Taking Care of the Earth--But for the Wrong Reasons

The New York Times magazine had a fascinating story this week about the effort that is going on to preserve the whooping crane, long a threatened species. The story covers tales of people dressed in crane suits and guiding young cranes by flying ultralights along their migration route. These are cranes hatched and raised for quite a while in a strange sort of captivity, being cared for, but at the same time being kept away from contact with human beings, at least from human beings not outfitted in a suit designed to mimic the cranes. The story about the cranes is certainly interesting on its own merits, but what caught my eye was this comment about threatened species in general.
The whooping crane, David S. Wilcove, a Princeton ecologist, told me recently, “is just about the most charismatic endangered species in America.” By 1941, only 21 wild ones remained. Today there are 381, enough to make it one of the most uplifting success stories in a field where the bar is admittedly sinking rather low. By now, one biologist told me, “work on any endangered species is certainly a very severe, rear-guard effort.” Twelve percent of the world’s bird species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature — so are a fifth of all mammals, and almost a third of all amphibians. In other words, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and sustaining the world’s wildlife will require progressively more systemic interventions from here on out. “Many of those species, probably most of them,” Wilcove said, “are in a certain sense wards of the state. Now and for the foreseeable future, they will be dependent on humans for their survival.”

Operation Migration exemplifies the kind of ingenious, unwavering work that needs to be done — and that we’ll need to keep doing, maybe forever, even as the strenuous administrative challenge of micromanaging so much of the natural world begins to blur the line between conservation and domestication. Already, it has come to this on planet Earth: men dressed like birds, teaching birds to fly.

Our experience with flight has come full circle. From Daedalus and Icarus learning to fly by mimicking birds to teaching birds to fly by fooling them into thinking that humans in airplanes are their mothers. Technology [and development] that has led to the destruction of their habitat is ironically being used to preserve the species. Hopefully it is Daedalus reborn as a faux crane, not Icarus. It boggles the mind.