Sifting Through the Embers

There’s a story I heard when I was young which bothered me because I couldn’t understand it. It was many years before I discovered it to be the story of the Sybilline books. By that time all the details of the story had rewritten themselves in my mind, but the essentials were still the same. After a year of exploring some of the endangered environments of the world I think I finally understand it.

It concerns an ancient city – it doesn’t matter where it was or what it was called – it was a thriving, prosperous city set in the middle of a large plain. One summer, while the people of the city were busy thriving and prospering away, a strange old beggar woman arrived at the gates carrying twelve large books, which she offered to sell to them. She said that the books contained all the knowledge and all the wisdom of the world, and that she would let the city have all twelve of them in return for a single sack of gold.

The people of the city thought this was a very funny idea. They said she obviously had no conception of the value of gold and that probably the best thing was for her to go away again.

This she agreed to do, but first, she said, she was going to destroy half of the books in front of them. She built a small bonfire, burnt six of the books of all knowledge and all wisdom in the sight of the people of the city and then went on her way.

Winter came and went, a hard winter, but the city just about managed to flourish through it and then, the following summer the old woman was back.

‘Oh, you again,’ said the people of the city. ‘How’s the knowledge and wisdom going??

‘Six books,’ she said, `just six left. Half of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Once again I am offering to sell them to you.’

‘Oh yes?’ sniggered the people of the city.

`Only the price has changed.’

`Not surprised.’

`Two sacks of gold.’


‘Two sacks of gold for the six remaining books of knowledge and wisdom. Take it or leave it.’

‘It seems to us,’ said the people of the city, `that you can’t be very wise or knowledgeable yourself or you would realise that you can’t just go around quadrupling an already outrageous price in a buyer’s market. If that’s the sort of knowledge and wisdom you’re peddling then, frankly, you can keep it at any price.’

‘Do you want them or not?’


`very well. I will trouble you for a little firewood.’

She built another bonfire, and burnt three of the remaining books in front of them and then set off back across the plain.

That night one or two curious people from the city sneaked out and sifted through the embers to see if they could salvage the odd page or two, but the fire had burnt very thoroughly and the old woman had raked the ashes. There was nothing.

Another hard winter took its toll on the city and they had a little trouble with famine and disease, but trade was good and they were in reasonably good shape again by the following summer when, once again, the old woman appeared.

`You’re early this year,’ they said to her.

`Less to carry,’ she explained, showing them the three books she was still carrying. `A quarter of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Do you want it?’

`What’s the price?’

`Four sacks of gold.’

‘You’re completely mad, old woman. Apart from anything else our economy’s going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment. Sacks of gold are completely out of the question.’

`Firewood, please.’

`Now wait a minute,’ said the people of the city, `this isn’t doing anybody any good. We’ve been thinking about all this and we’ve put together a small committee to have a look at these books of yours. Let us evaluate them for a few months, see if they’re worth anything to us, and when you come back next year perhaps we can put in some kind of a reasonable offer. We are not talking sacks of gold here, though.’

The old woman shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. `Bring me the firewood.’

‘It’ll cost you.’

`No matter,’ said the woman, with a shrug. `The books will burn quite well by themselves.’

So saying, she set about shredding two of the books into pieces which then burnt easily. She set off swiftly across the plain and left the people of the city to face another year.

She was back in the late spring.

`Just the one left,’ she said, putting it down on the ground in front of her. `So I was able to bring my own firewood.’

`How much?’ said the people of the city.

`Sixteen sacks of gold.’

‘We’d only budgeted for eight.’

`Take it or leave it.’

‘Wait here.’

The people of the city went off into a huddle and returned half an hour later.

`Sixteen sacks is all we’ve got left,’ they pleaded. `Times are hard. You must leave us with something.’

The old woman just hummed to herself as she started to pile the kindling together.

`All right!’ they cried at last, opened up the gates of the city and led out two oxcarts, each laden with eight sacks of gold, `but it had better be good.’

`Thank you,’ said the old woman, `it is. And you should have seen the rest of it.’

