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Hippos in Tinker Creek

Bruce Rinker
Bruce Rinker

Last week I found evidence of hippos in Tinker Creek.  As an ecologist, I wasn’t surprised.  My fellow scientists and I see their signs just about everywhere.

Though a native son of Winchester and a graduate of VA TECH, I haven’t lived in Virginia full-time since the late 1980s.  So, when one of my colleagues from North Cross School volunteered last Friday to show me a part of Tinker Creek, the famed setting for Annie Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I jumped at the chance to get into the field.  And there, from the shoreline of Tinker Creek, I spotted my first piece of hippopotamic proof.  Had Annie Dillard known about the hippos here in the Roanoke Valley?

Let’s examine the “evidence.”

Hint #1: Forests cover 65% of the Commonwealth’s land area, two-thirds of which is owned by private landowners.  Each year the state loses 68,000 acres of forested land to silvicultural management and to urban and community development: the equivalent of 1 acre every 8 minutes.1  To be sure, we re-forest some of this area; but we still experience a net annual loss in Virginia’s forest cover.  Think habitat loss.

Hint #2: Purple loosestrife, Japanese honeysuckle, Kudzu, tree-of-heaven, gypsy moths, the emerald ash borer, the Asian long-horned beetle, fire ants, rapa whelk, carp, European starlings, English house sparrow, feral house cats, and others: all non-native species costing Virginia taxpayers as much as $1 billion annually to mitigate their ravages on the natural world.  Think invasives.

Hint #3: In 2005, Roanoke County received an “F” from the American Lung Association for its “High Ozone Days” and Roanoke City received a “C” for its “Particle Pollution”.2  Further, on my daily trek to and from work, I watch as people, young and old, toss cigarette butts nonchalantly from their vehicle windows.  Our highways and riverways are littered with the discards of our self-indulgences: butts, plastic bottles, hamburger wrappers, beer cans, old tires, and such.  Think pollution.

Hint #4: The human population of Roanoke County increased 25% from 1980 to 20083 with a compounded average annual growth rate of 7.3%4.  Equidistant between Atlanta and New York City, Roanoke represents a crossroads in southwestern Virginia for industry, retail, research, and education.  More people means more tax revenues, of course; but more people also means more “toys” such as automobiles, boats, chainsaws, computers, televisions, air conditioners, refrigerators, and mountain bikes and, consequently, more demands on community infrastructure.  Think population.

Hint #5: Commercial foresters, fishermen, and hunters have not always embraced the idea of sustainable yields: striking a balance between economic benefits and the long-term protection of species or ecosystems.  Old-growth forests as well as populations of shellfish and wildlife have all suffered at times in the state’s history.  Fortunately, we have inaugurated resource management plans recently to save the day for some of these organisms and systems.  Think overexploitation.

Based on these hints, have you, too, seen hippos in Tinker Creek … or anywhere else in the Roanoke Valley?

Habitat loss.  Invasive species.  Pollution.  The population growth for humans.  Overexploitation of natural resources.  My hints lead to one unassailable conclusion: the acronym, HIPPO.  It is a monster of our own making.  It weakens and extinguishes native biodiversity.  It tears at ecological integrity.  Ultimately, it threatens our own health and well-being.  It’s all about a mammal once native to the plains of Africa, but it’s not the large herbivorous mammal with short legs, hairless body, and large head and muzzle commonly found in its rivers and lakes.  This mammal is a bipedal primate known as Homo sapiens: humans … along with all our egocentric behaviors.

Pulitzer-prize winning scientist Edward O. Wilson identifies the combined impact of these human-caused forces as the “lethal erosion of the biosphere.”5  When I moved into the Roanoke Valley this summer, I noted a sign on Interstate 81 that announced the region as a “technology corridor.”  I wonder if we might also consider it as a “biodiversity corridor,” managing it as a point of pride for the Commonwealth?  They do not have to be mutually exclusive actions.  Our portion of the Appalachian Mountains and its scenic waterways (among them the Roanoke, New, James, and Shenandoah Rivers) are the ancient homes of innumerable species of flora and fauna.  Biologists with the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, have identified 1250 kinds of vascular plants, 25 of which are rare or endangered.6  With such a designation, we would express unequivocally to interstate travelers that we take our role very seriously as stewards of our region’s natural resources.  So no hippos allowed!

By H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Science Department Chairman
North Cross School
[email protected]

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