The empty forest where 100+ bird species are feared extinct

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In the latest study to report rapid loss of wildlife, researchers estimate that 106 bird species have disappeared from an area of forest in Mengsong, in China’s Yunnan province.

The air there should be full of bird song: Yunnan lies in the zone where the tropics and subtropics meet and is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet.

There’s plenty of high quality habitat too. Amid Mengsong’s villages and paddy fields and plantations of tea and rubber, about 50,000 hectares of natural forest stand tall. Nearly three-quarters of this is protected in a nature reserve, created in 2009. The amount of forest cover has been stable since 1988. If anything, it has increased.

But when biologist Rhett Harrison* and colleagues spent two years looking for the birds in and around the nature reserve, they failed to find more than 40 percent of the species that should be there.

Their study, published this month in the journal PLoS One, rules out disease, habitat loss, predation and climate change as likely culprits. Instead it blames hunting for most of the losses.

Hunting pressure in Mengsong is extremely high, despite the fact that gun ownership has been illegal in China since 1996. In fact, the researchers spotted 59 hunters in just 107.5 hours of looking out for them. They write:

“In addition to people with guns, we frequently encountered hunters employing nets and snares. The use of nets, in particular, indicates that hunters are actively harvesting even the smallest birds, which they barbeque on skewers.”

In 2012, Harrison recorded a similarly rapid loss of wildlife from a forest in Malaysia. He told me he thinks the situation in Mengsong is typical of that “over all of South China and large parts of tropical South-East Asia.”

This raises questions about the value of creating more protected areas if they are not in fact protected at all. In 2010, China, along with nearly every other country, agreed a global conservation target, which said protected areas should be expanded to cover 17% of the planet’s terrestrial area by 2020, and that these areas should be effectively and equitably managed.

“Everyone is focusing on the former part but very few on the latter,” says Harrison. “People need to recognise that there may be a compromise in countries that are already struggling to deliver management of their existing reserves.”

Harrison and colleagues are keen to point out that they do not blame the authorities responsible for Mengsong’s nature reserve, as most of the local bird extinctions happened before it was created.

Nonetheless, what they show is that yet another protected forest is falling quiet with the silence of extinction. When the birds go, it is more than just their songs and calls we lose. The challenge is for us to decide how much loss is acceptable and what we want the word forest to mean.

Related posts:

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

Photo credits: Wikipedia/Creative Commons (From top left to right: Black-naped Oriole – J.M. Garg; White-crested laughingthrush – Dibyendu Ash; Rufous-necked hornbill – Ujjal Ghosh; Great hornbill – Kalyanvarma). Each of these species is among those the researchers believe to be locally extinct in their study area.

* Disclosure: Rhett Harrison is a friend and former colleague. He is based at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Agroforestry Centre, East Asia Node.

Reference: Rachakonda Sreekar, R., Zhang, K., Xu, J. & Harrison, R.D. 2015. Yet Another Empty Forest: Considering the conservation value of a recently established tropical nature reserve. PLoS One. Published: February 10, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117920

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

dodoinstagrambannerThey are all now dead and can never be replaced but at least they got names. Martha, Benjamin and Incas… Booming Ben and Lonesome George. They were endlings, each one the last known member of its species. Their names remind us that we have epic tales to tell of the decline and fall of entire species.

Martha and Incas were the first to fly into my life. It was 1997 and I described and drew them both in a leaflet about extinct birds I produced for a small bird garden in the north of England. Martha’s story is best known. She was the last Passenger Pigeon, a species we reduced in number from billions to zero in just over a hundred years. She died on 1 September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo but her body resides still in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Journalist Eric Freedman visited her there for his 2011 article Extinction is Forever. He wrote:

“Martha arrived at the Smithsonian encased in a block of ice for scientific study. There she was mounted and placed on a small branch now fastened to a block of Styrofoam. The Smithsonian custodians paired her with a male passenger pigeon that died in 1873 in Minnesota. They had no connection with each other during life and were mated only for public display, which hadn’t happened for a long time. Nowadays, Martha and her anonymous pseudo-mate spend virtually all their time in a nondescript locker next to one containing birds Theodore Roosevelt had shot, collected, and studied as a boy. Martha’s organs are preserved separately in fluid. I didn’t ask to see them.”

Freedman chose to see Martha’s body rather than visit her death-place in Cincinnati Zoo, but had he gone there he could have killed two birds with one stone. That’s because on 21 February 1918 — four years after Martha died and in the very same cage — Incas expired. He was the last Carolina Parakeet. Another species had gone extinct. Other endlings include the last known Heath Hen. It acquired the name Booming Ben because it spent years calling out in vain for a partner. More recently we lost Lonesome George, a giant tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galápagos archipelago — and, again, the last of his kind.

Freedman has tracked down other endlings over the years. He saw the stuffed body of what its Uzbek owners claim is the last Caspian Tiger. He visited the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania where Benjamin, the last Thylacine — seen in the video above — died in 1933. Freedman explains:

“To some people, these journeys of mine could seem macabre, a weird fascination with avoidable-turned-inevitable large-scale deaths. But, like a cemetery visit to read ancient headstones, there are lessons to be found in these markers to the dead. So I undertake my endling pilgrimages hoping the visits will make the reality of extinction tangible.”

