So, where DO camels belong?

This is the question that opens Ken Thompson's informative, engaging, and probably (I'm not a scientist, but I'm sure my scientist and / or ecology friends will be screaming) provocative book Where do camels belong?

A seasonal look into a complex subject as the question's actually a lot more complicated than you might think. I would probably have said the Middle East, or Central Asia (camels in my mind usually equate to the Silk Road, Three Wise Men, and camel caravans supplying most of the East). However camels originated in the Americas, where most of their relatives (llamas, alpacas etc) still live. If you're looking at where camels principally live now in the wild though, that would be......Australia. Yup! That took me by surprise too.

Thompson's book looks at invasive species, the way they're dealt with, the reasons they're dealt with the way they are, and asks "Is this a sensible approach?". The answer a lot of the time is no, not really. What becomes very obvious as you go through the book is that the notion of "nativeness" is a lot harder to pin down than you might think.

For example, rabbits are generally considered to be not native to Britain, though they have been here since Norman times when they were brought over to supply the fur trade. For more information on this, you only have to go to the delightful Mildenhall Warren in Thetford Forest to see what the rabbit industry was like in Medieval times. However, go back a little further and rabbits ARE native to Britain. They were here during the first interglacial period, went extinct as the ice spread across Britain again, and missed the last boat to the island until the Normans thoughtfully brought them back to their native land.

The same is true of horses in the New World. Horses evolved in the Americas, before becoming extinct, and then being re-introduced by the Conquistadors. But then, what with climate change (even of the natural variety, not the man-made post-Industrial Revolution effect), continental drift, and evolution, just about anything has been native somewhere else at some point in time - hippos and sabre-toothed tigers have been at home in Britain as well as wolves, beaver, reindeer and rabbits, for example.

What Thompson is saying is that the issues may not be as simple as some would have us believe. Neither are they necessarily as alarming as the popular press may think. As well as quite rational scientific concerns about invasive species, there is also a good dollop of racism and xenophobia in some of the concerns expressed.

Ultimately, in most cases, Thompson believes that nature has a way of evening things out. The fact that it may not happen in a single human lifespan (a tiny blip in the great ocean of time) shouldn't alter the fact that interfering with nature, even for the most well-meaning of reasons, is not always a good idea. Though there are exceptions, note the horrific tale of the Brown Tree Snake and its invasion of Guam (though recent reports suggest that the snake is in decline as it has eaten its way through most of the island).

I found this a thoughtful book that made me think about what I know of the nature of my own countryside, and questioned the nature of nativeness. A fascinating read.


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