Yesterday was May 17th. In most places in the world, that’s just another day. But in our part of the world it’s an important holiday because May 17th (syttende mai) is the Norwegian National Day. We put out the Norwegian flag on the flagpole, my girls were waving their flags, and I even baked cupcakes decorated with the red-white-and-blue of Norway. Ah, patriotism.
So it got me thinking about patriotism’s role in conservation actions. Animals can become emblematic of a nationstate, spurring desperate (and often very costly) actions to save them. The panda in China and the bald eagle in the US come immediately to mind as those kind of national mascots that gain conservation attention.
Patriotism and conservation is not a new thing. When Adolf Hoel, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, was working on bringing muskoxen to Svalbard in 1929 and then mid-Norway in 1932, nationalism was never far from his mind. He believed the importation of muskoxen would help Norway’s international reputation. Strong international critiques of Norwegian seal and whale hunting practices in East Greenland had recently been raised, particularly from Denmark which claimed the rest of Greenland. One of the major complaints was that hunters were unnecessarily slaughtering muskoxen—both leaving carcasses to rot and feeding good meat to sled dogs—and these practices were threatening the muskox with extinction on Greenland. A group of Scandinavian natural scientists requested that muskox be given international protected status in East Greenland. Hoel wanted to counter the negative view of Norway. By establishing a new population of muskox on Svalbard, Hoel believed that Norway would be re-envisioned as a conservation nation instead of a destructive one:
The issue is of national importance for us. We Norwegians are a hunting people like nowhere else on the whole Earth. We have often heard critique that we exterminate the ocean’s large mammals, whale and seal, and fur-bearing animals like polar fox and polar bear. This critique hurts us in many ways. These measures to translocate muskoxen will partially disarm that criticism; we will show with it that we don’t only slaughter, but that we too support cross-border idealistic cultural work. (‘Overføring av moskusokser til Svalbard’, 1930)
The language of Norwegian patriotism is particularly fitting in light of the publication in which Hoel’s article appeared. The journal is titled Norge: Tidsskrift om vårt land (Norway: Journal about our land) and was published by a nature protection association. The January 1930 issue with Hoel’s article was subtitled “Praktisk Patriotism” (practical patriotism). While the translocation of muskoxen to Norway might have had future practical use for meat or wool, in the short-run, it was a patriotic project.
Patriotism was also a central part of the beaver reintroduction story. Beaver-Jensen patriotically whispered in beavers’ ears as he sent them off to their new country. Eric Festin who led the Swedish reintroduction efforts in Jämtland talked about the absence of beaver in Sweden as a loss to the country: “It is my belief that it [beaver reintroduction] should be considered a national general measure to promote this project and thus make up one of the worst sins that ever happened to our Swedish fauna” (1922). Beaver reintroduction was both local and national, and certainly something to be proud of.
While so much public conservation action is promoted at global levels–you and I can contribute save the pandas and the tigers and the elephants from thousands of miles away–the national level is where much of the action happens. Nations regulate, fund, and manage conservation projects. And even when a nation doesn’t organise it directly, projects like the beaver and muskox in Scandinavia may be framed by the people involved as national efforts with patriotic significance.