Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink
I am writing this from my home in Bournemouth, England. I grew up in this house, and as I look out my window I can see the very same trees I climbed as a child. Up high in those trees I believed I was closer to the birds and the sky, more a part of nature. Even as a very young child, I felt most alive in the natural world, and almost every book I read—borrowed from the local library—was about animals and adventures in wild untamed places in the world. I began with the stories about Doctor Dolittle, that English doctor who was taught animal languages by his parrot. Then I discovered the books about Tarzan of the Apes. Those two books inspired a seemingly impossible dream—I would go to Africa one day and live with animals and write books about them.
Perhaps the volume that influenced me most was called The Miracle of Life. I spent hours poring over the small print of those magical pages. It was not a book written for children, but I was absolutely absorbed as I learned about the diversity of life on earth, the age of the dinosaurs, evolution and Charles Darwin, the early explorers and naturalists—and the amazing variety and adaptations of the animals around the world. And so, as I grew older and learned more and more, my love of animals broadened from my hamster, slow worm, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs, to a fascination for all the amazing animals I read about in those books. There was no television when I was young: I learned everything from books—and nature.
My childhood dream was realized when I was invited to Kenya by a school friend. I set off when I was twenty-six years old, after working as a waitress to save the fare. I went by boat because it was cheapest, calling in at places I had read about such as Cape Town and Durban, and finally arriving in Mombasa. For me it was especially exciting to arrive at the Canary Islands—for Doctor Dolittle had been there, too! What adventure, back then, for a young woman traveling alone.
Once I reached Kenya, my love of animals led me to Louis Leakey, who eventually entrusted me with the task of uncovering the secrets of the behavior of the animal most like us. (Quite extraordinary when you consider I had no degree and back then girls did not do that sort of thing!) That study of chimpanzees, in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, has lasted for half a century and helped us understand, among other things, more about our own evolutionary history. It has taught us that the similarities in biology and behavior between chimpanzees and humans are far greater than anyone had supposed. We are not, after all, the only beings with personalities, rational thought, and emotions. There is no sharp line dividing us from the chimpanzees and the other apes, and the differences that obviously exist are of degree, not of kind. This understanding gives us new respect not only for chimpanzees, but also for all the other amazing animals with whom we share this planet. For we humans are a part of, and not separate from, the animal kingdom.
We are still studying the chimpanzees of Gombe, and I might well have stayed there, with the animals and forests I love, if I had not attended a conference called Understanding Chimpanzees. It was that conference, in 1986, that changed the course of my life. Field researchers from all the study sites across Africa came together for the first time. There was one session on conservation that was utterly shocking. Right across their range, the chimpanzees' forests were being felled at a horrifying rate, they were being caught in poachers' snares, and the so-called bushmeat trade—the commercial hunting of wild animals for food—had begun. Chimpanzee numbers had plummeted since I began my study in 1960, from somewhere over a million to an estimated four to five hundred thousand (it is much less now).
It was a wake-up call for me. I went to the conference as a scientist, planning to continue working in the field, analyzing and publishing my data. I left as an advocate for the chimpanzees and their vanishing forest home. I knew that to try to help the chimpanzees, I must leave the field and do my best to try to raise awareness and hope that we could start to halt at least some of the destruction. And so, after spending twenty-six years of my life doing what I loved best in the place I loved best, I took to the road. And the more I traveled around the world, giving lectures, attending conferences, meeting with conservationists and legislators, the more I realized the extent of the devastation we are wreaking on our planet. It was not just the forests harboring chimpanzees and other African animals that were endangered—it was forests and animals everywhere. And not only forests, but all of the natural world.
Life on the road is hard. Since 1986, I have traveled some three hundred days a year. From America and Europe to Africa and Asia. From airport to hotel to lecture venue; from schoolroom to corporate conference room to government offices. But there are some perks along the way. I get to visit some incredible places. And I get to meet some truly wonderful and inspirational people. And I hear, among all the terrible news of the ongoing destruction of the natural world, some stories of people who have prevented the felling of an old-growth forest, stopped the building of a dam, succeeded in restoring a despoiled wetlands, saved a species from extinction.
