Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Review: Seeking the Sacred Raven

The 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, occupies a special place in the culture and mythology of the indigenous inhabitants of Hawaii. The word itself means the cry of a child. An expanded definition includes a highly-skilled style of chanting used to deliver particularly important messages. The 'alala is also a species at the brink of extinction. In Seeking the Sacred Raven, Mark Jerome Walters describes the decline of this endemic corvid and the attempts to restore its population.

The causes of the 'alala's decline should be familiar from other critically endangered species. Its preferred forest habitat has steadily been destroyed by logging and land clearing for agriculture and development. What is left has been degraded by feral pigs and cattle, which trample and uproot the understory. Introduced species such as rats, mongoose, and feral cats prey on fledglings and even adult birds. At various times, farmers (and others) have hunted the 'alala as a pest. As the population decreased, it became more vulnerable to inbreeding and to predation by the endangered 'io, or Hawaiian hawk.

What is less familiar, and more maddening, is the way that politics and missteps foiled recovery efforts. The need for an active protection and restoration program was first noted in 1970, when about two dozen 'alala existed in the wild. In succeeding years, the situation was allowed to deteriorate. A developer leasing state land destroyed valuable 'alala habitat at Hualalai. State agencies wrested control of 'alala restoration from federal officials, but then they left the captive breeding program in the hands of amateurs. Later attempts to revive a captive breeding program became embroiled in personal conflicts with the owner of McCandless Ranch, the site of the last wild 'alala flock. All through these missteps, time was passing and the wild flock was slowly shrinking. In fact, it took until 1992 for a rational preservation plan to be developed (i.e., Scientific Bases, linked below). In the mid-1990s, with the wild population under a dozen birds, the recovery team finally succeeded in producing young 'alala for release into the wild. Unfortunately these 'alala proved too vulnerable to predation from 'io, and the recovery team recaptured all of the captive-bred birds to re-evaluate the program.

The ultimate fate of the 'alala remains unanswered. The last two wild 'alala disappeared in June 2002. Prospects for restoration to the wild seem dim at this time; young captive-bred crows seem too vulnerable to predation, and released birds will not have the opportunity to learn foraging skills from older wild 'alala. Now that 'alala are gone from the wild, there is finally a wildlife refuge specifically for them.

Seeking the Sacred Raven provides a compelling, if depressing, primer on a conservation program gone awry. If the bald eagle and peregrine falcon stand as symbols of the successes of the Endangered Species Act, then the 'alala may be a symbol of where it has failed.

Related reading:

Full citation:

Mark Jerome Walters, Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island. Washington, Covelo, and London: Island Press, 2006. Pp. 294; illustrations; notes; and index. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 1559630906.

To purchase: