Before I joined Crampton and Michelle Clark, a biologist from the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, at the Lihue heliport for the 15-minute flight into the interior, Crampton warned me that journalists tend to underestimate the Alakai. She recalled how one photographer, who had planned to spend a full week with the team, made it just a few hundred yards before giving up; she spent the remainder of the day at the field camp. Another visitor, who regularly hiked the Sierra Nevada, was flown out after less than 24 hours. “I guess she was used to pine trees or something,” Crampton told me. “And trails.”
By the time I arrived in late May, the team had spent the past three months rotating in and out of a muddy field camp consisting of a single large tent with four cots, a Coleman stove, a laminated map and several musty plastic ration tubs. With the season winding down, the team that week consisted of just two people: Mandy Peterson and Marcus Collado, a wildlife biologist from Maine who was easygoing but prone to turning morose. Crampton called his bleaker comments “Marcus musings.”
Before coming to Kauai, Collado worked banding golden-eagle chicks, a task that required him to stand on the skid of a helicopter as it flew, then jump from the skid to the cliff-face ledge where an eagle had nested. By comparison, harvesting eggs in the Alakai qualified as a relaxing vacation, though Collado noted that “it can get a little sad” because akikiki are so scarce. “In the job interview, they warn you: ‘You may not see any birds or find any nests,’ ” Collado told me. “And I thought, Man, this could be tough.”
When the akikiki’s steep decline was discovered in 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service convened a panel of experts to determine what, if anything, should be done to stave off extinction. After three days of debate, the group agreed to a set of interventions, including the construction of an eight-foot-tall, five-mile-long, pig-proof fence, and the installation of what would eventually be 300 reusable rat traps, each of which to be hand-placed in key areas and stocked with bait, to keep nonnative rats from eating the birds’ eggs, their chicks and sometimes even the birds themselves, usually when a bird refused to abandon its nest.
People tend to go into conservation biology to save species, but in practice, the job can be more about killing things. The camp keeps two binders for logging information. One is devoted to akikiki sightings and nests. Another tracks rat kills and is labeled “Charlie work,” a reference to the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” in which a character named Charlie is regularly dispatched to kill rats. When I pointed out that the rat binder was almost four times thicker than the bird binder, Peterson shrugged. “We do a lot of rat killing. We probably kill more rats than we find birds.”
Either way, the work can be wearing. Earlier this season, the camp started keeping a dream journal, which ended up doubling as a kind of anxiety log. A few weeks back, Collado said, he had a dream in which he saw the last surviving akikiki drowning in a canal. He raced to save it but arrived too late. Not long after that, Peterson dreamed that she saw an akikiki made of Legos and knew, in that moment, that all the real akikiki had died.
I joined Collado and Clark one morning when they went to check on an akikiki nest in a valley known as Far Quarter, about two hours from camp. At a previous job on Mono Lake, the associate director of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, Justin Hite, worked with a biologist who gave colorful names to the lake’s islets — Little Norway, Little Tahiti — and in the Alakai, Hite carried on the tradition. A sharp-edged stretch became Titanic Ridge (“I’m on top of the world!”). An area that shone with a rare forest rainbow was called Unicorn Paradise. One particularly inaccessible stretch became the Chasm of Doom, but when this nickname led field teams to avoid the area, it was rechristened Kasmadu.
That day, the forest had a sleepy feel. Clark stopped to admire a tiny, lacy fern known as lady of the mountain; later, she pointed out another, larger fern covered in soft brown hairs, which were once collected to make mattresses. Surprisingly, there was almost no bird song and not even much in the way of insects, just the occasional drone of a helicopter. (Though tourist helicopters aren’t supposed to fly that low over the Alakai, Clark told me, some still do.)
By the time we got to the site, it was almost midday and hot. Because the team had already harvested eggs from this pair of birds, Collado’s task was to see whether the new clutch had hatched and, if so, to find out how many of the chicks survived. Sitting on the stream bank, Collado used athletic tape to lash a GoPro video camera to the top of a collapsible 30-foot aluminum pole. Fully extended, the pole had an alarming sway; maneuvering it close enough to see inside a nest, without hitting the nest itself, was a heart-stopping project.
That morning, though, the main problem was getting the camera high enough; even held directly overhead, the pole was almost 10 feet too short. Peering around, Collado considered the landscape. “Justin wasn’t kidding when he said it was nearly impossible to check this nest,” he said. Spotting some scuff marks on a dead ohia tree, he began to shinny up. “I know Justin managed it somehow,” he added. “But I’ve also seen him fall a lot. He does sketchy stuff that the rest of us won’t.”
Once he managed to climb about 10 feet, Collado asked Clark to hand him the pole, which he carefully levered into the canopy, only to find that the view was blocked by leaves. For the next 20 minutes, Collado patiently worked the camera closer, while Clark watched the video feed on her phone. Finally, a blurry image of a small gray bird came into view. “There she is!” Clark said excitedly. Peering at the screen, I saw a small, disgruntled-looking bird with a slim tail and a tiny patch of white over its eye.
Over dinner the night before, Crampton described akikiki as “the little guys that at first you think are really boring, but then you spend a little time with them and discover that they have all these talents that are totally endearing. They do flips around the branches.” That morning, though, the only talent the akikiki exhibited was an unbudging perseverance.
Hoping to get a look inside the nest, Collado climbed down, assuming that the akikiki would eventually fly off to feed. It didn’t. My notes from the time say: “Been here an hour. No change. Nothing to do but sit and watch.”
The history of the planet is rife with extinctions, often sweeping ones. Roughly 250 million years ago, a cataclysmic eruption destroyed more than 95 percent of the life in the oceans and 70 percent of the animals on land, effectively erasing about 10 million years of evolution. In the past five centuries, extinctions have become less dramatic but arguably more constant: a slow drip of change as humans have spread across the globe, clearing forests, planting crops, building cities and roads.