Even so, evidence is mounting of a sixth extinction—this time caused by human actions. To keep up my spirits when I was tired and things seemed extra-bleak, I made a collection of what I call my "symbols of hope." Many illustrate the resilience of nature—such as a leaf from a tree found in Australia, previously known only from fossil imprints on rocks. A tree that has survived seventeen ice ages and is still alive and well in a hidden canyon in the Blue Mountains. A feather from a peregrine falcon that was flying again in an area where it had been locally extinct for a hundred years and another from a California condor, a species rescued from the brink of extinction. This was what caught Thane's attention when I was lecturing at the zoo in Cincinnati. He said I should write up those stories. I told him I intended to—but there was so little time. He said he would help. Thane is a kindred spirit. He, too, is filled with optimism for our future.
Clearly this is a very different book from the slender volume originally planned. I kept meeting amazing people who had done amazing work to prevent animals from becoming extinct. And I met them all over the world. How could I write about the California condor and not the whooping crane? And what about the giant panda, symbol of conservation? Then, somehow, word got out that we were writing this book and information flooded in—why were we not including insects? Amphibians? Reptiles? And surely the plant kingdom was important, too?
And so the book grew, not only in volume, but also in concept. It seemed so important to discuss some of the species believed extinct that have been rediscovered—sometimes more than a hundred years after they had been written off. And to write about the wonderful work being done to restore and protect habitats. I found that people got really excited about the idea of sharing the good news, shining a light on all the projects, large and small, that together are gradually healing some of the harm we have inflicted. It has been several years in the making, this book, and it has taken me on a fantastic journey of exploration: I have learned ever more about animal and plant species brought to the brink of extinction by human activities and then—sometimes at the very last minute and against all odds—been given a reprieve. The stories shared here illustrate the resilience of nature, and the persistence and determination of the men and women who fight—sometimes for decades—to save the last survivors of a species, refusing to give up.
There is Old Blue, at one time the very last female black robin in the world who, with the help of an inspired biologist, saved her species from extinction. There is the individual tree, the very last of its kind, that, having been almost eaten to death by browsing goats, was killed by a forest fire—yet found the energy to produce seeds on its last living branch. With the help of inspired horticulturists, the species sprang back, like the phoenix, from the ashes.
It is these and many other human and other-than-human heroes that you will meet in the following chapters. There are tales of adventure and high courage, as biologists risk their lives to climb sheer rock faces or leap from wildly tossing boats onto jagged rocks, and pilots maneuver helicopters through forbidding landscapes in terrible weather. There are stories of men and women brought close to despair as they battled bureaucracies to try to save a species from extinction, knowing that delay caused by human obstinacy was lessening their chances of success with each passing day. There is an account of a man trying to persuade a falcon to copulate with his hat and another who mimics the courtship dance of a crane to persuade her to lay an egg.
Many of the rescue programs are ongoing even as we write. New generations of whooping cranes and northern black ibises are still being taught new migration routes, led by human devotees in flying machines. New breeding and release techniques for giant pandas, and better protection of wild habitat, offer hope for their future in China, but there is a long way to go. The plight of the Asian vultures that died in their hundreds of thousands from non-intentional poisoning is being addressed through captive breeding and "Vulture Restaurants" in the wild, but there is much, much work to do.
We realize that there are countless other programs going on around the world to conserve existing populations of animals and plants. But we had to pick and choose, and we included mainly stories that we knew about, firsthand. I wish we could include the efforts of the pioneer conservationists, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who established the first national parks and reserves for the protection of wilderness areas.
