Government to spend $27 million to search for a bird

Page 1 of 1 [ 6 posts ] 

mysticaria
Raven
Raven

User avatar

Joined: 15 Jul 2004
Age: 36
Gender: Female
Posts: 124
Location: British Columbia, Canada

26 Aug 2007, 3:30 pm

Government to spend $27 million to search for a bird that may not actually exist.

The Ghost of Conservation Past

By me, Youth Ape Network

(This is a general comment on the ethics of wildlife conservation, and not about primates directly, but it still applies.)

This recent article in the paper about American wildlife officials recommending that 27 million dollars should be spent searching for the "ivory billed woodpecker" bothered me.
(Quest for Lost Bird Is Worth It, Officials Say)

It's not because I don't like birds. I have a bunch of bird books, and I'm a bit nerdy so I think birdwatching and bird photography is exciting. I love birds, they are some of the most beautiful and interesting
creatures on this planet. I volunteered to care for injured wild birds. It's great that the government is willing to spend so much money on learning about a presumed extinct avian species.

What bothers me is this quote here. The deciding factor that the search for the ivory billed woodpecker is "worth it" despite the costs.

Wait a minute.

How does one decide that the knowledge and preservation of a species is "worth it"?
That is a question that is increasingly becoming important as we are faced with a variaty of different species about to become extinct. Whether we like it or not, there are some tough choices ahead of us.

An ecologist would say that every creature that exists is important because they all share a part in the complex chain of the ecosystem. Everything that exists, exists because it has evolved to be in a certain niche and interact with other organisms that are sharing that environmental niche. There are no "expendable", throwaway organisms. With every extinction there are unforeseeable changes in the system that has been working for millions of years.

However, it's not possible to save every creature from extinction. Creatures are going extinct every day. A number of them are ones that we haven't even discovered yet. The truth still is that we have to make choices about what gets to live, and what gets to die out.

Usually, people choose a side in this ethical dilemna, by leaning into three categories of "worthiness": those creatures that are unique in form and in genetic variation; those creatures that are "likeable"; and those creatures which are useful in a practical sense and can be exploited by humans. The majority of people are halfway in the camp that cares about preserving animals that are likeable, and halfway in the one that cares because they are useful. Their reasoning might be, "Well, if nobody likes THIS species very much, and it's so inconspicuous that nobody notices it, why should we waste money protecting THAT thing when THIS beautiful thing here that people do like (and could possibly make a nice hat with) needs protecting?" (Lets say its a rare colour variation of a bird that is not particularly unique genetically or morphologically, Vs. a unique insect.)

Most people choose with their "hearts", the emotional responses that are produced when viewing something cute and furry, sleek and colourful, powerful and majestic. Sociobiologists/evolutionary psychologists generally agree that we are drawn to baby animals because we are programmed to respond to their cuteness and exaggerated facial features so that they will receive more attention and better parenting. It is thought that humans are appreciative of bright colours and patterns because we evolved as fruit eating primates, and we have an instinct to seek out and admire colours that once signalled the appearance of ripe fruits. Animals such as lions and wolves are widely appreciated because they give us a sense of awe; we are both frightened of them, and attracted to their stoic powerful nature. It can be concluded that in the past it was wise of our ancestors to respectfully observe the behaviour of big predators so they could avoid becoming dinner.

All of this is guesswork of course, and there are many controversies around the validity of evolutionary psychology, but it is a reasonable way of judging human behaviour I believe, because we ARE animals despite how often its' forgotten, and we share with every other animal a long evolutionary past. I don't believe we are the "tabula rosa" without instincts. The speculation of "why" doesn't matter much anyhow,
because the truth is across all cultures that people place value and worth on certain creatures and less on others. The reasons are certainly not logical or reasonable.

A baby tiger is one that fits the three "credentials of value"; it has cute features with large eyes and big ears, colourful stripes, and is a cunning predator of humans. People also like to skin them and impress their guests by placing their fur on the floor, and cut off and dry their penises to grind up into an aphrodisiac. And it follows, that most people really like baby tigers. There are many conservation groups devoted to protecting tigers, a high percentage of animal layouts on myspace contain photos of tigers, and they are one of the top favourite animals to observe at the zoo. Even though we recognize the tiger is a vicious predator of humans if we happen to be unarmed in it's territory, we see the virtue in it's existence, and we FEEL we want to protect them.

