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?;

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower