Sunday, November 30, 2003

The news giveth and the news taketh away

A small songbird believed to have become extinct more than a century ago has been found alive and well in Fiji.

A team from BirdLife International discovered the bird, the long-legged warbler, after hearing its distinctive and haunting call in a mountain valley.

BirdLife says the 12 pairs of warblers it has seen are safe for the moment in their remote home in the dense forest. ...

Only four specimens were collected, between 1890 and 1894, since when there had been no confirmed sightings of the bird. Despite unconfirmed sightings within the last 20 years, BirdLife believed the warbler was extinct.

But a year into a survey of Fiji's rare birds, funded by the UK's Darwin Initiative, it turned up again on Viti Levu, the largest island in the group.
However, the article also notes that mongooses, which were introduced to the islands to control rats, "have caused the extinction of all of the ground-nesting birds on the main Fijian islands."

The fourth Doctor called humans "quite my favorite species." (Bonus points for knowing what I'm talking about.) But it does seem sometimes that we screw up whatever we touch. For example the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) has 12,259 varieties of animal, plant and water life on its "Red List" of critically-endangered species. The list ranges from Colombian spider monkeys to 21 species of albatross, dozens of types of shark, and an astonishing variety of flora.
And, according to the inter-governmental organization which works with civil society groups and scientists around the globe, it is largely the fault of humans.

"Places such as the Galapagos, Hawaii and the Seychelles are famed for their beauty, their diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems," said IUCN Director General Achim Steiner, introducing the 2003 list.

"But the Red List tells us that human activities are leading to a swathe of extinctions that could make these islands ecologically and aesthetically barren."

The IUCN said studies show that Indonesia, Brazil, China and Peru have the highest number of endangered birds and mammals while plants are most under threat in Ecuador, Malaysia and Sri Lanka as well as in Indonesia and Brazil.

All are countries where industrialization, forest clearance and tourism have developed rapidly in recent decades. ...

There was a similar picture on the islands of Hawaii where there has been rapid housing development, hotel construction and intensive farming. "The future for Hawaiian flora looks grim," the IUCN said.

The spider monkey in Colombia and Venezuela, and its black howler cousin in Mexico, have been driven into smaller and smaller areas by urban growth, agriculture and cattle ranching.

And the population of the Giant Catfish of Southeast Asia's Mekong River, which grows up to 10 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds, has dropped by 80 percent since 1990 from over-fishing and blocking of its migratory routes by dams.
It's sometimes a hard call between human needs and preservation of species - but frankly, most of the time it's not. Most of the time the destruction of habitat, the loss of diversity, the increasing risk of unforeseen ecological consequences, arise because alternatives are either ignored out of habit or laziness or regarded as "too expensive" - which usually translates to "somebody's making beaucoup bucks doing it this way." Even so, the IUCN tried to preserve some hope that we would not continue to be so blind to the effects of what we do:
"By working together, we can help conserve what remains of the earth's biodiversity," said Red List compiler Craig Hilton-Taylor.
Perhaps. Perhaps. But I admit I do wonder if such cooperation is something of which we're capable.

Footnote:I was originally alerted to the article about the IUCN report by an item on the MuseNews-Science group on Yahoo! It's worth a look for science buffs, particularly if you're connected to a science museum or interested in working in the field.

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