She led the two oxcarts away across the plain with her, and left the people of the city to survive as best they could with the one remaining twelfth of all the knowledge and wisdom that had been in the world.

Mark’s Last Word …

Was this really our last chance to see these animals? Unfortunately, there are too many unknowns for there to be a simple answer. With strenuous efforts in the field, the populations of some have actually begun to rise. But it is clear that if those efforts were suspended for a moment, the kakapos, the Yangtze river dolphins, the northern white rhinos and many others would vanish almost immediately.ely.

Not that a large population necessarily guarantees an animal’s future survival, as experience has shown many times in the past. The most famous example is the North American passenger pigeon, which was once the commonest bird that ever lived on earth. Yet it was hunted to extinction in little more than fifty years. We didn’t learn any lessons from that experience: ten years ago, there were 1.3 million elephants in Africa , but so many have been killed by poachers that today no more than 600,000 are left.eft.

On the other hand, even the smallest populations can be brought back from the brink. Juan Fernandez fur seal numbers dropped from millions to fewer than one hundred by 1965; today, there are three thousand. And in New Zealand in 1978, the population of Chatham island robins was down to one pregnant female, but the dedication of Don Merton and his team saved the species from extinction and there are now more than fifty.

The kakapo may also be on a slow road to recovery. Soon after we returned to England , we received the following letter from New Zealand :


P.O. Box 3 Stewart Island Island

Dear Douglas and Mark, I hope this reaches you quickly – I have some good news from kakapo country on southern Stewart Island At 08.45 hrs on 25 August 1989 one of our dog. handlers, Alan Munn, and his English setter `Ari’ located a new female kakapo near Lees Knob, at an altitude of 380 metres. `Jane’ weighed 1.25 kg and she scrarked a lot when Alan picked her up. She had just finished moulting but looked in good condition, so in a few days she will be flown to her new home – Codfish Island . Once again, thanks very much for your visit. It certainly helped give those Big Green Budgies some of the attention they deserve.n they deserve.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Roberts (kakapo project manager)

for R Tindal, District Conservator,r,

Department of Conservation, Rakiura.

We later received some further good news about the kakapos. Two more females have been found on Stewart Island and transferred to Codfish, bringing the total kakapo population up to forty-three.ree.

Meanwhile, on little Barrier Island , several of the males there have been booming for the first time including, to everyone’s delight, a nine-year-old called `Snark’. Born on Stewart Island in 1981, Snark was the only kakapo chick to have been seen by anyone this century.e this century.

But the best news of all was still to come. just before going to press, a very excited Don Merton telephoned to say that a newly made kakapo nest has just been found on Little Barrier island. Inside the nest, which was built by a nine-year-old female called `Heather’, was a single kakapo egg.

Transferring kakapos to Little Barrier and Codfish Islands has been a calculated risk – but it is the only hope of saving the kakapo from extinction. Heather’s nest is the first encouraging sign that the project is actually working and now everyone is waiting nervously to see if her egg will hatch and if she can raise the chick in her adopted home.opted home.

We also received a letter from Kes Hillman-Smith in Zaire to say that three baby northern white rhinos have been born in Garamba since we left, bringing the total population up to twenty-five. The enthusiastic park staff have named them ‘Mpiko’, meaning courage; `Molende’, meaning perseverance; and `Minzoto’, meaning a star.

It’s important to recognise that not every conservation strategy necessarily works: we are often experimenting in the dark. During the early stages of the Garamba project a lot of pressure was put on the Zairois to have all of their northern white rhinos captured and taken into captivity. The government of Zaire would not agree to this. They said that the rhinos belong to them and they didn’t want them to go to zoos in other parts of the world. Fortunately it seems that this was the right decision. Northern white rhinos, it turned out, do not breed well in captivity – the last one was born in -1982 – whereas more than ten have been born in the same period in the wild. wild.

The news from Mauritius has been more mixed. The kestrels are doing well and Carl believes that there could now be as many as a hundred of them in the wild, including twelve breeding pairs. However, the population of truly wild pink pigeons has dropped to fewer than ten. Some of the pigeons that have been bred in captivity are being released again. So far, they have escaped the hunters and appear to be doing well. well.

