Former Santa Cruz reporter brings national attention to a local nonprofit’s mission to save endangered species
On thousands of islands all over the planet, rare and exotic species are being killed off at overwhelming rates by non-native predators such as rats, feral cats, pigs and goats that were introduced into those ecosystems by humans over the centuries.
With the mission to prevent these at-risk species from becoming extinct, the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Island Conservation (IC) works to remove predators that are harming native fauna, often by tracking and killing them using poison, traps, and high-powered rifles.
Amanda R. Martinez, a science writer from Chicago who began her journalism career as an editor for Good Times, spent the fall of 2011 researching and writing about IC for The Atlantic magazine. The magazine published her 11,500-word piece, entitled “Battle at the End of Eden,” in December 2012 as an ebook; a first for The Atlantic.
Martinez’s article opens with the story of IC’s beginnings. The idea for the organization took shape in 1990, when Ph.D. student and eventual IC founder Bernie Tershy was researching seabirds on a Mexican island. He observed black rats that ate the seabirds and their eggs, killing them off at a devastating rate. The rats had come to the islands on supply ships during the 1880s and became a new and unnatural predator for the birds.
At the time, Tershy recalled a scientist named Kenneth Stager who, in 1958, discovered a similar situation with feral pigs left over from an abandoned island settlement that were decimating a rare colony of tropical seabirds. Using a shotgun, Stager took matters into his own hands.
With Stager’s story in mind, Tershy returned to California and met with biologist friend Don Croll to discuss the idea of preserving the seabirds in Mexico by eradicating the invasive rats.
Over the next 20 years, Martinez writes, Tershy, Croll and a small group of likeminded scientists worked to prevent native species’ extinctions on islands by eradicating non-native predators.
This is the operating premise of IC, though today they conduct more comprehensive scientific research and use more efficient methods.
IC employs ecologists, biologists, marine scientists, toxicologists, as well as conservation managers, policy people, and professional hunters, Martinez says.
While rooted in scientific analysis, “… the strategy relies on the choreographed killing of entire caches of animals that don’t belong,” Martinez writes.
IC scientists rationalize the moral dilemma by killing only animals that threaten the survival of native species, she says. In most cases, the native species are extremely vulnerable because they are not evolved to protect themselves from the predators introduced by humans—what Tershy calls “evolutionarily naïve,” similar to the Native American’s susceptibility to European Small Pox.
Tershy stepped down as executive director at IC five years ago, and today works as an adjunct professor at UC Santa Cruz in the Coastal Conservation Action Lab, which assists in research supporting IC.
Though he no longer represents the nonprofit, his principles and rationale are representative of the organization’s core philosophy.
“Let’s say you kill a thousand rats on an island to save two species of seabirds,” he says. “Well, there are rats everywhere in the world—they’re not going to go extinct. Those thousand individuals you kill—that’s absolutely unfortunate, but you’re saving two unique species that occur nowhere else.”
Not everyone agrees with this logic, and the nonprofit’s methods have led some groups to see its attempts at biological manipulation and engineering as controversial.
The headline of The Atlantic’s December article, excerpted from Martinez’s ebook, poses the philosophical dilemma of IC’s work: “Ending Extinction or Playing God?”
Martinez reports in “The Battle at the End of Eden” that early in IC’s history, some saw their approach as “an affront to scientific culture,” regardless of whether the animals originated on the island or not. “To interfere with nature was seen as poor science, if science at all,” she writes.
“Some scientists believe that our impact on the world is so extensive and will only continue to expand, and that efforts to remove those impacts on an ecosystem, including the introduction of non-native species, are quixotic and a waste of money and time,” Martinez tells GT. “They propose that altered ecosystems should be accepted as novel ecosystems, with new castes of species that include both native and non-native plants and animals.”
Martinez says that IC’s most contentious project took place in 2001 on Anacapa Island, one of the U.S. Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, when animal rights activists sued in an effort to block the eradication of the island’s rats. There was even an attempt at sabotage.
Tershy expresses a sense of responsibility for removing predators that humans originally introduced: a duty to clean up our own mess.
“You have these situations where invasive animals have been introduced by people, and then argue that it’s inhumane to kill them while they’re causing native species to suffer and drive some to extinction,” Tershy says. “It just doesn’t work for me.”
Brad Keitt, director of conservation at IC, says that the world is facing an extinction crisis and islands are at the epicenter.
Of all bird species that have become extinct since the year 1500, 90 percent lived on islands, according to Martinez. Of the reptiles, 86 percent lived on islands, as did 95 percent of mammals and 63 percent of plants—a disproportionate ratio among all of the world’s species extinctions. This is why IC focuses exclusively on islands.
“Because this remarkable hemorrhage of life has played out on distant shores, it has largely escaped notice. But as experts now warn of a global biodiversity crisis and predict an impending mass-extinction event—the sixth such disaster in Earth’s history—the fragility of island life has taken on ominous significance,” Martinez writes. She adds that nearly 40 percent of the species currently listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature reside on islands.
Last December, IC conducted an operation in the Galapagos Islands, removing invasive rats that eat the eggs and hatchlings of the endangered Giant Tortoise, which lives only in those islands.
Keitt says the Giant Tortoises haven’t reproduced in the wild for 150 years due to the rats.
“We hope that within the next year will be the first time in over 150 years that a Giant Tortoise will be born on the island and grow without human intervention,” he says.
IC has recently partnered with the government of Ecuador and the Galapagos National Park Service to study the possibility of removing rats from another Galapagos isle, Floreana Island, where they have all but wiped out the critically endangered Floreana Mockingbird.
Another recent project was to relocate feral cats from San Nicolas Island, the most remote of Southern California’s Channel Islands, where they were eating the Island Night Lizard, which can be found on just three of the islands and was recently listed as endangered.
IC recently received news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the lizard’s endangered status is soon to be lifted.
Today, IC is working to expand their operations. Last fall, they completed an extensive three-year effort to identify the world’s islands where the most endangered species are threatened by non-native predators, where it would be feasible for them to intervene.
“We’re interested in scaling up what we do and taking this to a level that can really make a dent in the rate of extinctions,” Keitt says. “[And] what we’re using to guide that is science.”
IC recently announced an ambitious strategy to help facilitate work on more than 500 islands, committing to complete eradications on at least 92 of those islands by 2020.