Nene, the Hawaiian Goose and official state bird, on Kauai
Nene, the Hawaiian Goose and official state bird, on Kauai

By Syd Singer – Why is there such a fuss made over protection of endangered species?  You should be able to ask that question, but in today’s politically correct world, protection of species on the brink of extinction is a holy service to the planet.  And it is supported by government agencies and environmental NGOs with religious zeal and legal mandate.

However, like all religious prescriptions, the reason for protecting these rare species is an act of faith.  Seldom does anyone ask, “What does it matter if this species becomes extinct?”
I saw a pair of endangered Nene geese the other day near Hilo Bay, sitting along a ledge and oblivious to the cars and trucks that zoomed by.  Apart from their coloration, which is drab grey, white and black, there seems nothing really special about these birds.  There are much more colorful geese.  They did not do anything other geese don’t do.  In short, there was really nothing  extraordinary about these animals.
Clearly, their only advantage is their rarity.  And that is all that they need to be given acres of critical habitat, and command millions of dollars of funds for their continued protection.
Would the world be a worse off place without Nene geese?  I don’t think so.  The sun would still rise in the morning.  The stars would still shine at night.  The tides would still ebb and flow.  And nature would get along just fine.
I can hear environmentalists arguing that we need biodiversity, and losing any species would shrink the list of species that inhabit this planet.  To which I respond, “So what?”  Losing one species of geese with no special qualities will not make the world a worse place.  There are still plenty of geese species.
Of course, this is not about quality, but quantity.  The Endangered Species Act (ESA) cares not one iota about the qualities of the species it protects.  It’s all about the quantity of individuals left.  It could be a tape worm, or a fruit fly, or a slug, or a toxic plant or fungus.  It could be toxic to people and animals we do care about.  It could be a pest of agriculture.  All that matters is whether there are only a few left to start the government into protection mode.
The federal agency primarily responsible for enforcing the ESA is the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Recently, they announced their plan to kill cattle egrets and barn owls throughout the Hawaiian islands.  Millions of birds may be slaughtered, all in the name of protecting the few endangered native water birds that are struggling to survive, mostly due to loss of habitat, pollution, disease, and predation from rodents, cats and dogs.
It doesn’t matter that the egrets and owls are serving people and other animals by controlling insect and rodent pests.  It doesn’t matter that these beautiful and helpful birds are valued and admired by people, and are important parts of our wildlife community.  All that matters is that they are successful and thriving and in healthy numbers, while the rare endangered birds with which they compete are suffering and may somehow benefit from less competition from the more adaptable and successful species.
The government would kill a million owls and egrets if it meant saving one Nene goose.  Personally, I would rather save the egrets and owls and say goodbye to the goose.  Better yet, I would remove the Nene from the wild, put it in a zoo, and propagate it, as you do with other rarities.  They are relics of a past environment, before people and technology and climate change transformed the environment into what we have today.  If we want to save relics, we protect them in special places removed from the rest of what’s going on.  We don’t destroy all that currently exists in an attempt to return to the past.
This selective destruction of healthy animals for the sake of rarities is not unique to Hawaii.  It is happening everywhere the ESA mandates government eradicators to kill.  The workers say they are just doing their jobs.  They will kill any populous species (apart from humans, for the time being) to save the rare, regardless of the qualities of either.  It’s a quantitative environmental policy that hopes to raise the numbers of the weakest and least viable species by reducing the numbers of the strongest.
But there is one twist.  You need to be “native”, that is, the species being protected must not have been introduced by humans into the environment for them to be protected.  Even if the species is endangered in its “native” environment, it will be killed if found “where it doesn’t belong”.  As a result, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and the USDA’s Wildlife Service have caught endangered, rare Amazon parrots in Hawaii, which are illegal aliens, and have had them killed.  Veiled chameleons, also an endangered species, have been killed in Hawaii for being in the wrong place.
So the ESA isn’t just about quantity.  It’s also about creating an order to the world where species allegedly “belong”.  Coming from humans, who think they belong everywhere in the world,  adds hypocrisy to this mythology.
Unfortunately, for those bitten with the bug to save the planet’s species from extinction, there is nothing more urgent than enforcing the ESA, setting aside critical habitat to protect these species, and killing any species that might get in the way.   Ironically, if successful and the rarity someday becomes a common species, it will lose protection and can be killed, as well.
Clearly, the goal is saving the native and rare.  The method is by killing the introduced and not so rare.  The outcome is unknown, especially since the bigger problems of pollution, habitat loss, and disease are still taking their toll.  Except one outcome is known.  Millions of dead wild birds and other creatures unlucky enough not to be endangered are a certain outcome of this violent wildlife management approach, mandated under the ESA.
It’s time to revisit the ESA and end its bloody mandate.  That won’t sit well with species saviors who, gun and poison in hand, are hell bent on doing whatever and killing whatever to save the planet from losing a species.  Like all religious zealots, these people see the ends justify their means.  Perhaps they all would be helped by examining the cause of their obsessive need to prevent extinction.  Beneath it all is a psychological fear of death, a personal fear that seems to scream out at the thought of a species becoming extinct.  Extinction, after all, is the ultimate metaphor for death.  It’s the death of a species.  Of course, new species are born as old species die.  It’s the process of change.  But that won’t give succor to those who fear for the end of the planet, the end of species, or the end of themselves.  They have the law on their side.  With the ESA, they endanger any wildlife that gets in the way.  They are crusaders.  Woe unto those species, like owls or egrets, who get in their way.

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Sydney Ross Singer is a medical and environmental anthropologist, author, and director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, located on the Big Island. Sydney is a pioneer of applied medical anthropology, and he is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease.