Friday, 29 June 2007

Scientists are a threat to endangered birds

US Scientists are a threat to endangered birds

The current issue of the American Bird Conservancy's newsletter (June 2007)
raises an issue that appears to be controversial in the Americas. I write it like this, because in Britain and most other parts of the world the issue would not be controversial; it would be clear cut. And that issue concerns collecting rare and endangered birds, and birds new to science.

Some American ornithologists still believe it is OK to kill birds for museum collections, even if they are very rare -- an anachronistic position hardly any British ornithologists would condone. And in case anyone doubts this, there is a very clear example: in 2006 scientists from Louisiana Museum netted and killed two out of the three known specimens of the Jocotoco Antpitta just discovered in Northern Peru.$Content/Newsletters/$File/2006+-+November.pdf

With a total world population, including the Ecuadorian population at no more than 200 birds, and the possibility that the Peruvian population was less than 10, it was clearly totally unjustified for the birds to be killed, simply to adorn the drawers of an American museum. Old World scientists have been describing new species (let alone confirming known ones) by methods that do not involve destroying them for several years. Advances in DNA sampling, combined with digital photography have made the conventional type specimen, if not redundant, at least non-essential, for critically endangered species.

It is high time that all responsible scientific institutions, as well as conservation organisations, came out with unequivocal positions condemning the scientific collecting of endangered species. And, as the ABC article points out, that almost inevitably includes almost any newly discovered species, as the very fact that they have only just been discovered will almost certainly mean that they are very rare, if not endangered.

It is also an example of how CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) fails to protect some of the rarest wildlife. The species protected under CITES have to be listed in one of the three Appendices; consequently if a species is newly described or so rare that there is arguably no trade in it, then it is likely to be unprotected. And while there are exemptions for scientific specimens to be moved around the world, it should be totally contrary to the spirit of CITES to allow specimens of this nature to be collected and shipped to American museums.

First of all, the international scientific and ornithological community should publicly condemn the museum, and its staff for these actions. They should also condemn the National Geographic Society for funding such an activity.

Second, the Parties to CITES should find a mechanism to prevent such specimens being allowed to be sent to museums.

The following quote from the Louisiana Museum Newsletter for November 2006 illustrates the cavalier attitude the the killing of some of the world's least known and probably rarest birds:

With his fifth grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and a gift from a good friend of the Museum, Staff Research Associate John P. O’Neill planned and led an expedition to a remote area of northern Peru. The aim of the expedition was to explore the southern section of the Cordillera del Cóndor on the border of Ecuador in the department of Cajamarca.....

..... After only a few days Santiago was able to see and then collect an antpitta – the first specimen from Perú and a new species for the LSUMNS collection! He also found other interesting birds such as two species of tapaculos (family hynocryptidae), a variety of hummingbirds and tanagers, and many other birds, most of which did not occur at the 1800 meter base camp. He soon also collected a specimen of the Flammulated Treehaunter, Thripadectes flammulatus, a member of the family Furnariidae, and one of the few members of that family for which no tissue existed. This is especially important because of Dr. Remsen’s and Dr. Brumfield’s NSF-funded project to study the phylogeny of this huge Neotropical family of birds .....

..... While the saga of new birds was ongoing at the higher camps, the Schmitt’s and Sandesh Kadur arrived at the base camp on June 29, adding great talent to the kinning and hunting efforts. Jonathon, only 17 years old, has already been on several expeditions and is now a skilled hunter and an excellent preparer of specimens. He concentrated his efforts on collecting the dozen or more sympatric
species of Tangara tanagers that were at the 1800 meter camp, as well as other interesting species (including the only specimen of the Equatorial Graytail, (Xenerpestes singularis), collected on the expedition. This small member of the furnariid family is very poorly known. Shortly after the Schmitts arrived, Santiago went out one morning and came upon a flock of Whitebreasted Parakeets and managed to collect two specimens – a new species for Perú and also for the LSUMNS collection!
Finally we had to make a schedule to take down the camps, stop preparing birds, and prepare to leave. Our allotted time had run out. With the almost continuous rain of the previous 50 days or so the trails were now nearly three feet deep in thick, gooey mud. Thanks to our new local friends we were able to get enough mules to get all of our stuff off the mountain and down to where trucks could be used in only two days. Some work had been done on the road and we were able to slip and slide down to where it was dryer. We actually made it out from camp to Jaen in three days – a iracle! Soon we were in Jaen where it was warm and dry, sleeping in beds, eating in a restaurant, and all was peaceful. But, in reality, we knew that we had not finished our work in the Cordillera del Condor, and likely would not be able to go back. That’s the way it is in Perú – there is always more to do and there will always be new discoveries. We do not seem to have found any new species, but we did get two species new for Peru and new for the LSUMNS collection and we have many interesting records of birds from an area that was once a total biological unknown.
I might also add that a major book on the birds of Peru written by Tom Schulenberg, Doug Stotz, Dan Lane, and I, and illustrated by 13 of the world’s best artists is now in press (Princeton University Press).

When the World Land Trust first learned of this issue, the Chairman of the Trustees immediately wrote to BirdLife International requesting that it take a firm stance against such collecting.

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