The Nationality of Wild and Domesticated Nature

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Published on April 17th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

"Who do I belong to?", little Wallace was wondering, while looking up to his master

Most people in the world have a nationality. Some country in the world makes the claim that you belong to them.

To me, that has always been a strange concept. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time in any particular country to get used to the idea of being of a certain nationality — apart, of course, from when the national Dutch soccer team are once again playing in some international tournament.

But that concept of national ownership or claim becomes even stranger when you think about who owns nature. There was a case a few years ago of 54 orangutans that were kept in Bangkok for a boxing show. DNA research had shown that these orangutans originated and therefore “belonged” to Indonesia. It took some hard arguing between Thailand and Indonesia, but in the end they were all repatriated.

Why would any particular country be able to claim ownership over particular species? I guess it is probably written in some international law somewhere, but the concept is really quite strange.

I guess it is all related to value. Animals and plants are worth something, so some country will claim them as their own. Just like oil, gas, coal, minerals.

But there are borderline cases. Do pets have nationalities, for example? I know that our family’s dog Wallace, and our lonely goldfish (whose name escapes me), certainly don’t. We own them and, depending on international quarantine regulations, we could take them anywhere we like. I doubt Indonesia will fight hard to keep Wallace in this country, even though he was born and bred here.

It is all very confusing. Who and what determines what countries can legitimately claim as their own? And should a healthy natural environment not be the right (and responsibility) of any global citizen?

It would be nice to have some organization that could overrule national rights to (ab)use nature. What about “The International Court for Nature?”

I won’t be holding my breath for that one to appear.

(Image: “Whom do I belong to?” little Wallace was wondering, while looking up to his master. Credit: Erik Meijaard/TNC.)

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