Aleksei Turovski is one of Estonia’s most beloved zoologists, whose interests encompass parasitology, biology, and ethology. Aleksei is fascinated by animal behavior and can often be found at Tallinn Zoo, where he conducts tours for enthusiasts.
We also meet at Tallinn Zoo. We walk towards a gazebo near where the eagles are, one of Aleksei’s favorite spots in the zoo. On the way, we pass by a snowy owl. I learn that snowy owls, the ones that are pure white, can only be males, so it’s quite curious that the infamous snowy owl from Harry Potter, was named Hedwig… “It could have been Heinrich or Herbert,” Aleksei chuckles, adding another interesting fact – the so-called Kalamaja lynx that stirred up discussions among city dwellers over the summer has now settled near the zoo.
We sit on a bench in the gazebo and talk about animals, nature, and the possibility of life now and in the future.
Humans are not necessary for nature, but nature is necessary for humans
“Nature is currently facing a great challenge, at least its living component – the biosphere is seriously damaged. I think no one doubts that anymore. We are now witnessing the sixth, arguably the largest and fastest, mass extinction event. Multiple species are going extinct every week. This isn’t news in itself, but what is news is that the main factor is human activity,” says Aleksei, adding that one example is the destruction of tropical forests in Borneo to create oil palm plantations. “It’s an enormous island with unique forests and ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years. And it’s being destroyed at a catastrophic pace.”
Aleksei continues: “Nature will certainly manage, but what will it become? This is a significant problem and a very painful question. I have friends in Russia who can tell stories about the wildfires in Eastern Siberian forests, which made breathing difficult even in Moscow, being human-made to cover up clear-cutting traces on an area larger than half of Europe. And all of this because China was buying up loggs.”
The biosphere is finding it increasingly challenging to maintain a systematically dynamic, large-scale planetary balance as the climate warms. “This isn’t the first time, nor the thousandth time, this has happened. We know the sun has cycles of activity. There’s an 11-year and a 19-year cycle, but there are also longer cycles. The tail end of human activity – greenhouse gases, and the like – accelerates climate warming,” explains Aleksei.
Animals teach us optimization
According to Aleksei, if a hunter doesn’t have hunting restrictions, they choose their prey like a female of the species selects a sexual partner – based on the best trophies. “However, this is an absolute sin. A predator, on the other hand, approaches it as an optimization task: it spends minimal energy to catch its prey with the highest probability, a prey large enough to cover all its costs and provide the necessary surplus,” he explains and adds, “No predator works for the market. The overwhelming majority of hunters, however, work for the market. What should we learn from animals? We need to restrain ourselves.” And there’s no escape from learning restraint. “In ecology, an extremely important rule was formulated in 1913 – Shelford’s law, which states that stable and hopeful life throughout the ages belongs to populations that use resources not minimally or maximally, but optimally.”
During Stalin‘s rule in the Soviet Union, a congress law was passed to regulate the flow of the major Central Asian rivers – the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya – so that they would flow into the desert to create a flourishing garden there. “A beautiful idea, isn’t it? Geologist and geochemist Alexander Fersman, a bold man, wrote to Stalin that it shouldn’t be done. Firstly, if the flow of these rivers is regulated, both the Caspian and the Aral sea will suffer. Secondly, even worse, when all that water, which is a substantial volume, passes through those desert sands, it melts the layers of ancient ocean salts beneath hundreds of meters of sand, which then rise to the surface. And that’s exactly what happened. No blossoming garden. Nothing grew where the water was directed.”
In order to carry out all these projects, the Communist Party ordered the elimination of the Tugai forests, which are dense gallery forests growing along water bodies and inhabited by Turan tigers. “The Bukhara deer also lived in those forests, feeding on branches, keeping the forest clear. The large tiger, the forest prince, consumes about 50 deer a year, leaving the rest protected from wolves. No place where the tiger, a wise creature, resides, is frequented by wolves. When the tigers were wiped out, all the deer survived and consumed the maximum resources from the forest because there was no longer a controlling mechanism. The forest density increased, and the forests began to dry out. The deer started to migrate, searching for food elsewhere. The wolf found out that the prince was gone, and the Bukhara deer quickly ended up on the reddest page of the red book within a couple of years,” Aleksei tells and adds that fortunately, they are breeding here (at Tallinn Zoo – editor´s note) today.
Don’t be like yeast
As a species, humans emerged alongside other species. However, humans possess several unique characteristics and abilities. “Our brain, for instance, but let’s start with the fact that we walk upright. There is no other mammal like us in this regard. This ability comes with many advantages but also many demands,” explains Aleksei and continues, “Humans are characterized by exceptional sociability, assistance, and cooperation – we are utterly dependent on these. We have a unique communication system, namely language. Our vocal cords are identical to those of chimpanzees, but the positioning is different. Chimpanzees have them located below the hyoid bone, which means they can vocalize only while inhaling.
Bipedalism, or walking upright, literally gives humans free hands. And this had a tremendous impact – it enabled progressive development, culture, and civilization. Culture is essentially a system of prohibitions, while civilization is a system of skills. As a human, I know where to get a spoon so I don’t slurp my soup with my hands.”
Humans have the capacity to position every resource in a way that the method of use provides them with complete control. “If other organisms had such abilities, the outcome wouldn’t be much different. For example, if chimpanzees were left alone and not consumed in Africa with gusto, I believe that a thousand, and perhaps even a few hundred years later, their development would be remarkable.
Then, yeasts consume all the sugar in a sugar solution and then die, drowning in their own excrement, and we call it beer. This is a system created by humans. In nature, there are tens of thousands of fungi, some of which utilize cellulose, real sugars, but they manage it because they have control. We are rapidly “liberating” our environment from these natural controlling factors, monetizing everything that technology and marketing can convert into goods. Unregulated market economics is exactly like the life strategy of yeasts.”
Interviewer: Kerttu Kongas