Jane Goodall builds an ark

By Kathryn Shevelow
Sunday, November 15, 2009


How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink

By Jane Goodall with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson

Grand Central. 392 pp. $27.99

Two hundred years ago, as Jane Goodall and her co-authors remind us in this survey of efforts to save endangered species, golden lion tamarins by the thousands scampered through the trees of Brazil's coastal forest. The lion tamarin is a beautiful little monkey, with a solemn, big-eyed face wreathed by a mane of burnished hair. Unfortunately, not only has their cuteness made them prime commodities in the international exotic pet market, but their former habitat has been decimated by agriculture and cattle grazing: Only 7 percent of their forest remains today. The golden lion tamarin would be extinct if not for Dr. Adelmar Coimbra-Filho, known as the "father" of Brazilian primatology, and his colleague Alceo Magnanini, who worked for decades to protect them. Now, hope for the tamarins' survival depends on the biological reserve created for them, and on captive breeding programs in Brazil and elsewhere, including the National Zoo.

The vultures of the Indian subcontinent also owe their continued existence to a small group of activists. In the 1990s, widespread use of the cheap veterinary drug diclofenac killed up to 97 percent of the South Asian vultures who fed on the drug-laden carcasses of cows and other animals. The vultures' fate underscores one consequence of extinction: its immediate impact on humans. Dead animals that once would have been quickly devoured by vultures were left to putrefy, breeding anthrax and other lethal pathogens. Human deaths from rabies increased as rats multiplied because they no longer had to compete with vultures for carrion -- which now included thousands of vulture carcasses as well. Even the traditional funeral rites of the Parsee of India, who expose their dead for vultures to strip the bones, were threatened. After a study by the Peregrine Fund and the Ornithological Society of Pakistan identified diclofenac as the culprit, Mike Pandey's documentary film "Broken Wings" publicized the crisis, and community outreach groups began educating local citizens. The vultures' environment remains deadly, for although the manufacture of diclofenac has been banned in South Asian countries, it is still legal to use, import and sell the drug. But the establishment of safe feeding stations, captive breeding programs (controversial though these may be) and education efforts give hope for the birds' survival.

In "Hope for Animals and Their World," Goodall, Cincinnati zoo director Thane Maynard and health writer Gail Hudson write of these and many other animals on the brink of extinction and the successful efforts to save them, often against opposition by governmental and corporate interests as well as public indifference or hostility. Other tales of preservation in this book feature the black-footed ferret of North America, nearly lost to development and poisoning by ranchers; the milu deer of China's Yangtze River Basin, decimated by habitat loss and hunting; the peregrine falcon, devastated by DDT and other pesticides; and perhaps most remarkable of all, the black robin of New Zealand's Little Mangere Island, whose numbers had fallen to seven, only one of which was a productive breeding female. "Hope for Animals" recounts many such stories: species brought back from the verge of extinction, those thought to be extinct and rediscovered, those newly discovered and those who survive only in captivity.

Goodall has devoted her life to animals, not only with her legendary decades of research on the chimpanzees of Tanzania, but also with her tireless campaigning, both as a writer of books for children and adults and as an activist. "Hope For Animals," she says, grew out of her belief that, although we are now experiencing "the sixth great extinction", the conservation work of "heroes" gives us reason to hope. At a time when we are overwhelmed by environmental disasters, individuals can still make a difference.

Goodall recounts many inspiring stories of heroes worldwide. However, the book's heartening scale is also its weakness. Each account is brief, even perfunctory, lacking the scope to narrate dramatic sagas that lasted for years. Although acknowledging the institutional support these heroes received, "Hope for Animals" emphasizes individual efforts to combat a global crisis that can be systematically addressed only by governmental action. Yet within the environmental devastation surrounding us, it is not amiss for Goodall to remind us that, after all the evils had flown from Pandora's box, there at the bottom remained hope.

Kathryn Shevelow, professor of English Literature at the University of California, San Diego, is the author of "For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement."

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