One in a Million

The Kingdom of Rarities
By Eric Dinerstein
Island Press, 2013, 336 pages

One of the most remote and biologically rich regions of the world is found on the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific. The island’s sparsely populated mountainous terrain – there are areas that have likely never seen human intrusion – has made it a top destination for intrepid field biologists seeking rare and lost species. One area in particular, the Foja Mountains in the heart of Papua Province, has become the holy grail of scientific study. As Eric Dinerstein puts it in his book Kingdom of Rarities: “I had come to doubt whether places such as the Fojas still existed, geographic outliers with no history of interlopers – gold miners, oil drillers, religious zealots, or armed guerillas – either seeking their fortune or looking for an escape from modern society.”

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In 1979, Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, was the first western biologist to reach the Fojas, 740,000 acres of old growth tropical forest. Diamond returned with descriptions of the golden fronted bowerbird, a species that had not been seen for more than 70 years. But it wasn’t until 2005 that a group of scientists led by Bruce Beehler, an authority on the birds of New Guinea, had an opportunity to conduct a more comprehensive survey of the region. Their discoveries were astonishing: more than 20 new species of frogs, a new bird species – the orange faced honey-eater, as well as hundreds of plants and insects. Beehler described the Fojas as being as “close to the Garden of Eden as you’re going to find on earth.”

For Dinerstein, who was not a member of the expedition, the new finds are certainly compelling. He admits to being as enthralled as any avid bird-watcher at the prospect of checking another global rarity off of his list. But his real interest lies elsewhere. As chief scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, Dinerstein has spent the last three decades tracking rare species around the world. What he really wants to know is: What makes these particular species rare, and why does it matter? Have they always been so? Or has human encroachment made them rare? Ultimately, he asks, what can rarity tell us about how to protect species in an age of mass extinction?

It is somewhat surprising to learn, as Dinerstein writes, “that even in perhaps the most remote spot in the tropics, the rules of rarity still apply.” There are a handful of common species with limited distributions and many that have narrow ranges and low population densities. According to Kevin Gaston, whose 1994 book Rarity is something of a classic, just a small percentage of the world’s species (rats, robins, roaches) make up 90 to 95 percent of all individuals in the animal kingdom. If that is the case, then the majority of species on Earth, roughly 75 percent, are rare.

This may pose tricky questions in terms of which species and habitats to focus on for conservation. The problem will become more acute as increasingly large amounts of land, much of it in the tropics, are converted to agricultural production. “Wholesale conversion of land not only threatens to make no small number of common species rare through human activity,” writes Dinerstein. “It also threatens the very existence of what is now rare.”

If Dinerstein’s book offers a kaleidoscopic and highly entertaining picture of some of the world’s most remote and diverse ecological hotspots, it falls short in its prescription for protecting them. This is somewhat surprising given that Dinerstein has worked with the World Wildlife Fund for 24 years. Presumably he knows a thing or two about the challenges facing conservationists in the twenty-first century. In the final chapter, which provides an interesting tour of Bhutan and its ambitious efforts to preserve its native forests as well as rare flora and fauna, Dinerstein comes under the sway of a Buddhist worldview that amounts to showing greater compassion for “the millions of other species with which we share the planet.”

“What solution does a devoutly Buddhist culture offer for the conservation crisis?” he asks. “The answer: The global conservation crisis is ultimately a spiritual crisis in disguise.… Perhaps that is the country’s most essential export to the rest of us who are trying to come to grips with the conservation of rarities.”

I don’t doubt that there is a good deal of truth to this. But I’m not sure there’s enough time to address the “spiritual crisis” before the clock runs out on thousands, if not millions, of rare and endangered species. How we confront that reality, or fail to, will define the course of conservation in the years to come.

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