Category Archives: Endangered Species

Review of the Sixth Extinction, Part 2

And I’m back with a second part to my thoughts on the Sixth Extinction, because the book has just stuck in my craw. I’m still mulling it over.

Extinctions seem to be quiet. Most go unnoticed. The end might be violent (see:  great auk) or unassuming in the wild (see:  baiji freshwater dolphin) but it is the most grievous sort of death. Humans take some comfort that they have passed something on to future generations of their ilk when they die; no such succor can be had for extinct species.

According to Dr. Anthony Barnosky, about 900 species’ extinction can be directly attributed to human cases over the last century, and around 20,000 species now are known to be at risk. The even more terrible news is that humans have killed off half of all wildlife in the last 40 years. (HHMI, 2015)

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Biodiversity in the Age of Humans, HHMI 2015.

We don’t even seem to be aware of the magnitude our actions can have–seven billion is a jumbo number to try to visualize and connect down to my own measly life.

And yet, even at much lower numbers, we have been having an outsize impact for thousands of years.

As Kolbert incisively noted:  “When Alroy [a paleobiologist] ran the [extinction] simulations for North America, he found that even a very small initial population of humans—a hundred or so individuals—could, of the course of a millennium or two, multiply sufficiently to account for pretty much all of the extinctions in the [fossil] record…if every band of ten hunters killed off just one diprotodon a year, within about seven hundred years, every diprotodon [large marsupial] within several hundred miles would have been gone…From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all…For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible…Alroy described it as ‘geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.’ ” (233-234)

We can perceive what we are currently unleashing, so at least we aren’t in the dark anymore. While there are a lot of players involved in the extinction game, spread all over the world, there are definitely things that can be done in our backyards.

And, for me, that’s the challenge–to not let this be such a hulking, intimidating beast of a task that I don’t even try beyond the shallowest of actions. Those actions matter, but they are not nearly enough. I will be working through different steps I can take locally to shore up all wildlife–because even species that are common are likely struggling.

Review of The Sixth Extinction

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This cliche that came to mind while reading that the Javan rhino, once widespread in Southeast Asia, is down to “less than fifty individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve” (Kolbert 2014, p. 222). The colossal creatures remaining here are in trouble–bears, big cats, elephants, rhinos. I had the privilege of hearing forest elephants once while trekking in the rainforest, which the book also notes have lost an estimated 60% of their population. Pick a large species, and it is likely doing poorly.

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H. Slegel, engraving of Javan rhinoceros, 1872.

This is scary. Species are losing resiliency, hammered by threats on all sides. You can’t save a population that is in a single reserve; one or two random events and they could be wiped out. Or they could just fade away, with no new migrants from other areas coming in. This cascade of extinctions has been going on since humans began pulsing out of Eastern Africa. To put geologic terms in perspective, it’s like blinking and seeing that someone took half of the stuff in your house while also finding that the house is tilting and much of the remaining stuff is crashing down.

The unflinching The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminded me of a college lecture. The anthropology professor was delineating what made humans unique among animals:  Language–he said that other animals communicate and can learn new words; Tools–other animals (crows, chimps at least) use them; Fire–use of fire and the ability to cook food was the distinguishing feature.

There is another distinguishing feature of humans–willful destruction. We knowingly destroy habitats, which means that animals starve to death, die from disease, or are forced to perish while migrating across hostile terrain. We knowingly “salt, pluck, and deep fry [the great auks] into oblivion”(62), “cut into and cut off” wild places (172), and create conditions for a “steady degradation in diversity over time” (179).

There might even be enough of a lag that it will take a while to see the true extinction debt, which is difference between the number of species doomed by an environmental change and the number that have actually vanished. How likely are Kirtland’s warbler, the whooping crane, the Devil’s pupfish, the Florida panther, and even the little brown bat to make a self-sustaining comeback?

The truly terrifying extension of this argument is: If the last mass extinction was 65 million years ago, and there have been 5 major ones over the last 500 million years, we are ahead of the average by about 45 million years. What happens if we wipe out all of this intricate, marvelous, irreplaceable and then there’s another shock to the system? Can we really rule out making this planet uninhabitable?

