We've all heard about the direct impact that man has had on numerous ecologies, how humans have helped spur the latest great extinction event*. But whWe've all heard about the direct impact that man has had on numerous ecologies, how humans have helped spur the latest great extinction event*. But what is rather less well-known is the impact we've had through the introduction (accidental or deliberate but poorly considered) of invasive species - cats, weasels, arctic foxes and most especially RATS.
Scientists estimate that at least 103 species of animals - mostly birds - have gone extinct due primarily to predation by introduced rats for which they have no natural defense in Hawaii alone. Multiply that by the number of other vulnerable islands and that figure goes up significantly. Numerous others have been driven to near extinction by rat infestations. It's even thought the true story behind the devastation on Easter Island was precipitated by the presence of imported rats.
We know the damage that's been done - and that continues today. But what can and is being done? In short, small groups are mounting herculean efforts to remove invaders completely from these islands and give the native species a chance to claw their way from the brink of extinction, using methods as absolute as they are controversial.
Rat Island tells the tale of small groups of naturalists, park rangers and evangelists who are fighting the uphill battle against invasive species - and winning.
THE STORY Rat Island is the story of what we've lost when introduced species enter an ecosystem ripe for plunder. Numbers of the natives drop precipitously, even to the point of extinction. William Stolzenburg details in grisly detail some of the magnificent species - primarily birds - who have wiped out by a few pairs of rats who landed on an otherwise isolated island of unique life. He goes in depth most on the story of New Zealand and its embattled flightless parrot, the kakapo, but touches similar examples of woe all over the world.
Then he tells the tale of those who would save these island oases where so many unique species dwell. Using diverse methods such as wiping out entire populations of invasive species via poison, trapping and mata hari goats, naturalists do what they can to rid these fragile habitats of the marauders so that the rare, native species can attempt to make a comeback. Meanwhile, others desperately search for new isolated locations to move the remaining populations of threatened species where eradication isn't possible in a last ditch effort to protect them and give them a chance.
Stolzenburg does a good job at setting the stage in this book - perhaps too good. The first half of the story covers the relentless slaughter of millions of birds, insects and reptiles by introduced species. From the eradication of seabird colonies throughout the Pacific islands by 3 species of ship-borne rats to the devastation wrought upon the unique fauna of New Zealand's islands by a succession of imported creatures (rats > rabbits > stoats) to the voracious appetites of the arctic fox among previously protected auklet colonies in the Aleutians, Stolzenburg's text is a litany of horrors. After the first three chapters you are horrified; after the next 3, despondent; then comes hopelessness after even the most courageous early efforts at restoring balance are blocked by beauracracy.
It was only the hope of a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that kept me reading. But even the second half of the book - the 'lighter' half - was darkened by the constant veil of human stupidity and continued horror stories. Perhaps it IS the reality, but having even the greatest successes constantly edged in darkness made it hard to celebrate the few, but increasing, victories being had in the conservation fight.
While I liked the book overall, I would have preferred a slightly more positive tone in later chapters to highlight the hope we have at restoring some of the balance.
About the Book One interesting aspect of the book is the rough-hewn edges of the pages, which give it a more natural feel than most books produced today. That said, however, the book is shorter than expected, too as the last 42 pages are all bibliography thus clocking the actual text at 222 pages. I'm not sure why but it felt like I was cheated a little bit.
CONCLUSION Some chapters of our natural history are already written (unless we figure out how to clone extinct species) and its important to understand what's already been done to fully detail the importance (and magnitude) of what needs to be done.
Rat Island offers a look into the worst of the situation but some beacons of hope in preserving already threatened animals from 'unnatural' threats. While dark at times, the book is a worthwhile story to know.
* it has been estimated that the current rate of extinction is 10,000x the natural rate, mostly due to human activities and their environmental impact....more