Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The bird that offers a clue to mankind's destiny


Anyone contemplating the ravages which humans are going to effect on non-human species in the 21st century should turn their attention to a remote area of southern Ethiopia, and a small plain near the town of Negele. This is the home of a diminutive songbird which the vast majority of people in the world have never heard of and never will, but whose fate nevertheless may mark a milestone in our destruction of the planet.

The bird is the Liben lark, and its only home is the Liben plain, a rapidly-shrinking remnant of what are known as the Ethiopian rangelands, grasslands which have been used for thousands of years by pastoralists to herd their cattle, but which are increasingly being ploughed up for crop production.

Confined to a corner of the Earth which is now less than 10 kilometres by 10 in size and steadily diminishing, the Liben lark's numbers are plunging in parallel and are down to fewer than 100 individuals. It seems very likely that within five years, it will be gone.

Well, be honest. You won't miss it, will you? Not like you may miss wild tigers when they go (unless you have a heart of reinforced concrete) and polar bears and mountain gorillas and the rest of the Charismatic Megafauna. What's an obscure wee lark, a mere chirrup, in the great scheme of things? I'll tell you: Heteromirafra sidamoensis is likely to be the first bird from Africa to go extinct in recorded history.

No-one knows exactly how many species of birds have been wiped out because of human actions in say, the last 500 years, but a good guess is 200. They range from the icon of extinction itself, the dodo, the fat flightless pigeon from Mauritius which was almost certainly gone by 1700, to the great auk of the North Atlantic, which you might think of as the dodo of the northern hemisphere, probably lost by 1850. The vast majority of these shared a common characteristic: they were birds of islands, especially islands of the Pacific, where many of them, because of the lack of predators, had evolved to be flightless.

Once Europeans turned up, with dogs and cats and pigs and rats in their train, and axes to chop down forests, these creatures were doomed. There are whole litanies of extinct island species, from Hawaii most of all, which has lost at least 25 types of bird since Captain Cook first splashed ashore in 1778. But although big continents have lost species too – North America lost five just in the 20th century (the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, the Carolina parakeet, the ivory-billed woodpecker and Bachman's warbler) – Africa, with its dazzling bird fauna of 1,800 different pieces of flying colour, seems to have escaped.

There has not been a bird from mainland Africa which has gone extinct in modern times. It is as if the great continent is so vast and robust that, at least in ornithological terms, it has been able soak up the punishment we humans have increasingly inflicted on its ecosystems.

The loss of the Liben lark, therefore, would mark a significant turning point, showing us that, faced with the unending tide of human expansion and human destructiveness, even Africa in its vastness can only hold out for so long. In the fate of this skimpy handful of feathers and bones we could read the grim future facing the natural world in the 21st century: Here it comes.

Yet what is fascinating me at the moment is not so much the Liben lark's potential loss, as what is being done to try to save it. Last week the Ethiopian Ambassador to Britain was presented with a cheque for £242,000, raised by British birders, to fund conservation work with local communities on the Liben plain: work to reduce the impact of livestock over-grazing, prevent the conversion of the land to arable farming, and ultimately, to stop Heteromirafra sidamoensis from sliding over the edge. The money came from the proceeds of the 2010 British Birdwatching Fair, the annual twitchers' jamboree at Rutland Water, and will also be used to help half a dozen of the 22 species of birds in Ethiopia which are threatened with extinction (if not quite so critically as the Liben lark).

Reading about this, I suddenly had an image in my mind of a small finger being stuck in an enormous leaking dyke. My own view of the future facing the natural world is pessimistic: I cannot see how nature will not be overwhelmed in the coming century as the human population moves remorselessly towards nine or even 10 billion, and I wrote here recently about what seems to be the inherent dark tendency of man as a species, once the focus of much religious and philosophical thought, but in our current liberal, secular and humanist creed, no longer acknowledged in any way.

I still think the dark tendency, the predisposition to selfishness and violence and destruction, is a key part of what it is to be human, and it will do for the Earth, eventually. Humans are the only creatures capable of destroying their own home, and I believe we will: I believe that is our fate, and it is coming.

But what does it mean that some people are trying hard to stop even a small and obscure songbird from slipping over the edge? What does it mean that they have seen the great leaking dyke, and are jamming in a digit against the overwhelming pressure on the other side? What does it mean for us as a species? What does it mean spiritually?

That man is not fallen, after all?;

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