Named endlings are rare. In most species that we have extinguished, the last member was gone before we even noticed. Take the dodo — Raphus cucullatus, among the most famous of all the species we have driven extinct. Here’s one I drew in 1997, a little over 300 years after the last one died.

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And here’s how David Quammen imagined that last dodo’s last stand in his brilliant book The Song of the Dodo:

“Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.”

“Endling,” wrote science writer Lucas Brouwers last week on Twitter. “A fine, sad word.” He’s right. Sad it may be, but fine it is too. The endlings are creatures upon whose shrugging shoulders we have thrust a kind of nobility. In naming them and in telling their stories, we have made them ambassadors of not only their own species but of all species whose numbers we deplete to the edge of existence and beyond.

Freedman says that when he considers the stories of the endlings, the “abstract becomes personal and allows me to see that these animals’ fates were not inevitable. Their endings had human authorship.” That’s it. We are writing the stories of so many other species. And while stories with endlings don’t have happy endings, they are important tales to tell. They make real our impacts on nature. They remind us that nothing is forever, that one day in some far future there will be a human endling too. What we don’t know yet is how the fate of other species will affect the date of our own departure. There’s a story there to tell.

[Update: 9 May 2013 — Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment and Development) Magazine in Lebanon has published this Arabic version [PDF] of this article]

Who eats figs? Everybody

“The proper way to eat a fig, in society,” wrote DH Lawrence, “is to split it in four, holding it by the stump, and open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower. … But the vulgar way, is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.”

I’m a vulgar fig-eater. Few things give me more pleasure than when I bite into a ripe one and eat it up. With the right fig, the flavours can be so intense, so rich that it seems clear to me that no other fruit can compare. But the figs I eat are of just one of nearly a thousand fig species, and what eats the others is really interesting.

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The mystery bird that called for a dictionary of vanishing voices

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In the summer of 1897 the call of a mysterious bird sparked a brief but thorough quest whose hand-sized outcome is a curious testament to the speed of change in our world.

A retired engineer called Charles Louis Hett heard the bird near his home in Brigg, a small town in Lincolnshire in the north of England. Certain he had seen the bird’s call described in print a few days earlier, Hett scoured his books — but he couldn’t find the paragraph so he couldn’t identify the bird.

What followed was a six-month burst of research and writing. Hett scavenged scraps of information from books. He corresponded with strangers around the country. He walked in the wilds with his ear to the sky. His aim was to build consensus around a definitive descriptive list of the calls of nearly 400 bird species. By January 1898 his small ‘bird dictionary’ was on sale.

A few years ago my mum found a copy of it in a second-hand bookshop and gave it to me. It still amazes me as I hold it in my hands. Among the calls Hett listed are the Red-throated Diver’s “ak-ak-kakara-kakera“, the Whimbrel’s “tetty-tetty-tet” and the “tst-tst-tsook-tsook” of the Red-backed Shrike. Just like the French-English/English-French dictionaries I remember from secondary school, Hett’s book first lists the hundreds of calls and the birds that make them, and then lists the bird species and the calls that each makes.

But it is what comes next that interests me most —  a list of 1,300 local and old-fashioned names for British birds*. There you can find the Stanepecker (for Turnstone) and the Scawrie (for Herring Gull), the Rusty Crackle (for Blackbird) and the Teapot (for Goldcrest) — each one is a name that is rarely, if ever, uttered today.

It’s hard to imagine how Hett managed to compile so much information in just six months, working from a tiny town about 100 years before the Internet entered public life. What’s more striking is that an effort to replicate Hett’s mission today would likely fail. Many of the names will have slipped out of use. Gone extinct.

Many of the birds have gone too. The new State of British Birds report [PDF] shows that populations of many British birds are in steep decline. In the past three decades alone, several species have declined by more than 80 percent. Extinction beckons. “Since 1966, we’ve lost 44 million individual birds from our countryside at an average rate of 19 birds every 10 minutes,” says a joint statement from the organisations behind the report.

We don’t know what populations were like when Hett heard his mystery bird but we do know that modern threats — pesticides, habitat loss, climatic change —  had yet to make themselves known.  The only danger that Hett himself noted was from people who killed birds so they could identify the corpse — something that helped motivate him to publish his dictionary. “The destruction of an uncommon bird for the purpose of identification, is a barbarism,” wrote Hett, who hoped his book might prove an “aid to identification without slaughter.”

It is easy to dismiss Hett’s world as a long-forgotten yesterday. But, given that the oldest person alive today was born some months before Hett heard his mystery bird, the dictionary shows just how much the world can change in a lifetime. And it seems likely that some of the species Hett listed will have fallen forever silent — in Britain at least — by the time I pass my copy of his book on to my own child.

*[By 1902 Hett had published an updated list [PDF] that more than doubled the number of synonyms to nearly 3,000 names — an average of more than seven for each real species.]