…of the most 100 threatened species on the planet.
As much as I dislike these sorts of lists – a fern specialist or a freshwater invertebrate specialist could probably come up with a similar list that would be just as ‘valid’ – it is sad to see a species I’ve fought for since the turn of the century acknowledged as amongst the most threatened of the millions of species in existence.
I heard the news about this particular list on BBC Radio 4 this morning. Presenter James Naughtie reduced a hugely important subject into a series of soundbites (I suppose to be fair if you’re given five minutes to talk about mass extinction the points need to be made quite quickly), and his two guests – both conservationists – struggled pointlessly to come up with differing viewpoints when clearly both felt much the same way. I was left typically irritated and disappointed.
The thrust of the arguments both on Radio 4 and online once again seem to be ‘If we lose these animals, we could be losing something that may be useful to us’. I couldn’t care less whether the Spoon-billed Sandpiper might contain a gene that will cure obesity or allow us to live another twenty years, but I do care hugely that it is disappearing solely because of our actions (and conversely because our lack of actions). The Spoon-billed Sandpiper hasn’t evolved to give birders a tick, so that we can ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ about how ‘cute’ the chicks are, or so that we can thrill to the wonders of migration. It hasn’t appeared so that we can study it, so that researchers can puzzle over the shape of its bill, or so that Radio 4 listeners can chuckle over its odd English name (and don’t tell me that there was any other reason the programme’s producers chose to include this little bird amongst the examples they read out from the list).
No, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper serves no utilitarian ‘purpose’ for humans whatsoever. It evolved its bill because it adapted to a substrate. It does what it does, looks like it does, behaves like it does, because that’s the direction natural selection took it in when presented with the Yellow Sea and the Chukotka Peninsula. It may be a biological curiosity as far as some humans are concerned, but in reality it is just one of millions of species perfectly suited to the part of the world it lives in.
However, while as a living species the Spoon-billed Sandpiper probably doesn’t benefit humankind directly – and how arrogant of us to even suggest that evolution works to provide us with things we need anyway – its loss will be noteworthy. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper occupies a relatively narrow niche of estuarine tidal flats and coastal tundra. As does a whole range of other benthos – organisms that live on, in, or near the seabed or in the mud of estuaries and fuel the great migrations of millions of shorebirds. Estuarine tidal-flats are remarkably dynamic ecosystems. They are filters and carbon sinks. Billions of fish use estuaries as nurseries. Tidal-flats protect coastlines from storm surges. While a single species of rare bird does nothing to ‘benefit’ humanity, estuaries and tidal-flats most certainly do.
The point is that we will lose the Spoon-billed Sandpiper not because it’s no longer suited to life in the 21st Century (as some commentators suggest) but because we are destroying tidal-flats. We are damming estuaries, drying out vast areas of mud, and altering whole coastal landscapes all around the world. The loss of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper – and perhaps even the inevitable loss of the other species that rely on functioning and healthy tidal flats too – won’t matter a jot for the vast majority of people, but the reasons for its loss will do even if they don’t immediately know why.
While the Spoon-billed Sandpiper itself serves no single useful purpose and almost certainly doesn’t hold the key for human survival, its extinction will be a clear signal that we are destroying the environment and the ecosystems we all depend on. When we’ve finished doing that we will have put ourselves at a high risk of extinction too. And while some people might say that’s not a bad thing, it is because there is no chance whatsoever that we will go down alone.
We will go down taking almost every living thing with us.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Yubu Island, South Korea, 12 September 2007
Photo copyright Nial Moores/Birds Korea
“Birds Korea is dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region, working through research, education and public-awareness raising activities, consultation and collaboration, and well-focused advocacy.
Birds Korea recognizes that wild birds are beautiful and inspirational, and that many wild bird species are excellent bio-indicators of the ecological character of habitats, and of changes to these habitats and to the global environment. Successful conservation of wild birds entails conservation of a wide range of naturally productive habitats and sites, vital to the long-term survival of other biodiversity, including people.”
The Birds Korea websites:
- Main site in English: http://www.birdskorea.org/
- Main site in Korean: http://www.birdskorea.or.kr/
- The Birds Korea blog: http://www.birdskoreablog.org
- On Twitter @birdskoreablog
Feature image by Jan Van de Kam taken at Saemangeum in 2006