The only type of people who take the other route to the other camp, valuing a species because it is unique and interesting, are those that study biology/ecology, or those that have an intellectual or aesthetic interest in a particular quality of the particular species in question. There are many overlooked species that are dizzyingly interesting; so interesting that it's difficult to believe they actually exist. Take the example of " Cymothoa exigua,", one of my favourite parasites. (I love parasites. They are a very under appreciated type of creature).
It is an isopod, like the ubiquitous "rollie pollie pill bugs" that you find under logs that curl into a ball. When it is free swimming and small, it finds its way into a certain species of fish's mouth by way of the gills, and latches on to the fish tongue. It begins to suck the blood out of the tongue, and then the tongue atrophies until it is a small stump. By this time the parasitic isopod is much larger, and it embeds its back end into the stump of the tongue. The fish can now move around it's new "tongue", and the isopod acts as a replacement. The fish uses the new parasitic tongue, and the parasite shares the fish's food.

Awesome, huh?
I bet some people reading this are ready to puke and are anticipating some potent nightmares. But I say, "Congratulations!" You are the only known parasite to manoeuvre your way into a host and cleverly replace a functional organ!" The absurdity of it is just beautiful, and I am glad that this creature exists.

Apparently, there are not many numbers of these around. However, that doesn't make people run out and start petitioning politicians to save the fish tongue parasite. Although it's pretty darn interesting, it's also pretty ugly. And apparently completely useless to use in a utilitarian sense. If it ceased to exist, people would every so often turn through an old text and chuckle or grimace, but nobody would actually miss it. In the end, interestingness and uniqueness lose to the fancy of the collective human mind.

We are hardwired to save certain species and disregard others. We are a exceedingly self absorbed species. We are interested in preserving things, because they please us and because they can be of use to us. As a society, we are not able to simply desire conserving a species because it has intrinsic ecological purpose and place; because it exists and should remain existing. Insects, fungas, algae, bacteria, nematodes, plants, most underwater invertebrates, most fish, and most tropical animals that rarely get mentioned in English literature are things which most people believe we could do without. And yet they are the most important components of earths biosphere. Tell people that a very common and widespread type of algae will die off if the ocean temperature is raised by a few degrees, and they'll look at you with a puzzled expression and say, "So"?

So? No algae equals less oxygen equals widespread ecological collapse equals dead humans.
Algae is obviously very very important to our survival. And they are also marvellously beautiful, especially diatoms, with their intricate glittering shells of silica. Force people to stare into a microscope and look at a diatom, and tell them that diatomaceous earth is important for industry, and some will agree that we can't afford to have diatoms go extinct. (Not that that is likely, they are very versatile.) It's their beauty AND usefulness that gives them "worth". The ocean is currently being exploited at an extreme rate and who knows what major changes will cascade down the food chain in 10 years.

We have to hope though, that one of the critical "practically invisible", "icky" or "slimy" life forms isn't knocked off balance, because if it ever came to pass, that the human species rests on the preservation of something microscopically small, bland looking, but vitally important for our survival- we would be doomed.
I imagine it would end with us pooling the rest of our resources to pack up and shuttle a few of us off to mars, into a spacecraft filled with tigers, eagles, pandas, baby seals, puppies, petunias and peacocks to keep us company.

No species has any intrinsic "worth" over another species. Every species that exists today, exists because it's ancestors battled other species for resources and won every fight. Because it is here, a species has worth. Each is piece of an ever changing puzzle. You can't complete the picture without all of the seemingly bland and boring puzzle pieces of blue sky. To judge some species as being "worth" more than others is a fallacy that is disheartening. And yet, the reality is that we still have to actively make choices about what to save and what to disregard.

To make a choice, is not necessarily to impose more value or worthiness on one thing rather than another. But when confronted with a choice of that kind, many people feel they must do just that.

No, it doesn't make a lot of sense to go randomly and arbitrarily choosing a list of species to conserve. We would probably end up with a lot of boring, unappetising creatures. What I would like is if people were at least honest with the reasons they made a choice of one animal over another, instead of blaming it on it's intrinsic "worthiness".

Objectively, if you think about it, spending $27 million to search for a bird that is only slightly different from the widespread pilliated woodpeckers, that most people never heard of, and that 99.97% of the population never missed- added to the fact that it might not even EXIST- seems somewhat odd.

It seems though that birds always steal the show. People love to watch, listen, stuff and eat birds. The diversity of colour and form amaze us. The act of flying, inspires us. Their songs soothe and impress us. Even the widespread pest birds, pigeons and starlings, were at one point bred and kept as pets, because they're beautiful. (Tell most people a pigeon is beautiful and that you're glad they are plentiful and you'll get weird looks. I know from experience.) There certainly is too much of a good thing.

Think of the phrase, "It's gone the way of the dodo." Everyone knows the story of the stupid dodo that was too dumb to save itself from going extinct. Does anyone know the story of Steller's sea cows?

