The uncivilized nature of man

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114305610712475.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The hawksbill sea turtle has been subjected to man's cruelest side.’);

On a recent visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, I spent considerable time observing the creatures inhabiting my favorite exhibit, the awe-inspiring tri-level coral reef. As the denizens of the reef paraded by my viewing area in an environment as close to the real thing as possible, I was delighted when a large hawksbill sea turtle gracefully swam by (it is called a hawksbill because the upper jaw resembles the beak of a hawk). This was the first time I had ever seen one of the noble creatures alive.

Previously, my only exposure to one of these turtles, which is sometimes called a tortoise shell turtle, was when I joined a group of spectators who were observing a dead one washed up on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. It was obvious that this 3-foot turtle had been killed when a boat’s propeller had almost decapitated it. The hawksbill is semitropical in distribution, though they have been reported as wandering as far north as Woods Hole, Mass.

As I stood in the stillness of the darkened aquarium watching the hawksbill in the softly lit exhibit, I recalled with remorse the treatment this species has been subjected to by man: pursued, harassed, tortured and killed outright, and driven almost to the brink of extinction, all for the purpose of tortoise shell.

Tortoise shell consists of the large, translucent plates covering the bony part of the shell of the hawksbill. The plates or shields are artistically and beautifully marked in marbled fashion with black, yellow or brown and yellow. The plates have been used for centuries for inlay work, knife handles, toilet articles, the “high combs” of Spanish ladies, and many other ornamental objects. It is still used extensively in Asian countries, but plastic imitations are more common now in the United States.

The plates are usually removed from the unfortunate reptile by the application of heat, which loosens them from the underlying bone. Any of several methods may be used to get this job done. One of the cruelest methods is to capture a female hawksbill when she comes ashore to lay her eggs, bind her to a pole, and lower her downward close to a bed of red-hot coals. After a time, the plates peel away from the bone. The poor creature is then released in the hope she will survive, regenerate new plates, and can be captured and repeeled again. Regeneration may take place if the animal survives, but the new plates are mal-formed and of little value.

A more humane, but nevertheless horrific, method of obtaining the plates is to kill the turtle and dump her into boiling water, which loosens the plates. At least with the roasting procedure, if the turtle lives her fertility is not affected, and this has probably contributed to its survival in some areas. The meat is seldom eaten.

Though man drove the hawksbill to the edge of extinction some 40 years ago, its numbers have gradually increased in recent years .This is not because man has developed a new environmental or moral ethic, but because the advent of plastic has greatly reduced the demand for much more expensive tortoise shell.

Many other stately species have been victims of man’s selfish desire for parts of their bodies. The elephant is threatened for the value of its ivory as is the walrus in Alaska. The horn of the rhinoceros is supposed to possess aphrodisiacal powers, and only a few rhinos remain today. Untold numbers of elk were slaughtered in order that members of a fraternal order could sport a genuine elk’s tooth on their watch fob.

In the quiet, sobering tranquility of the National Aquarium, I reflected on these and countless other atrocities inflicted by man on species lower than he. I wondered how the most intelligent creature on earth could engage in such wonton, uncivilized, and senseless waste. But then, I realized that man uses far more brutal and genocidal practices with his own kind, so why would he do otherwise with lower forms.

When will they ever learn?

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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