From Paradise to Disaster: The Kaibab Forest and the Unexpected Role of Wolves

   At the beginning of the 20th century, the Kaibab Forest in northern Arizona, USA, was still lush with pines and firs and full of vitality. There are about 4,000 deer in the forest, and the ferocious and cruel wolves are the deer’s biggest enemies.
   U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to effectively protect the deer in the Kaibabo Forest and breed more. He declared the Kaibab Forest a national hunting preserve and decided that the government would hire hunters to go there and eliminate wolves.
   The sound of gunfire echoed through the forest. Under the cold muzzle of the hunter, the wolf screamed one after another and died. After 25 years of hunting, thousands of wolves have been killed. Other wild beasts in the forest that prey on deer, such as leopards, are also hunted in large numbers.
   The specially protected deer have become the “darlings” of the Kaibabor Forest. In this “free kingdom”, they grow and breed freely, eat trees freely, and live a happy life without danger and with sufficient food.
   Soon, the number of deer in the forest increased to more than 100,000. More than 100,000 deer gnawed in the middle and east of the forest. When the bushes were eaten up, they gnawed on the small trees. After the small trees were eaten up, they gnawed on the bark of the big trees. All plants that could be eaten by deer were doomed. The green vegetation in the forest is decreasing day by day, and the yellow color exposed on the earth is expanding day by day.
   Disaster finally struck the deer herd. First, starvation caused a large number of deer deaths, and then disease epidemics occurred, and countless deer disappeared. Two years later, the total number of deer dropped sharply from 100,000 to 40,000. By 1942, fewer than 8,000 sick deer were left in the entire Kaibab Forest.
   Roosevelt never imagined that the wolf he ordered to kill was actually the protector of the forest! It may seem cruel for wolves to eat deer, but they maintain the stability of the deer population.
   This is because after wolves eat some deer, they can control the total number of deer in the forest within a reasonable range, and the forest will not be destroyed beyond recognition by the deer herd. At the same time, most of the deer eaten by wolves are diseased deer, effectively controlling the threat of disease to the deer herd.
   Once the number of deer that Roosevelt was determined to protect exceeds the capacity of the forest, it will destroy the stability of the forest ecosystem and bring huge ecological disasters to the forest. In other words, too many deer can be the main culprit in destroying forests.
   This seems to contradict people’s understanding of wolves and deer.
   In fairy tales, wolves almost always have the reputation of bullying the weak. For example, the story of the “Big Bad Wolf” in China and the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the West. The deer is almost always the embodiment of beauty and kindness. Wolves are ferocious, so they must be eliminated; deer are kind, so they must be protected.
   Roosevelt’s policy of protecting the deer was based on this customary view and fairy tale principle.
   This series of stories that happened in the Kaibabor Forest illustrates that on the ecological “stage”, every creature has its own role. The forest needs both deer and wolves. To judge the good and evil of nature based solely on human beings’ own one-sided understanding will sometimes make serious mistakes.

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