Or write about the farsighted people who worked to protect the last of the beavers from an industry desperate to plunder their pelts for the making of hats. There are many who have fought to save other mammal and bird species from extinction because of our insatiable desire to bedeck ourselves with their skins, furs, and feathers. Koala bears might no longer be with us but for those who realized, back in the 1800s, that they would soon be gone if steps were not taken to save their eucalyptus forests. Indeed, there are countless species not even classified as endangered today that might well have become extinct were it not for caring people who protected them long ago. To those early pioneers in conservation we owe a great deal.
In October 2008 in Barcelona, Spain, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released results of a global survey of mammal populations. It concluded that "at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future." And tragically, for many, there may be little that can be done. Yet I have been so inspired by the stories included in this book and by the people who refuse to give up.
There is an old maxim: "While there is life, there is hope." For the sake of our children we must not give up, we must continue to fight to save what is left and restore that which is despoiled. We must support those valiant men and women who are out there doing just that. And it is important for us to realize that we cannot relax our efforts on behalf of endangered animals—for the threats to their survival are ever present, often growing. Human population growth, unsustainable lifestyles, desperate poverty, shrinking water supplies, corporate greed, global climate change—all these and more will, unless we are vigilant, undo all that has been accomplished.
It is inevitable that more and more species will need a helping hand if they are to continue to share the planet with us. So it is fortunate that increasing numbers of people are waking up, becoming aware of the damage we are inflicting on the web of life, and wanting to do their bit to help, whether as wildlife biologists, government officials, or concerned citizens.
One thing is certain—my own journey of exploration will not stop. I shall go on collecting stories, meeting and talking with more extraordinary and inspirational people. There are many to whom I have only spoken on the telephone, but now I want to meet them: I want to look into their eyes to see the spirit of determination that keeps them going, and look into their hearts to glimpse the love for the species or the natural world that takes them to lonely, all-but-inaccessible places. And I want to share their stories with young people around the world. I want them to know that, even when our mindless activities have almost entirely destroyed some ecosystem or driven a species to the brink of extinction, we must not give up. Thanks to the resilience of nature, and the indomitable human spirit, there is still hope. Hope for animals and their world. And it is our world, too.
—Jane Goodall, February 2009
Lost in the Wild
Children are fascinated by dinosaurs. I used to imagine myself transported into the past, my imagination stimulated by Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. In my mind I would roam those ancient landscapes with the giant vegetarian brontosaurus, unharmed by the mighty tyrannosaur. I loved, too, mind-walking in the older world of the giant amphibians, that watery realm of swamps and huge ferns. And sometimes I dreamed of watching woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. But they were gone, and I had no time capsule. And there were no marvels of technology to re-create those creatures of long ago—as did the extraordinary BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs.
And then I learned, from one of my books, about the dodo. That extinction was very different from the loss of the dinosaurs. The dodo (and countless others) would still have been around, I discovered, but for modern Homo sapiens. Of course, our Stone Age ancestors had hunted and killed animals. I would later see evidence of this when I worked with Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. But it was hard work for them with only their primitive stone tools. Moreover, the prey animals in Africa had evolved along with the predators that hunted them, and had developed myriad ways to escape being killed. How different when Captain Cook and his sailors killed the unsuspecting flightless dodos, feeling safe on their island with no instinct for flight—and so they were eaten to extinction.
When I was a child, more than seventy years ago, there was no television and no Internet to trap me in front of electronic screens. Instead I spent hours watching birds and insects in our garden, and reading books. Back then most of the animals that are so endangered today lived safely in as-yet-unlogged forests, undrained wetlands, and unpolluted fields and oceans. Yet even then, of course, large-scale slaughter of wildlife was taking place. The American bison herds were being decimated, wolves were being exterminated, and animals in their hundreds of thousands were being trapped and killed for their skins, their fur, their feathers—and for specimens to stuff for natural history museums. Big-game hunters were "bagging" and bragging about trophies. And passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction. For the most part, no one thought much about any of that, and anyway nature's natural resources, to most people, seemed inexhaustible.
