A glimmer of optimism

2011-12-07 00:00

WILLIAM Stolzenburg’s densely detailed book bears testimony to Charles Darwin’s statement: “Let it be remembered how powerful the influence­ of a single introduced tree or mammal has been shown to be.”

The story begins 700 years ago, when Polynesian explorers sailed to the islands of Oceania. With them they took a food source: kiore rats.

What the rats did to the endemic species of Rat Island between Alaska and Siberia­ would have been called a crime against humanity had humans been involved. They almost completely wiped out the island’s bird species by preying on them and encroaching on their habitat. Some became extinct and others were on the brink when an unlikely band of heroes came to their rescue.

Conservationists joined forces with hunters and trappers to drop hundreds of tons of rat poison on the island. Although there was collateral damage in the form of loss of some birds, the campaign was a remarkable success. Stolzenburg’s description of the slow recovery of species is very moving, almost poetic — the sound of birdsong returning to the stony crags of the forbidding island, the sight of nesting birds where there had been none for generations. The lessons learnt have been applied around the world to rid different habitats of invasive aliens and restore native species.

This book is not an easy read — dense with scientific information plus descriptions of how alien species have first massacred indigenous species, and were then exterminated in their turn. However, it is a worthwhile read as it offers a glimmer of optimism as marauding aliens are removed, island by island, and species after species is brought back from extinction, including the New Zealand kapako and Kiska Island’s least auklet.

With COP17 forcing environmental issues to the fore, this is a timely and instructive work.

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