When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, it was in response to a slowly dawning awareness of how the planet was changing under human dominion. Centuries of aggressive hunting and development had shrunk the once-spectacular abundance of American wildlife to a degree that prompted widespread bipartisan alarm. The new law, which was unanimously approved by the Senate, made it a federal crime to kill an endangered animal and, more radical, established the rigorous protection measures still in place today: that once a species reaches the point of endangerment, government agencies are required to take steps to save it. At the time, this inflexibility was considered a crucial bulwark against the pressure that would be brought by politically powerful industries, like logging and drilling. “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” President Nixon said while signing the act.
Though it can be hard to imagine today, the Endangered Species Act was intended to be a starting point rather than an endgame; a last-ditch way to save species that were vanishing until more comprehensive and farsighted conservation plans could be put in place. As Chris D. Thomas, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of York, puts it, “The fact that we reach this point, with all the heroic measures, shows that we’re not great at planning ahead.”
But it’s also true that extinctions just seem to get to us. We make a modest effort as a species dwindles and then, when it’s really on the ropes, we suddenly panic. “There’s just something gutting about a thing being lost to us forever,” Thomas says.
More debatable is the degree to which extinctions are genuinely catastrophic. Do these disappearances represent the loss of rare, beloved plants and birds? Or are they simply the next evolutionary step in an ever-changing, increasingly global ecosystem? When I spoke with Thomas, he supported the idea that truly invasive species — the kind that transform the landscape — may need to be contained. But it’s also true that the early isolation of the Pacific islands was itself an artifact. “If you look at it cruelly and unemotionally, Hawaii has native birds and introduced birds,” he told me. “The native birds are dying out, and the introduced birds are malaria resistant. Are the introduced birds worse? Not necessarily. You could argue that this is simply a case where island species have lost out and continental species have won.”
In this view, the loss of Hawaii’s native birds and plants and their replacement by species that are more resistant to disease and predators, is just another case of the fittest surviving. If humans have accelerated this process by planting Argentine pampas grass in their gardens or by dumping tropical aquarium fish in their local lake, it’s still just a faster, looser version of what has been happening on the planet anyway: Starbucks in Paris and McDonald’s in Soweto; Australian brown tree snakes in Guam and Asian carp in the Great Lakes.
In short, it’s fair to ask why, exactly, biodiversity matters. As Thomas says: “Even if we were to lose 10 percent of all species in the next hundred years, would biology stop? Would ecology stop? No. In fact, most people wouldn’t even be aware of the loss.” Given how radically we’ve already altered the landscape, how bad would it be if we just kept doing what we’re doing: paving the land, overfishing the oceans and letting the chips fall where they may?
Faced with this dilemma, some conservationists have tried to shift the focus to an economic argument known as “ecosystem services”: the idea that we benefit from preserving biodiversity either because it saves us money (mangroves prevent coastal erosion that we would otherwise have to handle with an expensive engineering project) or because it contains something of value to us, either now or in the future. For instance, a biodiverse planet may provide a first defense against global warming. Or it may act as a repository of potential discoveries: new materials that mimic the strength of spider silk; drones modeled after insects; an anticancer drug derived from Amazonian moss.
While all this may be true — mangroves do prevent coastal erosion; research into new cancer drugs derived from plants is underway — it can also sound wishful, like a hoarder arguing that his pile of junk might someday contain collectors’ items. The difference, Thomas says, is that unlike a hoarder’s pile, ecosystems perform vital planetary functions, like keeping soil fertile, preventing desertification and absorbing carbon dioxide. The reason some conservationists want to prioritize genetic or functional diversity isn’t that either of those things are inherently valuable to people, though they can be, but because they’re essential to the health and resiliency of ecosystems themselves. The true problem, then, is not whether we would notice those vanished species and ecosystems; it’s that there’s no good way to quantify the opportunity cost of our loss, which in turn can lead us to underestimate it. “The species we have now are the ancestors of all future species,” Thomas says. “And I don’t think we know enough about ecology or evolution, or how humans are going to affect the planet over the next thousand years, to bet on which animal or plant to keep.”
All of which makes it hard to know where to draw the line. We can’t put every ecosystem in the world under glass. (We can’t even manage to do that on Kauai, a 500-square-mile island in the middle of the Pacific.) Even if we could, conservation isn’t always an ethically straightforward choice; in countries like Brazil and Kenya, do we prioritize protecting wild animals and their habitats or the farmers facing hunger who hunt those animals and who log forests to plant crops?
Presumably, though, we also don’t want a planet that’s nothing but pavement, cattle farms and monoculture farmland. The biologist E.O. Wilson eloquently argued against living in a world of crows and rats, and against the loss of beautiful, fragile species like snow leopards, white rhinos and tiny mouse lemurs; even if you never see a lemur or an arctic fox in person, the world can be a richer place by having such creatures in it. Others simply see conservation as a moral duty: because we’re the ones creating these problems, isn’t it up to us to fix them?
Whether we regard conservation as an ethical or an economic issue, we’re still faced with the question of how we decide what to save. In an ideal world, Michael Scott told me, conservation science would have the resources to study this question, rather than being stuck reacting to the latest crisis. “Figuring out which species and ecosystems are the most important to protect is a complicated project,” Scott says. “At this point, just coming up with a list of qualities we want to investigate would be a good start.”
But for such an approach to take hold, the conservation movement would have to undergo a profound shift — away from triage mode and toward a more coherent and deliberate plan for global conservation. And such a shift would most likely require more resources and more political support than currently exist. The question is whether it will happen in time to shelter us from some of the more significant changes that climate change and development are likely to bring.