Type Serengeti into Google Maps. The screen immediately zooms in on a large light-green section of northern Tanzania, displaying a few man-made roads and a red border. The birds’-eye-view graphics identify the mile markers, topography, and glamping accommodations of the iconic Serengeti National Park with remarkable precision. But a crucial element is missing. In such a biologically rich place, where are all the habitats of other species?
Human explorers are doing their damnedest to expand our species’ influence to every corner of the globe, from the highest peaks to the ocean floor. As our population continues to climb, almost no earthly terrain remains untouched by human hands. We build superstructures like the Great Wall of China and the Hoover Dam—apparent triumphs of human ingenuity and superiority over the natural world. But long before humans rolled up with cement trucks, other species were already building elaborate infrastructure that put ours to shame.
Homo sapiens are only one of 1.3 million species known (to us) to exist on Earth. Many complex nonhuman animal societies are concentrated in biological hotspots like the Serengeti. Maps that feature only scattered symbols of human civilization, with the areas in between appearing as empty voids, misrepresent the world’s true diversity of life. Humans’ singular focus on our own achievements denies map readers knowledge of the habitats of other species. The first vital step toward animal protection is accurate representation.
Brief observation of animals in their natural habitat shows that architecture is not a trade exclusive to humans. Weaver birds in southern Africa construct nests large enough to house 400 individuals, and design them to survive for over 100 years. Alberta, Canada, is home to a beaver dam that stretches more than 2,500 feet across, twice the length of the Hoover Dam. Generations of deer, bears, wolves, and other creatures have created their own versions of freeways to procure food, visit friends and relatives, and find their ways home. Despite animals’ impressive and undeniable impact on the natural landscape, the vast majority of world maps contain almost no historical record of their existence. Humans behave as if we are a self-reliant species, rather than one of many lifeforms, all of whom rely on the same fragile ecosystem to survive.
Critics may say that it is unreasonable to expect maps to reflect the communities or achievements of nonhumans. Maps are made by humans, for humans. When beavers start Googling directions to a neighbor’s dam, then their homes can be represented! For humans who use maps solely to navigate—something that nonhumans do without maps—man-made roads are indeed the only features that are relevant. Following a map that includes other information may inadvertently lead a human onto a trail made by and for deer.
But maps are not just tools to get from points A to B. They also relay new and learned information, document evolutionary changes, and inspire intrepid exploration. We operate on the assumption that our maps accurately reflect what a visitor would find if they traveled to a particular area. Maps have immense potential to illustrate the world around us, identifying all the important features of a given region. By that definition, the current maps that most humans use fall well short of being complete. Our definition of what is “important” is incredibly narrow.
Mapped images of the ongoing bushfires in Australia and last summer’s wildfires in the Amazon rainforest spread like, well, wildfire across the internet. News readers seeing many red dots and cartoon flames on maps of Australia and Brazil are horrified at the scale of devastation. Compassionate people justifiably fear for the lives of the humans living in remote towns and villages that the maps mark as being in fires’ paths. These fires also destroy many millions of animal communities. But since nonhuman habitats remain absent from humans’ maps, we handicap our ability to come to their defense.
Humans are not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to depict every individual creature on our maps, but surely we can display the animal habitats of which we are aware. Studies show that we have a clear but selective preference to protect species that demonstrate similar behavioral traits to our own; illustrating the depths of animals’ societies on our maps may inspire us to fight harder to protect their lives and habitats.
Whenever Homo sapiens have arrived in a new place, other creatures who previously roamed freely have historically become scarce or placed under human control, where their instinctual attempts to forage and build homes are tragically thwarted. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari wrote that if researchers gathered all of the large wild creatures left on Earth—“all the penguins, baboons, alligators, dolphins, wolves, tuna fish, lions and elephants”—they would weigh a combined total of less than 100 million tons. That’s only about one-seventh the weight of the animals currently imprisoned on human-owned farms. Humans are bulldozing our way around the globe and not keeping count of who we run over.
Maps are the perfect tool to change humans’ self-centered dynamic. They have the ability to elevate the lives and societies of other species by illustrating them equally alongside our own. Humans may be empowered to act more responsibly if the animal communities we’re wiping off the map are at least on the map in the first place. Considering that some 73 percent of Gen Zers describe themselves as animal rights activists, our human society is well-poised for a paradigm shift.
Cartographers should join forces with wildlife experts to improve our maps. Together, they can develop innovative tools that add new layers to our existing maps to more equitably reflect the existence of our fellow earthlings. Researchers have for years been documenting the routes and achievements of other species through nondisruptive observation, sometimes in awe-inspiring detail, but animals’ communities have yet to appear alongside our own on the map. Breaking down that barrier and using our maps to identify and represent all creatures’ habitats is a logical and necessary step toward humans becoming a more compassionate species.
Imagine typing Serengeti or Australia into Google Maps and seeing vibrantly illustrated webs of well-documented animal migration patterns and recognized wildlife habitats alongside human-built infrastructure. Such maps would paint much richer and more complete pictures of what potential visitors could expect to find: complex and biodiverse ecosystems where humans and nonhumans strive to coexist.
Author and naturalist Henry Beston famously wrote that animals “are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth.” Humans designing maps to focus only on man-made nations, cities, roads, and homes effectively put non-humans out of sight and mind, making the world’s many creatures ineligible for protection and erased from history. We humans have an opportunity to correct these egregious and life-threatening oversights, starting with our maps.
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