Nature’s Force Awakens: Star Wars characters in the wild

Bison in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Credit: Robert B. Green
© Bison in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Credit: Robert B. Green

We don’t have to travel to a galaxy far, far away to see the creatures of the Star Wars universe - they are all around us here on Planet Earth.

By Sara Mortensen, Digital Content Marketing Specialist, The Nature Conservancy

When I first began working at The Nature Conservancy, I never thought I would be writing about Star Wars.

The original Star Wars trilogy made up the majority of only a handful of movies my family had when I was a child. My impressionable young mind instantly fell in love with all of the characters, but the humans took second place to the creatures that inhabited its fantastical world.

When I got an email from my coworkers saying they wanted to collaborate on a story in anticipation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I could tell the Force was strong with this one. Whether it was the awakening of my inner child or jitters from the entire pot of coffee I had just consumed I could not tell, but I discovered as we brainstormed ideas that we don’t have to travel to a galaxy far, far away to see the creatures of the Star Wars universe. Their inspiration is all around us!

Take, for example, the American Bison — one of the most iconic North American mammals. I recall watching them from the window of my dad’s old Bronco when we would embark on road trips across the northwest and I could have sworn I was instead looking at a gathering of Wookies. I wouldn’t have known it then, but these magnificent beasts were once hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Only now are they making their return to the prairie.

In fact, when the Conservancy assisted in the return of bison at the Nachusa Preserve in Illinois, it impelled the first appearance of bison east of the Mississippi River in nearly 200 years! Now bison live to capture the imagination of future generations, including children who have yet to see the resemblance of Chewbacca in their wooly manes.

A Kermode bear or © A Kermode bear or "spirit bear" on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest of Canada. The 21-million-acre Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. Credit: Jon McCormack

And who else could be more beloved by a nerdy young girl than the Ewoks? Cute and fuzzy, charismatic and silly, it is no surprise that I took to them as quickly as I did. Their resemblance to bears I had seen in our national parks and preserves truly brought them to life, particularly the Kermode Spirit Bear that dwells in the Great Bear Rainforest, similar to what we may find on the planet of Endor.

The Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia is a vital cultural and economic resource in which the Conservancy is working to successfully implement ecosystem-based management. Through this approach, we can meet the needs of the natural system as well as the people, plants and animals depend on it for survival.

A peninsular bighorn sheep grazing on sagebrush and other woody plants in the California desert. Credit: Robb Hannawacker© A peninsular bighorn sheep grazing on sagebrush and other woody plants in the California desert. Credit: Robb Hannawacker

Though I had never seen bighorn sheep up close, I often admired the beauty of their bold, curving horns and sandy coat from photos I had seen in nature magazines. When I first saw the banthas in Episode IV: A New Hope, it was obvious that these magnificent creatures were George Lucas’s inspiration.

Although we won’t see any bighorn sheep traveling with any Tusken Raiders, they can be found across much of the western U.S. And while the unsavory characters in Tatooine and Mos Eisley are not threatening their existence, the Conservancy is working to protect the habitat of bighorn sheep by reducing the impact of climate change and site development.

Luckily, we already have heroes protecting the people and creatures of Star Wars from destruction, and we don’t need to wield a light-saber or be trained in the ways of the Force to protect our own planet. Change starts with us and, together, we can save these creatures from falling to the Dark Side. Even small steps to help the planet, like biking instead of driving to work, unplugging your appliances when they aren’t in use, or composting your food scraps, make a big difference.

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Evolution | Movies | Nature

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