But gradually our human populations have grown, and the destruction of the natural world has intensified. One after the other, more and more of the extraordinarily varied life-forms of our planet have joined the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Mostly they are small creatures and plants, often endemic to a particular area of rain forest or other habitat that has been destroyed. But fish and birds have gone as well. And Miss Waldron's red colobus was pronounced extinct in Ghana at the end of the last century. So much has gone even during the seventy-five years since I was born.
Will a nature-loving child born seventy-five years from now long to see a live elephant as I longed to see a woolly mammoth? Will she wish desperately for a time machine in order to experience a real rain forest and watch orangutans and tigers? Will she yearn to know a lost and mysterious deep-sea world of the great whales? And if, in seventy-five years, these animals exist only in digital libraries or as dusty museum specimens, how will she feel?
When I was a young girl, it was possible for me to forgive Captain Cook and the people of his era, for they had no idea of the direction we were heading (though they were unknowingly mapping out the path of the future). But at that time, the world was largely unexplored, its wonders undiscovered—and there were far fewer human beings. Still, if a child seventy-five years from now finds that most animals have gone from the earth, she will not be able to excuse the behavior of those who destroyed them. For she will know that they were lost not from a position of ignorance, but because the majority of humans simply did not care.
Fortunately, some people do care a great deal, and sometimes heroic efforts are being made to save and conserve threatened and endangered species. But for them, the list of extinct animals today would be much longer. I have been privileged to meet many of them, and in this book I look forward to introducing as many as I can, along with the animals, plants, and habitats to which they have devoted their lives.
The stories we are sharing in the first two parts show how complicated a business this conservation of wildlife is. For it is necessary to integrate research, protection in the wild, habitat restoration, captive breeding, and raising awareness in the local population. And there are restrictions—everything must be undertaken under the watchful eyes of government authorities. Also, it is inevitable that when passionate people with different perspectives try to work together, differences of opinion arise, and these opinions will be hotly defended—and although, through discussion and compromise, agreement will usually be reached, a good deal of time and effort may be wasted along the way. In the best-case scenario, organizations working to protect an animal and its environment cooperate for the good of the species, and the public volunteers its help.
Part 1 tells the stories of six mammal and bird species that actually became extinct in the wild. They were saved only through captive breeding with the goal of returning their progeny to the wild once their numbers had increased and areas of habitat had been set aside for their lasting protection. But the issue of captive breeding was—and still is—highly controversial. There are objections to such projects from those who feel last-minute solutions will not work, and are a waste of time and above all money. Fortunately the passionate biologists who worked to save the six species in this section refused to listen to them.
I have fallen in love with black-footed ferrets. Tiny in size, mighty in courage, and utterly enchanting, they have been brought back from the brink of extinction by a team of dedicated and inspired biologists. For in the brilliant emerald of the ferret's nighttime eyes lies hope for the future of the great North American prairies.
In the Lakota culture, the black-footed ferret is called itopta sapa: ite—face, opta—across, sapa—black. The Lakota admired itopta sapa for its cunning and elusiveness and held it sacred. Creatures that were hard to kill, like itopta sapa, were thought to be protected by the earth power and the thunder beings. Today the Lakota still consider this ferret sacred.
At one time, short- and mixed-grass prairies, home to the black-footed ferret, covered nearly one-third of North America, from Canada to Mexico. This vast area was also home to the great bison herds as well as the prairie dogs that lived in huge colonies, and provided food and homes for the ferrets, who lived in their burrows.
When Europeans arrived in North America, things began to change. Human developments transformed the prairies, so that more and more prairie dog habitat was destroyed, and the ranchers began their ongoing campaign to poison as many as possible. They maintained that the rodents competed with their livestock for grass and that their burrows would cause broken legs. By 1960, using the most conservative calculations, prairie dogs had lost some 98 percent of the land they had once occupied. New diseases were also brought to the prairies: Sylvatic plague, for example, entered North America around the turn of the century and is having a devastating impact on prairie dog towns to this day.
