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.