Two disparate events last month made me think of extinction: One concerned Ingmar Bergman and the other—the Cebu Flowerpecker.
Ingmar Bergman is the Swedish director who died in July 30, 2007 at age 89. The Cebu Flowerpecker is an endemic bird that clings to life in a patch of disturbed Cebu forest. Bergman is extinct; the bird is almost sure to follow him to oblivion soon enough.
Bergman’s film that made him famous outside Sweden, Seventh Seal, follows the story of a medieval knight named Antonius Block and his squire, Jöns, as they travel back home to plague-ravaged Sweden after years of serving in the Crusades. The most famous scene in the movie shows Block challenging the Grim Reaper to a chess game. Although this scene has been parodied over and over, Antonius Block’s brave effort to delay the inevitable is the iconic human condition in the face of death.
There’s another—less famous—scene from the movie which speaks volumes about death. In it, the pair travels inland from the beach. Looking for an inn where they can rest, Block commands Jöns to ask directions from a hooded figure who seems to be resting on the ground.
Jöns stirs the man, only to find that the man is dead—a victim of the plague. The squire coolly gets back on his horse and exchanges the following words with his master:
Block: Did he show you the way?
Jöns: Not exactly.
Block: What did he say?
Block: Was he mute?
Jöns: No, my lord. He was most eloquent.
Death—in the form of the bubonic plague—nips at their heels.
This terse exchange brings home the point of how eloquent a corpse can be. While life may be formless, an individual’s death presents a story. In death, humans finally fit into a neat narrative—a beginning, a middle and an end.
Death’s eloquence fascinates us and this attraction is reflected in pop culture. As I write this piece, on TV is CSI Supreme Sunday where dedicated law-enforcement officers—paragons of virtue—examine in minute detail the clues found in crime scenes to solve mysterious slayings. Oftentimes, there is an autopsy scene where the medical examiner explains Cause Of Death. By the end of each episode, more often than not, justice is served when a complete picture of the death emerges. The dead, in the world of CSI, tell the most eloquent tales.
CSI is not alone in this. There’s a plethora of shows along the same vein. There’s Air Crash Investigation where various scientists piece together the events that led to fatal airplane crashes. There’s Bones about a team of forensic experts and there’s NCIS about military investigators.
In all of these shows, once a mysterious death is explained, the case is solved. Everything fits neatly into a narrative—beginning, middle, end. All the loose ends are tied together.
THE SECOND incident that made me ponder extinction, however, is not as neat.
It was a discussion among local birdwatchers about the Critically Endangered Cebu Flowerpecker. This Cebu-endemic bird is infamous in the local bird-watching circle due to its ridiculously low numbers. Every once in a while, foreign birders see an individual, and that’s all. Many have tried to look for it in the last decade but very few have seen it.
Discovered in 1877, this species was never described as “common” or “abundant.” Among fifty flowerpeckers collected in Cebu at the beginning of the 20th century, only 5 were Cebu Flowerpecker. It was considered extinct soon after that and it was only in 1992 that it was re-discovered in a patch of forest which “lies on a thin segmented strip on a steep and very uneven, west-facing limestone hillside.”
According to Collar etal. in Threatened Birds of the Philippines:
“Its population now must be extremely low, since only four birds have ever been seen at once, and the habitat available covers a tiny area (300 ha, i.e. 3 sq. km), of which only 30 ha (inside a continuous tract of 185 ha) may be optimal.”
The discussion about the Cebu Flowerpecker in the bird club was spurred by the impending bird festival to be held in Cebu next month.
One birder expressed the opinion that the “Cebu Flowerpecker deserve to go extinct because of its timidity in the face of competition by the more aggressive Red-keeled Flowerpecker. It’s a cowardly animal.”