Kolbert pulls no punches:  “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (p.235) and “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (266)

The next question is what to do about it, which the book doesn’t really address. On the other hand, I prefer that to anodyne statements about recycling and reducing waste. Those things are easy; my guess is that the real change will come with things that are difficult.

A Selection of Quotations by E.O. Wilson

I know I’m late to the party. I plan on making up for years of not reading these works immediately.

Some of the many spot-on quotations from E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life (2010):

Extinction:

“[Hawaiian] honeycreepers disappeared as vanished species usually do, not in a dramatic catacylsm but unnoticed” (97)

“The committment must be much deeper–to let no species knowingly die, to take all reasonable action to protect every species and race in perpetuity…Insofar as biodiversity is deemed an irreplaceable public resource, its protection should be bound into legal canon.” (342)

“What is urgently needed is knowledge and a practical ethic based on a time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply.” (312)

“By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment.” (182)

Insects

“So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity could probably not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash into extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The land surface would literally rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them all but a few remnants of the land vertebrates.” (133)

Valuing Ecosystems

“Each ecosystem has intrinsic value. Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place.” (158)

“Beyond commodity value, economists fall short.” (305)

“If a price can be put on something, that something can be devalued, sold, and discarded.” (348)

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Dead horseshoe crabs. Photo by author, 2016.

Thoughts on the Messenger, Part 2

There was a tie for runner-up in the most heartbreaking moments of the documentary The Messenger.

Candidate 1:  Hundreds of birds killed by window collisions, from tiny hummingbirds to large blue jays to an incongruous duck, carefully laid out on a white background while a crowd of onlookers gathered.

Millions (nearly a billion according to the Audubon Society) of birds die each year due to collisions with building, and yet, exemplifying a general disregard for creatures that aren’t connected to profit, the Minnesota Vikings refused to spend $1.1 million dollars to make the stadium glass so that thousands of birds won’t smash themselves to death on the glass. Guess it wasn’t enough for the city and state to cover half of the funding for the 1 billion dollar stadium, they should have covered half of it + 1.1 million dollars. Then maybe the Vikings would have found it affordable.

I’m just spitballing here, given that the team’s net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion (Forbes Sept. 2015), and that their revenue was $281 million (Ibid) for one season, and their gate receipts were $47 million for eight home games (Ibid), they could probably have paid for it with the concessions sales from the first half of opening day. Or that the owner, worth about 1.3 billion, could have just made a rounding error in his fraud settlement of $84.5 million dollars to his business partners.

That was a rabbit hole I hadn’t intended to stumble into when I began this post…

Candidate 2:  An ortolan bunting frantically flapping around its breadbox-size prison, while the hunter tells the camera that, “You would have to put me in prison to stop me from hunting.”

“Tradition is not something that must be preserved at any cost,” said one of the documentary activists fighting against the evisceration of the ortolan bunting population. We have to shake off harmful traditions that assumed Man had dominion over beasts, that human appetites should have no bounds beyond our imagination, that money is king, and that ecosystems exist for our benefit alone.

We must make ourselves worthy of the beauty before we have erased it.

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Photo by author, Montreal Botanic Gardens, 2013. Sculpture was of vanishing birds. 

Pondering conservation

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Photo Credit:  Author,  Belize, 2012

Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” ~E.O.Wilson

I agree with the sentiment, and yet believe that I would likely burn the painting if I was hungry enough. Conservation has to offer solutions that take into account the reality of poverty while also combating the reality of over-consumption and unsustainable, unethical supply chains.

Conservation is often viewed as punitive, but it lends itself to adding value. I would argue that when you broaden the time frame and enlarge the scale, it is inherently additive to humans. For example, it will certainly benefit all humans writ large to have functioning, large-scale rainforests in the tropics. Beauty and ideals aside, there is a quantifiable benefit of a rainforest in terms of carbon storage, erosion control, and many other ecosystem services.

The movie Racing Extinction explores ways to make conservation lift communities up, and the Cheetah Conservation Fund engages in community-based conservation practices that improve both human life and wildlife.


 

Today I was having a conversation with a professional who works in the environmental fields. When I explained my interest in the work, I noted that when I pay attention to the issues, I am terrified.

Her reply:  You should be terrified.

Yet I also find many reasons for hope when I pay attention and when I engage.