Prairie dogs, being rodents, can quickly bounce back from a population decline, but not so black-footed ferrets. They are predators with a naturally low population that is spread out over a wide area. As their numbers declined, it became more and more difficult for them to replenish themselves.
Disappearing into Extinction
In 1964, the federal government was actually debating whether these wild ferrets should be listed as extinct when a small population (only 20 of the 151 prairie dog colonies in the area were occupied) was discovered in Mellette County, South Dakota. As time went on, however, it became clear that this small population was decreasing, probably because of fragmented habitat and the poisoning of prairie dog colonies.
In 1971, six of the Mellette County ferrets were captured to form the nucleus for a captive breeding program. Tragically, four of these precious lives were lost when they were vaccinated against distemper, even though the vaccine had not harmed the Siberian ferrets on which it had been tested. Three more were then captured, but the program seemed doomed. Over the next four breeding seasons, one of the captive females refused to mate, and although the other twice produced litters of five, each time four of the five were stillborn, and the fifth died soon after birth. Meanwhile, the wild ferrets of Mellette County were disappearing—the last time one was seen was 1974.
I can imagine the desperation of the team working on the captive breeding as they watched the species falling into extinction. In 1979, the last remaining captive black-footed ferret died of cancer, and the federal government again debated listing the species extinct.
A Fateful Encounter
And then, on September 26, 1981, two years after the death of the last captive black-footed ferret in South Dakota, something very exciting happened. In Meeteetse, Wyoming, on the property of John and Lucille Hogg, a small animal got too close to Shep, their blue heeler ranch dog, when he was eating his dinner—and Shep naturally killed it. John found the strange-looking animal by Shep's dish and tossed it over the yard fence, but when he told his wife about it, she became curious and retrieved the body. She was enchanted by the beautiful little creature, and took it to the taxidermist to be preserved. And the taxidermist recognized a black-footed ferret!
A group of excited ferret enthusiasts quickly gathered to survey the area. How excited Dennie Hammer and Steve Martin must have been when they saw two emerald-green eyes shining as a little head popped up from a burrow—vindication at last for their conviction that wild ferrets still existed! Yet only pure luck had provided this proof. Over the next five years, private, state, and federal conservation biologists and many volunteers worked to learn more about the ferret population. They searched for the ferrets with spotlights, trapped them and marked them with tags, fitted them with tiny radio transmitters on neck collars (so the team could spy on the ferrets' nocturnal habits), and used a new technology, tiny transponders that could be implanted in the neck (which allow short-range identification of an individual animal).
"None of us took them for granted," Steve Forrest, a team member, told me later. "We knew the ferrets as individuals. We lived with them. We knew these were the last members of the species."
My Night with the Ferrets
In April 2006, thanks to my friend Tom Mangelsen, the photographer, I met some of that original dedicated team—Steve and Louise Forrest, Brent Houston, Travis Livieri, Mike Lockhart, and Jonathan Proctor. We gathered in Wall, South Dakota, at Ann's Motel. I soon found that this would be an all-night experience, for the ferrets are not active till around midnight. We set out in the evening, stopping for a picnic to watch the sun set behind the extraordinary rock formations of the Badlands, bringing out the fantastic colors—ocher, mauve, yellow, gray, and all the subtle shades between.
Gradually, as we drove toward the prairies, the day faded until all color was drained from the landscape. There was no light pollution apart from the headlights of our trucks, and the stars were large and brilliant in the wide sky. It was strange to think that we were driving over the thriving underground prairie dog towns—that were home, too, to the black-footed ferrets.
It was close to midnight when Brent called out: "There's one!" And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret's head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid. Travis later returned to take a reading of her transponder chip—which is how I know she was female.