When biologist Carl Jones arrived on Mauritius in 1974, only four kestrels were left in the wild. Attempts to breed them in captivity had failed and extinction was inevitable. Jones was 24 and refused to listen to his employers (BirdLife International) to leave the kestrel-saving to government officials. With no resources to do so, that was the equivalent of doing nothing.
In the forty years following the 1970s we have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. In this Anthropocene mass extinction, we are quietly witnessing a phenomenal 2,000 to 10,000 species extinctions a year. But during this time of annihilation, Jones—one man—rescued the kestrel from oblivion. He increased its numbers a hundredfold. He then went on to save several other species, both animals and plants.
Embracing EO Wilson’s concept of biophilia—the human need to live intimately with other species—Jones lived all his life with other species and this honed his hands-on approach to saving species. “It’s very easy [to save a species]. It’s no secret at all,” says Jones.
But, to succeed, Jones had to challenge the conservation establishment. If he had followed the argument for wildlife triage—prioritising species more likely to survive at the expense of desperate cases such as the Mauritius kestrel—several species, including the Mauritius kestrel, would now be extinct.
Jones challenged the classic conservation reticence to do hands-on conservation and their hegemony “that we must first precisely understand the reasons for a species’ decline and then restore its habitat…A lot of species have been studied to extinction.” He suggested a more heuristic approach to comprehend limiting factors such as food, nesting sites, competition, predation and disease. “If there’s a shortage of food, you start feeding. If there’s a shortage of nest sites, you put up nest boxes.” This is exactly what he did.
Jones essentially used his experience in ecological structure and function—gained through an intimate study of relationships and cause and effect—to apply the principle of fractal ecology* to understand the whole of parts by the parts of a whole. This allowed him to use proxy species that fulfilled the same ecological function—just as a master baker might substitute baking powder with baking soda and cream of tartar to leaven or a chef would substitute vinegar with lemon juice.
Patrick Barkham of The Guardian writes of Jones: “he used traditional captive-breeding methods … ‘cosseting them in captivity and encouraging them to reproduce’. To this, he added new scientific methods to manipulate the birds’ productivity such as ‘double-clutching’, removing a kestrel’s eggs and hand-rearing the young to encourage females to lay a second brood. He applied…these techniques to wild birds, spending hundreds of hours camping beneath wild kestrel nests. ‘The most important thing when you start to work with a critically endangered species is to know that species with great intimacy, [Jones] says. He trained wild Mauritius kestrels to take white mice; supplementary feeding encouraged them to lay more eggs. ‘By stealing those eggs and putting them in incubators, I could get them to lay second clutches. When I’d hatched eggs in captivity, I put some of the youngsters back in the wild and I fed the wild parents so they could look after them.’”
Barkham writes: “Many conservationists view ‘single-species’ conservation as trivial or expensive—an old-fashioned luxury in the 21st century. Jones argues that this is completely wrong. ‘Working with species is a key to unlock all the problems that you see in the system,’ he says. Restoring a species revives an actor that performs a function – grazing or scavenging – within an ecosystem. ‘When you save an individual species you end up looking after the whole system.’”
“Jones’s species-saving has led to the restoration of whole systems. Round Island, a once-verdant islet near Mauritius inhabited by unique reptiles including the Round Island boa and Günther’s day gecko, was reduced to a moonscape by goats and rabbits released by sailors. These invasive mammals were removed to allow the flora to recover. Surprisingly, however, native plants found nowhere else in the world then started to decline. Jones decided to put the Aldabra giant tortoise, from the Seychelles, on to Round Island. ‘Everybody thought it was the worst idea in the world. They said: You can’t do this. Extinctions on islands are caused by exotic animals and you want to put exotic animals on islands!’ Jones stressed that he would be restoring the ecological role of extinct giant tortoises. By the 90s, he had won people round. Now, 600 tortoises roam Round Island and native plants such as the ebony tree are thriving again thanks to the tortoises’ grazing and seed dispersal.
“Jones thinks small islands are where we can begin to revive species. How would he revive Britain, one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world? After decades working overseas, the Durrell trust is planning collaborative projects to revive British wildlife. Restoring “ecological functions” with proxy species is one answer.”
Carl Jones is an eco-hero.
*Fractals are never-ending patterns. Fractals are self-similar across different scales in which each part has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractal models describe the geometry of ubiquitous natural phenomena such as coastlines, coral reefs, trees, clouds and patches of vegetation with ‘nested irregularity”. As part of modified diffusion models, fractals portray complexity through multi-dimensions. Ecologists use the concept of fractals to answer a variety of basic questions involving scale, measurement, and hierarchy in ecological systems.
This article is the first of a series of Friday posts that will feature an eco-hero in the singular altruistic act of helping this planet cope and heal from the self-serving, unkind and cruel actions of a humanity pre-occupied with itself. I hope you will join me in celebrating the selfless actions of these individuals on behalf of Gaia.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.