As for the echo parakeets, at least one of them has died since we saw them, though some of the others have been attempting to breed. In November 1989, Carl found a parakeet nest with three eggs inside. One of these mysteriously disappeared soon afterwards, so he decided to risk removing the others to the captive breeding centre for safe-keeping. Both eggs hatched successfully and the chicks are fit and well.

Perhaps most important of all (for non-ornithologists) the wild population of Rodrigues fruitbats has just passed the one thousand mark.

In contrast, after the radio series had been broadcast, we received a disturbing letter from a couple who had been working in China :

Dear Douglas and Mark,

We enjoyed the Yangtze dolphin programme – but listened with a touch of guilt! We recently spent three months working in a number of factories in Nanjing . We had a wonderful time with the people and ate well. To honour us when we left, one of them cooked a Yangtze dolphin, so really there should be 201.e 201.

Sorry about that.


PS Sorry, it was two dolphins – my husband reminds me that he was guest of honour and had the embryo.

There is probably little hope of saving the dolphins in the Yangtze river itself, despite all the time and effort invested in protecting them. Perhaps in semi-captivity, in the reserve at Tongling and the new one at Shi Shou, they will stand a chance – though it could never be the same as being wild and free. Meanwhile, of course, the noise and pollution continue.nue.

No one knows how many other species are this close to extinction. We don’t even know how many species of animals and plants there are altogether in the world. A staggering 1.4 million have been found and identified so far, but some experts believe that there are another 30 million yet to be discovered. It’s not surprising when you consider that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about parts of our own planet. Many animals and plants are disappearing even before we are aware of their existence, perhaps hidden away somewhere in the depths of an unexplored sea or in a quiet corner of a tropical rain forest.

And it’s not only the tiny, obscure creatures that have managed to escape our attention. There have been some exciting new discoveries in the rainforests of Madagascar , for example, since Douglas and I were there looking for the aye-aye in 1985. Field researchers have found two new species of lemur: one, called the golden bamboo lemur, has beautiful golden eyebrows, orange cheeks and a rich reddish-brown coat; the other has a shock of golden orange on the top of its head and has been named the golden-crowned sifaka.ifaka.

Both lemurs are extremely rare – and virtually unknown. What roles do they play in Madagascar ‘s rain forests? Do they have any direct relevance to our own lives? What are the main threats to their survival? We don’t know. They could become extinct before the experts learn enough to save them. Wildlife conservation is always a race against time. As zoologists and botanists explore new areas, scrabbling to record the mere existence of species before they become extinct, it is like someone hurrying through a burning library desperately trying to jot down some of the titles of books that will now never be reade read

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

It is the sheer rate of acceleration that is as terrifying as anything else. We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year.

There are currently five billion human beings and our numbers are continually growing. We are fighting for space with the world’s wildlife, which has to contend with hunting, pollution, pesticides and, most important of all, the loss of habitat. Rain forests alone contain half the world’s species of animals and plants, yet an area the size of Senegal is being destroyed every year. year.

There are so many threatened animals around the world that, at the rate of one every three weeks, it would have taken Douglas and me more than three hundred years to search for them all. And if we had decided to include threatened plants as well, it would have taken another thousand years.

In every remote corner there are people like Carl Jones and Don Merton who have devoted their lives to saving them. Very often, their determination is all that stands between an endangered species and extinction.

But why do they bother? Does it really matter if the Yangtze river dolphin, or the kakapo, or the northern white rhino, or any other species live on only in scientists’ notebooks?oks?

Well, yes it does. Every animal and plant is an integral part of its environment: even Komodo dragons have a major role to play in maintaining the ecological stability of their delicate island homes. If they disappear, so could many other species. And conservation is very much in tune with our own survival. Animals and plants provide us with life-saving drugs and food, they pollinate crops and provide important ingredients for many industrial processes. Ironically, it is often not the big and beautiful creatures but the ugly and less dramatic ones which we need most.

Even so, the loss of a few species may seem almost irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we’re driving.

There is one last reason for caring, and I believe that no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.

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