Why are some animals rare, and why is this very important?

A friend of mine told me this story: As a special forces soldier, a Green Beret, he was alone and traveling through a dense area of jungle in or near Viet Nam during the 1960s. Enemy soldiers were nearby and he intended to pass through their patrol area to arrive at some safe destination, but he fully expected to run into a trip wire, a sentry, or a squadron of hostiles. His rifle was loaded and ready to fire at any moment.

Suddenly, a figure loomed in front of him. Without waiting for even a fraction of a second, he fired on it with lethal effect. The figure fell to the floor of the jungle. He claims it was an Orang-utan. He tells few people this story because he felt very bad about killing an innocent creature, and because he does not want to be thought of as crazy. You see, there are no Orangs in or near Viet Nam. What we know of the biology of Pongo pigmaeus tells us that they probably did inhabit the region in the past, but were presumably wiped out long ago. Certainly, they were there in the Pleistocene or later, as there is fossil evidence of this (though they were probably a different species or subspecies of the living Orangs). Indeed, the region has a very interesting “cryptozoology” claiming (as such things usually do) that either an Orang-like ape lives there now, lived there recently, or lived there a long time ago but manages to remain “alive” in folklore. (See Darren Naish’s blog post for related information.) As a person, I trust my friend as an honest and observant individual. As a scientist I have no ‘faith’ in that particular observation. But still … there is an argument that in war torn regions, or in places where certain animals are regularly hunted, they can become very very scarce. Post-war Viet Nam has had its share of creatures being “discovered” much to everyone’s surprise. (But no Orangs!)

Here’s another story. I know an area of the Congo very well. In fact, at one point I knew the landscape and wildlife there better than anyone around, including the locals, because there really weren’t any locals. This region had a healthy elephant population back in the 1950s. A colleague of mine who worked there then has photographs of a herd of elephants dismantling his base camp. They removed and partially ate the grass roof of a building used to store food, then they ate the food (mainly plantains and roots) that was stored therein. But when I worked there it was well known by the local conservation officers and others that the elephants had been shot out soon after independence in the 1960s and that they had not returned.

But, as I say, I knew this landscape well. One of the things I was doing was finding and mapping animal movements as indicated by their spoor, including animal use of “trails” that would form after habitual reuse. I had done this elsewhere, including in areas where elephants were common, and I was well aware of what both elephant spoor and elephant “trails” (which are actually quite rare but fairly distinctive) looked like. I located a set of likely elephant trails that were out of use, presumably left-overs form bygone days when elephants habitually crossed a river in that area. The trails by which they gained the plateau next to the river were distinct, but grown over and not even used by the local hippos. There were even large tree branches and trunks fallen across the trails.

Then one day conditions changed. With the change in seasons and time of year, several dozen scientists and their locally hired helpers left the area at the end of a major expedition. Over the next few weeks, the behavior of many of the animals changed. With only five of us left in a remote camp (we intended to spend a couple more months there) animals that had been scarce in our immediate environs became more common. It actually became quite dangerous. Going to our widely spaced (for privacy) tents from the common area where we cooked and ate our food, after dark, involved a high probability of running into a dangerous creature such as a buffalo, a hippo, or a lion. After a few close calls, we took to driving the hundred meters or so from kitchen to tent, one person dropping off the others along the way. Fear induced car pooling.

After a few weeks I returned to the area where the old elephant trails were located. The trail was trampled down and there were many signs of damage to the vegetation in the area. The large branches were pushed aside. Large prints led form the trail inland a few hundred meters, where a group of fruiting trees were ripped up, much of the fruit harvested. Elephant dung lay around the area. The signs that a small herd of elephants had emerged from the river to feed on these trees were unmistakable. Across the river was an area of park that was not used by anyone and not accessible by vehicle. The only way to get in there was to climb through an impenetrable forest from a height hundreds of feet above the river valley, or to cross the river on a boat such as our Zodiac (as we had done a few times in our research). Apparently, elephants were living over there, undetected, and under conditions of significantly reduced human activity had crossed the river one night to have a snack.

Later, I observed the same thing again; I can’t say how often the elephants visited our side of the river, but the spoor accumulated indicating that they had made at least a few forays. It turns out that elephants were living on a landscape where even the local conservation officers were certain they did not exist.

Since then, the area has been ravaged by war and most of the large game has been harvested by marauding armies and poachers. Just so you know.

As a person who has spent a lot of time sitting quietly by myself in the middle of a remote forest or other wild land, I can tell you more, but I won’t. You get the point. I will tell you, though, that I never saw a Bigfoot or any sign of one!

These stories relate to one of the topics covered in a book that is coming out in a few weeks: The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein. Dinerstein is the Vice President of Conservation Science at World Wildlife Fund. As a scientist and conservationist, he’s done work with numerous threatened animals and even some plants, around the world. You might know of his book (about rhino rescue and conservation) “Return of the Unicorns.”

This latest book, The Kingdom of Rarities (officially released next month but I think available now) is a collection of essays surrounding the question of commonness vs. rarity among animals. He talks about what makes some species rare, including biological reasons inherent to the species, its ecology, or biology, as well as because of human effects. He addresses a question of interest to palaeontologists: What is the link between rarity and habitat? And, he discusses at length the potentials and problems in conservation of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

The book is set up as a story, or a set of stories, and qualifies as “adventure non-fiction” but with a lot of science. Rarity is a trait of certain taxa, worthy of scientific study. That rarity is a feature of some creatures has huge implications for conservation biology. He address this issue at length.

This is an excellent example of story telling, nature writing, and science. I think I know who I’m going to give this to for Christmas.


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Similar problems drastically reduced animal diversity in northern Thailand during the 60s. Soldiers of both sides had rice and shot a lot of animals as food. A retired zoologist who grew up in this area recalls all the animals of his childhood that now are missing, completely. And here in the USA morons with rifles shoot every wolf that wanders across some arbitrary line on a map. Cougars are now once again in the upper midwest; it's only a matter of time before some yahoo shoots one.

By The Phytophactor (not verified) on 12 Dec 2012 #permalink

Phytophactor -- already happened. A cougar was shot and killed in Bloomington, Minnesota a few years ago. Memorable to me, because I lived just a few blocks away from where it happened. (I have moved since, as my growing family required a larger home.) As I was driving home from work, I passed evidence of some sort of police action, but it looked like all the excitement was over. Next day on the news, I learned the details -- a cougar was in someone's backyard, having come up from the Minnesota River valley via Nine Mile Creek. It's a nice strip of parkland connected to state and national wildlife refuge area. An officer was called by a resident concerned about the big cat, and the officer ended up shooting and killing the animal, which turned out to be a female. (Not lactating, so at least there weren't any abandoned cubs to worry about.) Not sure that quite qualifies as being shot by some yahoo; police officers are generally obligated to put civilians ahead of animals.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 12 Dec 2012 #permalink

I would have been peeking out of my window at it, thinking it was amazing to be able to spot one of these elusive creatures in my yard, and wait for it to leave on its own. :(

Give my regards to the Douglas-Hamiltons !