home. They’re packed in robust envelopes inside aluminum bags inside plastic boxes on metal shelves in rooms chilled to just under zero degrees Fahrenheit. Botanists estimate that, worldwide, there are roughly one and half million distinct seed samples to be had. So far, the Svalbard Vault has 840,000 of them, from 4,000 species, totaling about 420 million individual seeds.
This week — seven years after it opened — Svalbard’s seed bank saw its first withdrawal. The seeds of certain Syrian grasses and cereals are being sent to Aleppo, to help refill the local gene pool. Syria’s civil war has taken a toll on Syria’s people; also on its land; also on its domestic seed bank.
The enviro-Left is a nuisance, but every now and then it hits on something. Biodiversity really is important. A big gene pool is a healthy gene pool, and no one likes a homogeneous garden, or a homogeneous salad. Norway — whose government owns the Svalbard Vault — is doing its part to protect our collective cornucopia of life.
So is Kenya. Rhinoceros horn is extremely valuable in Asia, where it’s used for traditional, fake medicine. There’s only one male northern white rhino left in the world; his name is (confusingly) Sudan. He lives on a nature reserve in Kenya, under 24-hour military guard. Like most people, I would gladly trade ten species of grass for one of rhinoceros, but unless Sudan breeds before he dies, or is poached, the northern white rhino will go the way of the western black rhino, which was declared extinct in 2008.
A small, scattered legion of East and Central African wildlife rangers are trying to staunch the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. There are just 700,000 elephants left in the wild. Ivory poachers kill 30,000 a year.
Kenya’s rhinoceros guards are well armed and well equipped. That generally isn’t true of the small, scattered legion of East and Central African wildlife rangers trying to staunch the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. There are just 700,000 elephants left in the wild. Ivory poachers kill 30,000 a year.
Ivory fetches exorbitant prices in China and Indochina, where it’s thought to have magical and medical properties. According to a recent National Geographic exposé — and a short film directed by Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow — the profits on ivory are largely going to fund East African terrorist groups like Al Shabaab and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. According to the National Geographic piece, written by investigative reporter Bryan Christy, Congolese rangers guarding the besieged elephants are woefully under-equipped: “Ammunition is in perilously short supply — not even enough for basic training — and the rangers’ largest weapon, a belt-fed machine gun, tends to jam every third round or so. The rangers . . . have each been allocated a handful of rounds for old and unreliable AK-47s, most of them seized from poachers.”
The rangers are dedicated, hard-working, brave men; more than a few have been killed by poachers. But they’re badly equipped, and working mostly for poor and corrupt governments in poor and violent countries. If they fail, African elephants — the largest land animals in the world, and among the most interesting — will end up like the mammoth and the mastodon. And the fact is, Africa’s park rangers are no match for international terrorists.
#share#For obvious reasons, we don’t want to send guns to Central or East Africa. So let’s send some Special Forces. Understandably, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician willing to risk the lives of American troops to save the lives of elephants. For that matter, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician willing to risk the lives of American troops to keep money out of the hands of terrorist groups. But I bet it would be trivially easy to assemble a volunteer Noah’s Ark expeditionary force.
And remember: The longer we wait, the less there will be left to save. Write your congressman.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard. He is a founder of the tech startup Dittach.