In the words of Dr. Stuart Pimm (quoted in the above Racing Extinction link), “…the variety of life on Earth is beautiful. And we can actually do something about saving it.”

In the process, we would save ourselves.

Film Review: Racing Extinction

“Better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” (Unknown)

I’m not a big crier, but I will shed a tear or two during heart-tugging films. However, about halfway through this film, I was awash in tears. The deluge went on for an embarrassing length of time. I’m haunted most by the de-finned, dying, tiny shark, (but also by the last male of an avian species calling out for his vanished mate), but it is vital to look hard at the harm we are causing, so that we have a visceral idea of the cost.

The sheer level of carnage that the movie depicts only scratches the surface, but it is horrifying. Words can’t convey it; at least not mine. It has to be seen.

I’m guilty of inaction on many fronts where I know that action is necessary, critical, and–most importantly–urgent. I definitely have cursed the darkness around environmental damage and degradation when I should have been lighting candles. I remember when the Baiji River Dolphin went extinct, and the fury and the helplessness that I felt, and how I just filed that feeling away under the groaning “Humans Suck” index rather than taking action. I donated some money to charities, and did the token green things that are expected to feel like a good global citizen. But I know I can do better.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, Racing Extinction makes abundantly clear. We must act now. I will act more forcefully, more purposefully starting now.

NY Times ‘Racing Extinction’ Review

Review of Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Part Two)

This book asks uncomfortable, troubling questions. It made me wonder, when is it worth saving a species from the gaping maw of extinction? What is the actual goal? Is the goal just to have the species exist so that we don’t have to add another name to the long roll call of human-caused exile? Is the goal to prop them up long enough for us to figure out a way to make the populations self-sustaining again? Is the goal to restore them to a level where they can function as a key player in the ecosystem? It also strikes me that this is a very anthropocentric view, where we decide what species is important and what is not, often based on completely random (to say nothing of incomplete) criteria. Taking a species by species view seems futile in a large sense. We attempt to fix one piece in isolation of an entire structure. But people rally behind an icon, not an ecosystem.

There are monumental, cumulative forces that drive extinction. It takes heroic, relentless, painstaking acts to prevent a species slipping over into the abyss. At one point, in the 1950s, there were only twenty-one whooping cranes on Earth (Mooallem, 200). “The situation looked hopeless. The New York Times blamed the species’ looming extinction on its own ‘lack of cooperation.’ ” (Ibid) At that point, humans seemed to have little nostalgia for rare species. I am always puzzled by the fact that we idolize rare species, while resenting species that thrive in the environments we have created. It is only when a situation is bleak that we seem to get interested. Canadian geese, deer, pigeons–I find it remarkable that they have become ubiquitous (at least where I live). As Mooallem says, “It’s a thin and erratic line we draw between the wilderness that awes us and the wilderness that annoys us” (258).

Operation Migration, among others, have done extraordinary work in trying to re-establish whooping crane populations. Mooallem details their dedication and the madness to their (relative, precarious, hard-earned) success. Humans teaching birds to fly without making them tame is a remarkable feat, to state the obvious. I support the effort, because I’m a bleeding heart who thinks every individual animal values its own life as much as I value mine, and because I hate that we are tossing aside biodiversity like a cartoon character frantically pawing through a pile of garbage to find one thing worth saving. And I know we lose something irreplaceable every time we lose a species.

I’ll end with this jewel from Mooallem. (Again, read this book.)

“In the end, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of wildlife. The stories of the polar bear, the [Lange’s metalmark] butterfly, and the whooping crane, had, at times, even lowered my confidence in our ability to see the problem clearly. There’s a fluidity to nature that’s not easy to recognize or accept, and climate change will only accelerate and distort such changes. There’s also a fluidity to how we feel about nature–the way our baselines subjectively reset and will keep resetting far into the future, while, in the background, the empirical damage piles up.

These are destabilizing thoughts. I still don’t know what to do with them. But neither does anyone else, it seems, and so their weight has a way of compressing conservation down into a nearsighted exercise–one that can be pursued only by focusing on the little picture of the present and by blocking out the yawning uncertainty that the moment is adrift in.” (292)

From this video:  “But we had to try.”

About the flock in Texas

Information about Sandhill Cranes & Whooping Cranes

Operation Migration