Ignoring the silly soap opera language, the above opinion inferred that an intrinsic quality in this rare species is dooming it to extinction. Barring the blatant anthropomorphism, this opinion is nothing new. Going back to Collar etal. “It has been suggested that interspecific competition with the Red-keeled Flowerpecker, which is highly aggressive, may also have contributed to the decline of the [Cebu Flowerpecker], although this must presumably be a significant problem only in contexts where habitat modification has begun to favour the [former] species.”
In other words, the turf war between these flowerpeckers escalated when they had to compete for less and less resources in a shrinking range of habitats.
But the truth is no one really knows why the Cebu Flowerpecker is on the verge of extinction. We do not know, for instance, the population trend of the Red-keels—this soap opera’s purported villain. Who can say for certain if their own numbers are healthy? Maybe they’re numbers are going down, too!
Except in cases where a rapacious invasive species takes its toll on island-bound species, extinction on a species level is much tougher to dissect when there is no apparent invasive or introduced species that may take the blame. While individual deaths are “eloquent,” species extinctions are more mysterious and their secrets more difficult to fathom. There are loose threads everywhere.
Perhaps the most famous avian extinction in the modern era was that of the Passenger Pigeon. It had been one of the most abundant birds on Earth, and yet it was snuffed out completely. The last nesting birds were reported in the 1890s. The last individual, named Martha, died at about 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914 inside an American zoo. The last of her kind.
Various reasons have been put forth on the causes of the Passenger Pigeon’s demise: Large-scale commercial hunting, clearance of forests for agriculture, disease, and inability to reproduce when the flock is below a threshold number. It could all be a combination of different factors. The mystery of its extinction will perhaps remain with us. What is telling is that a species that numbered millions plummeted drastically until it was wiped out in a matter of decades.
This brings out another point. The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon has no observable detrimental effect on the quality of life in the US. The US economy surged as the Passenger Pigeon dwindled. Therefore, why should we care when these animals die out?
To be blunt, why should we care when the Cebu Flowerpecker die out?
Like the dead man in Seventh Seal, the deaths of fellow humans affect us directly, but the extinction of another species, how does that affect us, really? When an obscure bird in the island of Cebu dies out, who cares? Isn’t extinction natural?
Some conservation biologists bandy about the concept of “keystone species” which essentially means that some species are more valuable than others in maintaining equilibrium in the system. The common analogy is the rivets-on-a-plane analogy which goes something like this: Some rivets can be dislodged and the plane will still fly. But remove “key” rivets or enough number of rivets and the thing will crash.
But this begs the question, how do we know which species are most important and thus allocate our limited resources to saving them? Is there a way of knowing for certain which ones are “keystone species” before its too late? I have to admit that this concept doesn’t sit well with me because it hints at lobbying and special interests groups each championing his own “keystone species” as a priority for limited conservation funds. Who’s to say that the Red-keels are not keystone species? Does having such a limited distribution like the Cebu Flowerpecker immediately place it in the keystone category?
These questions open a host of issues that are too broad to tackle for a small essay like this, or for an amateur birdwatcher like me, but let me scratch at the surface anyway.
The word “extinction” is from the Latin “extinctus,” a variant of “extinguere.” It referred originally to extinguishing fires. It conjures the image of a dying and fluttering flame. Every time a species dies out, a light is extinguished in the cosmos. Each extinction leaves the natural world a bit darker, duller and lonelier.
“We watched the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” These are the haunting words of proto-ecologist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, describing the life ebbing away from a wolf he had shot. A fierce green fire dying in her eyes.
The extinction of the Cebu Flowerpecker ushers us closer to a world where only weedy species—the animals that reflect human propensity for rapacity and self-interest—thrive. Each extinction leaves us closer to a noisier, dirtier, and crowded world where animals and plants that mirror our own aggressive appetites flourish while the remaining fight over rapidly diminishing resources and turfs.
We are headed into a bland world; a life shorn of surprise, diversity richness and mystique. Some may like it and take comfort in it; just as some people like the fact that there’s a McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere on the planet. But for other people like me, it’s a dreadful prospect. Unfortunately, the times seem to be going against me. I feel like a man playing chess with Death.
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