Most do not. Steller also named the sea lions, jays, and other species he egotistically stuck his name in front of. He came across the "sea cow" while shipwrecked on Berring Island. Steller's sea cows were related to the manatee, except they lived in the cold northern waters around Berring Island. They're downfall was rather like the dodo's. They happened to be slow and docile, and they happened to be TASTY. After the crew sampled the plentiful "sea cow", they bragged to the Russians that they had discovered a wonderful, easy to hunt delicious food source. Extensive hunting began, and within 30 years there were no more sea cows around Berring Island. They figured there must be others elsewhere, and searched around the arctic for another population. And they never found any. The Steller's Sea Cows were declared extinct.

There have been a couple reports of sightings of manatee like creatures in the north, and it is possible that a small population might still exist. After all, it's a pretty big place up there. But do you see hoards of researchers scouring the arctic north desperately searching for the lost Sea Cow? Nope. People don't want to spend $27 million dollars to re-discover a rotund, lazy, slow moving aqueous relative of the elephant. Besides, people are already spending money conserving the manatee, and that's close enough, right?

It makes no more sense to spend that money searching for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. All ornithologists have to go on is a couple of fuzzy digital pictures, and distorted recordings of bird calls. Even if it was found, and studied extensively, what would it really do for us? We would have a few clearer photographs, we would know it's mating behaviour, what grubs it chooses to eat, and bird watchers could proudly brag to have marked the Ivory Billed Woodpecker off their list. Not that I think it doesn't exist, it's possible that it does, but spending that money to search for it still doesn't make it "exist more".

That $27 million dollars could be used towards breeding programs to establish new populations of critically endangered birds that we DO know exist, such as whooping cranes, or a very long list of others. Plenty of people would agree that those "have worth" too. And yet, it is always a struggle to get the government to commit to conservation funding. Governments are reluctant to "waste" too much money on an animal that might become extinct anyway. It's a gamble, one that when won, leaves people barely satisfied. An increase in numbers now, does not mean future survival. And there are so many other species that sadly cannot be saved. For every win, there are tenfold the losses.

I believe that the focus on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is a manifestation of our guilt trembling from the realization that we are killing off entire species, and that we will kill many more. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker is like a ghost come back from the dead, that wordlessly speaks of the crime of it's murder. It is a symbol of past mistakes and current recklessness. It is the form of dead species to come, so fragilely balancing on the edge, that we can barely conceive of their disappearance. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker is wordlessly whispering to our unconscious the words that, "If we can only bring back this one bird, it will seem less real that extinction is forever".

With a successful story of bringing a presumed extinct species back from the dead, we could go to bed at night and imagine that out there in a small untouched pristine patch of nature, just MAYBE, there still roams Tasmanian tigers, passenger pigeons, sea mink, Labrador ducks, silver trout, rocky mountain locust- and the slow moving, drifting, placid, passive blubberous sea cow, grazing beneath the arctic waves.

Maybe it is worth $27 million dollars to rediscover the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
-Emily Dickinson



Remnant
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 1 Nov 2005
Age: 59
Gender: Male
Posts: 2,073

26 Aug 2007, 4:17 pm

Lots of poorly supervised expenditures in these "conservation" programs. Half of the uses that it is put to, I don't even want to talk about.



mysticaria
Raven
Raven

User avatar

Joined: 15 Jul 2004
Age: 36
Gender: Female
Posts: 124
Location: British Columbia, Canada

26 Aug 2007, 4:19 pm

You again?
We already know you don't want to talk about it. :roll:



Remnant
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 1 Nov 2005
Age: 59
Gender: Male
Posts: 2,073

26 Aug 2007, 4:25 pm

mysticaria wrote:
You again?
We already know you don't want to talk about it. :roll:


Buzz off.



The_Chosen_One
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 26 Jul 2007
Age: 57
Gender: Male
Posts: 1,371
Location: Looking down on humanity

27 Aug 2007, 12:43 am

Did the person that wrote the article say that a number of creature that are becoming extinct haven't been discovered yet? That makes about as much sense as the actual expenditure on the project. Hell, if the scientists or conservation groups want to search for and save these animals, let them come up with the funds themselves, instead of wasting taxpayers' money where it could be better spent elsewhere (and I don't mean wars either.

Leave the animals alone to do what they do, and concentrate on fixing humanity's problems.


_________________
Pagans are people too, not just victims of a religious cleansing program. Universal harmony for all!!

Karma decides what must happen, and that includes everyone.


Quatermass
Veteran
Veteran

User avatar

Joined: 27 Apr 2006
Age: 36
Gender: Male
Posts: 21,295
Location: Right behind you...

27 Aug 2007, 1:21 am

Remnant wrote:
mysticaria wrote:
You again?
We already know you don't want to talk about it. :roll:


Buzz off.


Et tu.


_________________
(No longer a mod)

On sabbatical...