Thu, Sep 19, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS

A lavishly illustrated book bursting with details on bird species that are dangerously threatened by human activity

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

In one area south of Chile, for example, dyeing the bait blue, attaching pennants to lines and weighting hooks so they sink faster reduced albatross deaths to zero, when it had previously been 1,500 birds per year. Taiwan has a huge pan-global fishing fleet; let’s hope these measures are already in place on all their longline boats.

It so happens that Asia is now experiencing the fastest environmental degradation of areas vital to birdlife. Fifty million birds a year use the migration route known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which runs from eastern Siberia down to Australia and New Zealand. Wetlands, where the migrants rest and feed, are crucial.

The fate of South Korea’s Saemangeum estuary area offers a terrible warning. Now enclosed by a sea wall, its formerly abundant molluscs and crabs have disappeared, and the effect on migratory bird numbers has been catastrophic. According to this book, over 80 percent of East and Southeast Asia’s wetlands are similarly threatened.

Sometimes a combination of inaccessible terrain and political inaction has led to a dismal situation. In the French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia, for example, these authors find that “protected areas … exist on paper only, because of a lack of funding. Some are too degraded for there to be much value in attempting to conserve them, and others are covered by mining concessions.” Elsewhere, political instability deters surveys or conservation work — parts of the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are mentioned here in this context.

And yet valiant individuals persist in their efforts. A flightless duck, for instance, on Campbell Island, far to the south of New Zealand, was for 30 years thought to be extinct due to the introduction of rats until, in 1975, a tiny group was discovered on a rat-free island nearby. Four specimens were taken to New Zealand and bred in captivity, then introduced back onto Campbell Island itself, where the rats had been eradicated. A population of between 100 and 200 is now breeding there in a variety of habitats. The great California Condor was similarly saved.

All praise must go to the thousands of bird-lovers and careful experts, often dedicated amateurs, who’ve unknowingly contributed to this magnificent but troubling book. Princeton University Press has done a wonderful job in creating an authoritative volume that’s also a delight to hold, even if it’s frequently disturbing to read.

But it’s the kind of book that people who’re lucky enough to possess a copy will use for reference. Let’s hope that at least sometimes they will reach for it to check out a species that has been at the last minute saved from the brink, and not always to cross out the entry for one that — faced with the cruelties of the modern world — just hasn’t managed to make it.

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