Science writer shares battles to save species with Seminars at Steamboat audience

Tom Ross

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, of The New Yorker magazine, shares with a packed house at Strings Pavilion Monday her stories of people who have been determined and resourceful in their efforts to save some of the rarest species on the planet from the unintended consequences of previous human migrations. Kolbert's talk was the final installment in the 2017 Seminars at Steamboat series.
Tom Ross

On Aug. 14, Pulitzer prize-winning author  Elizabeth Kolbert, of The New Yorker magazine, shared with another packed house at the final Seminars at Steamboat her stories of  people who have been determined and resourceful in their efforts to save some of the rarest species on the planet from the unintended consequences of previous human migrations. Those species included a parrot that cannot fly.

Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction with her book, “The Sixth Extinction, an Unnatural History,” which described how human activity leading to historically warm temperatures and rising sea levels has also led to an unprecedented period of species extinctions.

“As you know, we are all killers, driving more and more species over the edge,” Kolbert remarked matter-of-factly at the Strings Pavilion Monday evening. The reaction to her book from many readers, she added, was a desire to learn what they could do to prevent human-caused problems, such as ocean acidification.

“I was taken aback by the response,” she recalled, “It seemed like they thought I knew the solutions.”

Consequently, her subject matter in Steamboat was based on a series of New Yorker articles she has written since 2015 and ran the gamut from the really large mammals, like the African elephant, to the vanished chestnut trees that once dominated New England forests, to some lesser-known creatures such as New Zealand’s Kakapo bird.

The kakapo is a flightless species of parrot that is utterly defenseless against imported predators, from feral cats to rats.

The bird, about the size of an osprey, is beloved almost as much as the kiwi by New Zealanders, Kolbert said. But, those same humans have transformed the island nation in ways that threatens the kakapo in a land which originally had only a few species of mammal, and all of them were bats. 

“Humans changed the mammal-less nature of New Zealand,” Kolbert said.

First, the Maoris are believed to have brought rats with them when they arrived in the area, probably as a food source. The eggs of the ground nesting kakapos and kiwis were defenseless against the rats, just as they were against domestic cats brought from Great Britain. But the most ruthless predator was a species of weasel called a stoat.

During a trip to New Zealand, Kolbert met a determined New Zealander named Kevin Adshead, who has launched a national effort to trap and poison the nonnative species to make his country safe again for its native flightless birds.

Even school children are enlisted  in the effort.

“It’s really a national project. They’re very nice people who spend their leisure time killing furry animals,” Kolbert dead-panned.

Elephant dung provides answers to poaching

She also described the unconventional approach Sam Wasser, of the University of Washington in Seattle, took to pin-pointing the hot spots for the poaching of African elephants on the continent.

“Elephants are in trouble for the same reason rhino’s are – they are very slow to reproduce, and people are killing them,” for their ivory, which can sell for $1,000 a pound in Southeast Asian markets, Kolbert said.

Wasser was determined to help the elephants by genetically mapping the source of poached ivory tusks from which he collected samples in the markets of Asia. He understood that there is genetic material in animal feces from which its DNA code can be extracted. His strategy was to match the DNA from illegal ivory with that of living animals.

The surprising results revealed that the great majority of poaching was taking place in relatively confined areas, including one area comprising parts of Gabon, the Congo and Cameroon, and another in South Tanzania and Northern Mozambique.

By identifying the DNA, Wasser and others were able to put pressure on the governments of those countries to reduce the illegal activity.

Genetically modified chestnut trees

The forests of Kolbert’s native New England were once dominated by the stout trunks of chestnut trees, but they were decimated, beginning in 1904, by a fungus brought to North America from Asia.

Researcher William Powell, together with Charles Maynard and their colleagues from the State University of New York, have taken genes from other plants, including wheat, grapes and pepper, to create hundreds of transgenic trees that are almost identical to wild American chestnut trees, but immune to the fungus.

Ironically, Kolbert observed, there is resistance to the genetically modified chestnut trees among members the public, and many government hurdles to clear before the signature tree of Eastern forests can be restored to its native habitat.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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