Updated: Jun 25, 2019
“What is a fish without a river? What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanism to ensure their habitat is protected?
It is nothing.”
- Jay R. Inslee, Governor of Washington
‘"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist". These were the words of Surrealist artist René Magritte. In like manner, Pablo Picasso said that "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand."
Now, I would ask the reader to take a few seconds to look closely at the image above, contemplate the drawing and allow the imagination to run wild while pondering on the existence of this colossal and transcendent being. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold? The presence of such a monumental creature would definitely enrich our understanding of life, with ecologists barely containing themselves to speculate over the many ways a dragon would interact with other lifeforms and shape entire ecosystems. They will most likely never be able to gather that data, but that hasn’t stopped other creative humans from endowing us with very vivid portraitures of these wild things.
Examples of dragons abound in fantasy literature, stretching further back than probably most would anticipate, with references even in the Antiquity period in Argonautica, Book of Job, Bibliotheca and the Book of Revelation. Since then, there have been plenty of allusions to these mythical creatures, with many shapes and forms, degrees of intelligence, self-awareness, and distinctive levels of infatuation for humankind. Tolkien’s dragon Smaug in The Hobbit personifies this fervour for humans when he says ‘I am Fire. I am, Death’ right before he burns a whole village to the ground. In contrast, Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell emblazons a more healthy relationship between the two species.
However, we must ask ourselves one pertinent question. If given a chance to inhabit this planet alongside humanity, where would this mighty animal find refuge? It will probably not come out as a shock to anyone that humans have profoundly altered the surface of the planet as well as its biophysical stability, so let us have our own fantasy quest finding out a remaining haven for a dragon.
Up front, the planet is divided into two categories: 71 percent is considered habitable, and the remaining 29 percent amounts to glaciers and barren land. Of those 71 percent, it is estimated that roughly 50 percent has been converted to agriculture; 37 percent is forested; 11 percent contains shrubbery and one-percent is urban infrastructure. Of those 50 percent dedicated to agriculture, a whopping 77 percent are committed to the rearing of livestock. The graphic below helps to make sense of the extent of this domain of H. sapiens over the planet.
Different studies have presented mixed results as to the extent of Earth’s land surface that has been modified for human activities. For example, Barnosky et al., 2012 have set it around 50 to 70 percent while the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) claims that number might be closer to 75 percent. Watson et al., 2018 reveal comparable results, estimating that from the remaining terrestrial and marine wilderness areas that have managed to keep at bay the human footprint, it is possible to verify that as much as 77 percent of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87 percent of the ocean has been modified to suit humanity’s needs. On the other hand, Kennedy et al., 2019 declare these to be potential conservative estimates, pointing instead to a conclusion that only 5 percent of the planet’s surface land remains unaltered.
It is essential to realize that depending on their size, animals will require a given amount of area to find enough resources to preserve viable populations. However, if the available area of habitat goes below a given threshold or becomes severely disunited, populations would not be able to survive and would likely face extinction. Dragons would be no exception.
Notably, the full range of human tampering and fragmentation of habitats have been reflected in the fact that, in the Americas, more than 95 percent of high-grass prairies have been converted into farms, along with 72 percent of dry forests and 88 percent of the Atlantic forests. In fact, the planet was deprived of an area the size of Belgium of old-growth rainforest in 2018, and despite a decade of promises to halt deforestation, forest loss progresses. Furthermore, wetland ecosystems are among the most damaged habitats, with nearly a 50 percent loss since 1900 with a global reduction of 87 percent in the last 300 years. Similarly, the destruction of wetlands advances in Southeast Asia and the Congo region, mainly to plant palm trees to extract the oil, for the global consumer society.
The demand for water has also risen dramatically, due to four primary sources, namely agriculture, production of energy, industrial ends and human consumption. Besides the inherent problems of having to supply a finite resource for a population which is growing exponentially, all the water that is being appropriated is also indispensable for the wildlife and the maintenance of ecosystems that rely on it.
In respect to long rivers, only a third are still moving freely and not being the targets of energy production due to the construction of dams. Unobstructed rivers are essential to the environment and wildlife. As a result, the current 2.8 million dams constructed worldwide, ‘stand in the way’ of free-flowing rivers. Secondly, saline-lakes are shrinking fast, and humans are not the only beings affected by this contraction. These lakes have major ecological roles to play, such as accumulating and recycling nutrients as well as producing unique ecosystems for plants and animals. When these lakes are desiccated, wildlife is impaired in the process. Water bodies are facing serious challenges, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Currently, Europe stands as the continent with the highest percentage of its area under intense human pressure. As a result, this ends up creating severely negative consequences for natural habitats and their remaining wildlife in protected areas. The implications of this intense human pressure, or ‘Human disturbances’ – urbanized environments, crop and pasture lands, elevated human population density, night-time lights, roads, recreational activity and noise – are having sweeping consequences by deviating animals from their normal activities, altering their survival behaviours, and interfering with their ability to move freely, resulting in an array of ecological dynamics being affected. For example, populations of animals appear to be turning to a more nocturnal presence to avoid contact with humans.
Apart from already not having many chances of finding an appropriate habitat, dragons would have to deal with the exaggerated ubiquity of humans disturbing their solitude, which is pivotal for mating, breeding and the rearing of new-borns. What better proof of this than queues of tourists at one of the most inaccessible places on the planet, Mount Everest?
This apparent human omnipresence was only achieved due to a model of global trade of goods, which allows populations to thrive beyond what their local carrying capacity would permit while exporting that footprint somewhere else. But along the way, such a model requires a provision of infrastructures to move those assets. Lamentably, a more interconnected world is also a world scared by the breaching of such projects into habitats, which fragment wildlife refuges and interfere with the cohesion of life support systems as well as tampering with the orderly activities of wildlife. For instance, China’s Belt and Road initiative is a vast infrastructure project that aims to revolutionize the economic markets of the more than 70 countries that have signed up to this enterprise, but it will also bring about the invasion of extensive natural areas, as well as severely intensify each nation’s contributions of GHG (Greenhouse Gases).
Another critical point is that dragons have enjoyed a bad reputation as fierce and murderous creatures, though it has been humanity who over the past 70 years have, repeatedly, waged war in the world’s most biodiverse regions. Between 1950 and 2000, more than 80 percent of armed conflicts overlapped with biodiversity hotspots. As it is to be expected, large populations and low per capita income are both directly correlated to civil strife. Such warfare inevitably leads to the destruction of habitat and the killing of species.
This can happen by the facilitation of access to areas not usually frequented by humans, which ends up in the disturbance of wildlife. Alternatively, soldiers resort to bushmeat hunting or poaching. In like manner, logging and mining of natural resources to fund operations usually take place. By the same token, civilians often rush in after the soldiers to settle in these new areas, furthering the logging and erosion of soils by transforming them to agricultural ends. Lastly, nations descending into civil conflict can also disrupt and subvert governance and conservation programs, imperilling the lives of many endangered species that survive in pockets of protected areas.
Right about now, I can sense the surging scepticism with some of the readers wondering, ‘certainly, there must be something that humans have done that would make life easier for dragons.’ Actually, one thing definitely comes to mind. Since the dawn of civilization - before the large-scale domestication of livestock - humanity has caused the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants, with the current biomass of wild mammals numbering a mere 4 percent, while humans occupy 36 percent and livestock an alarming 60 percent. Moreover, farmed poultry accounts for up to 70 percent of all the weight of birds, with the remaining 30 percent being wild. Why would this be a good thing for dragons? With so much livestock and farm animals lying around, not to mention the millions of humans concentrated in megacities, it would just look like an open buffet for dragons, regardless of season or weather.
However, for a carnivore such as a dragon, the immense availability of livestock would work as a double-edged sword. In effect, carnivores that are regarded as a menace to farm animals have historically been persecuted and killed, or their populations disappear due to habitat loss, which in turn is potentiated by the rearing of livestock. In particular, Ripple et al., 2014 have studied the risk to the world’s largest terrestrial carnivores (dragons not included) and found that 94 percent were negatively affected by either habitat loss or persecution due to conflict with humans. So, even if dragons existed, they would be hounded, since they would most likely compete for the same sources of protein.
Yet, the disappearance of dragons and other large carnivores can be more than an ethical and aesthetic problem. Ecosystems are reliant on species that can produce certain functions, and in the case of beasts of prey, their absence has repercussions that echo through the food webs affecting trophic cascades. One of the most significant aspects of the presence of these predators goes by the epical term ‘landscape of fear.’ In detail, top carnivores play a vital role in ecosystem stability by adjusting the abundance and behaviours of herbivores and smaller predators, by simply instilling fear. With the nonattendance of big predators, populations of herbivores explode until the confines of the carrying capacity of places, consuming and altering landscapes in the process.
We can’t know for sure what effects dragons would have, but the disappearance of real top-of-the-chain megafauna has led to profound changes through the ages. It is possible that in such a world we wouldn’t have biomes such as the African Savana, the Mongolian steppes or the Arctic tundra. In their place, there would be completely different ecosystems, such as the Serengeti transitioning to a system dominated by fire regimes and woody cover if grazing and browsing were controlled by the shadow of an eerie and daunting beast such as that of a dragon (and their fire?). Regrettably, it doesn’t take a dragon to spook the grazers since mega-herbivores such as elephants and giraffes are already rapidly declining.
Ultimately, dragons have fascinated and co-existed with humans for a long time, even if only just as a figment of our imagination, as folklore or as spellbinding art. These otherworldly creatures have elevated our sense of wonder and awe to a point at which they become an almost irresistible part of our lives, in spite of their transcendent nature. When we step back into reality, though, we realize that far from being fictitious, the extent of humanity's footprint is pervasive and all-encompassing.
The truth is that we have failed other non-human passengers on this Earth. Despite the efforts of a small minority through awareness and projects of conservation/rewilding, the rising numbers of humans (each demanding a more significant share of natural capital), casts a shadow on their efforts and foreshadows a bleak future for wild things. As their absenteeism becomes ever more noticeable, humans implant fantasy into their lives, namely by dragons. This excerpt from George Monbiot's book 'Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life' explains this need perfectly:
"As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature have declined, as our physical challenges have diminished to the point at which the greatest trial of strength and ingenuity we face is opening a badly designed packet of nuts, could these imaginary creatures (Monbiot is discussing the belief in UFO encounters) have brought us something we miss?
Perhaps the beasts many people now believe are lurking in the dark corners of the land (Panthers in the UK) inject into our lives a thrill that can otherwise be delivered only by artificial means. Perhaps they reawaken old genetic memories of conflict and survival, memories which must incorporate encounters - possibly the most challenging encounters our ancestors faced - with large predatory cats. They hint at an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead."
All in all, it is as simple as the poet, and novelist Charles Bukowski wrote in his posthumous work The Pleasures of the Damned:
“The centuries are sprinkled with rare magic,
With divine creatures
Who help us get past the common and extraordinary ills that beset us.”