Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Seeking the Sacred Raven

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Conservation is all about saving endangered species, right? Well, not always. In this book, Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawai’ian Island by Mark Jerome Walters (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006), the author tells the heartbreaking story of how people who were fighting to save the endangered `alalâ, the Hawai’ian raven, Corvus hawaiiensis, actually hastened the bird’s extinction in the wild.

The `alalâ is the Hawai’ian name for a sacred bird; a indigenous raven that is honored by Hawai’ians as a guardian spirit that guides the soul along its way to the afterlife. As a result, the loss of this large black crowlike bird is more than simply the loss of a species; it exemplifies the loss of Hawai’ian cultural identity itself. As with most Hawai’ian birds, this species recently became endangered.

The `alalâ’s population crash attracted the attention of many people, ranging from well-intentioned but amazingly inept bureaucrats and conservationists to local landowners, all eager to act on the bird’s behalf. What did the raven have to offer its would-be protectors? And what did the ravens’ protectors have to offer the `alalâ?

[I]t was neither a job nor just a passion. It was a life-consuming mission. But for better and for worse, each person, in his or her own heroic, misunderstood, or well-meaning way, was altering the fate of a species.

These birds are fastidious in their habitat requirements; they were once locally abundant only in the moist mountainous region of southwestern Hawaii, but introduced predators such as feral housecats and mongoose, introduced diseases such as avian malaria, and loss of habitat caused by people, feral pigs, sheep and cattle brought the birds to the brink of extinction. Additionally, captive breeding successes were sporatic at best. By the time the author arrived in the spring of 1996, only about a dozen or so of these birds remained in the wild.

The author details the constant and frustratingly bitter conflicts between the various biologists, native people, landowners, and governmental officials. He found that these people were concerned about the future of the bird, but they all cared in different ways and for different reasons, so therefore, none of them were able to be entirely objective about how to save the bird. Further, the author observes;

Above all, the endeavor to save the `alalâ seemed more about people protecting their own turf than about them preserving the birds’s.

Finally, all of the birds either died or were removed from the wild, and they remain in captivity to this very day. Unfortunately, the birds’ needs were not accurately appraised by biologists, so captive breeding attempts were basically unsuccessful, with the birds producing far fewer chicks than they should have during those several years when they produced any at all. Some of these captive-raised birds were then released, and suffered 100% mortality because they had not learned from their parents how to survive in the wild.

Even though Walters’ book details the plight of just one species, it is through telling this bird’s story that the author reveals how politically charged it can be to protect any endangered species and how scientists and activists sometimes unwittingly harm their own cause. This story also shows us how we must fight against our ignorance and our short-sighted and selfish interests to conserve nature before it is too late;

While the `alalâ have lost the experience of their forebears, one can hope that biologists and others will not forget the lessons of theirs: that the road towards extinction is paved with the best intentions.

Mark Jerome Walters was trained in veterinary medicine and journalism and is the author of several widely acclaimed books, A Shadow and a Song and Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them. He is a contributing editor of Orion magazine and has published essays in Audubon, Reader’s Digest and other magazines. Walters is currently a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of South Florida. He lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    January 9, 2007

    Sounds interesting (if depressing). It’s now on my list of books to get…

    Conservation may not be as easy as it seems though. For the Seychelles Magpie Robin, someone realised that the best way to let the population recover was to remove individuals!

    The problem was that there were a lot of ‘floaters’ in the population, who went round hassling individuals with nests, which meant that those individuals couldn’t rear their own young because they were too busy, well, being hassled.


  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    January 9, 2007

    I think the story of the Florida Panther is an instructive example where the people seeking to preserve a species come close to destroying it. The Florida Panther might end to be okay, but it wasn’t always a likely outcome.

  3. #3 coturnix
    January 9, 2007

    Great review! I am so glad you liked this book.

  4. #4 biosparite
    January 9, 2007

    I keep seeing articles in Nature and Science on what size conservation area will work in various habitats; the elimination of what trophic levels has the greatest ecological impact in an experimental area; how extensive must be a marine reserve to be effective; impacts of the edge effect under various circumstances; etc. It’s rather difficult to look at conservation globally when we are still puzzling out the rules. I would say err on the side of the living things, not on the side of thuggish economic interests.

  5. #5 David Harmon
    January 10, 2007

    I’m hearing echos of the song “Last Midnight”, from the play Into The Woods. Sometimes it’s not enough to be well-meaning, or passionate, or even smart. You also have to be right, and to get the right thing done.

  6. #6 Ed Darrell
    January 15, 2007

    Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published when I was in third grade. In Southern Idaho, there were a lot of big birds that locals knew about, but that I had never seen. The concern sparked by Carson’s book contributed to efforts to save the bald eagle, our national bird. When I studied biology, when I worked in habitat and wilderness preservation, opponents often cited the futility of trying to save any endangered species, and the bald eagle was the poster child for “failed policies.”

    Today we know species can be saved. Bald eagles are back in a big way. When we left the Washington, D.C. area in 1987, there were a tiny handful of nesting sites kept secret around the Washington area. I was disappointed that I had been unable to spot any of the birds there in about a decade of looking, sometimes looking hard. Three years ago I was at a seminar at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. One afternoon as we had refreshments on the lawn, a bald eagle lazily and majestically swooped toward us across the Potomac. When I excitedly pointed it out, one of our hosts said, “Oh, they’re there all the time. We see them every day.” It was a good sign that the hard work to save the eagle, including passage fo the Endangered Species Act, was working. It was a success!

    I mentioned the incident at a history conference here in Texas a few months ago. Afterward one participant came up to me and commented how “silly it was” that we had ever passed the Endangered Species Act, or worried about the bald eagles, since they were so numerous and now we knew it. “I’ll bet no one had ever gone looking for them before,” she said.

    It’s a nasty, brutal fight to save animals. If you win or if you lose, you have to get up tomorrow and do it again.


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