Archive for September, 2014

Mourn for Martha

Monday, September 29th, 2014

“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”
Joni Mitchell

Although the Ebola epidemic is terrible, there is an invisible epidemic that might end up being even worse for humanity. We depend on the great web of life, but paradoxically we are constantly weakening that web.
We receive services from many different biological species and communities. Plants remove carbon dioxide and harmful chemicals, purifying the air we breathe and liberating oxygen. Various invertebrate animals cleanse both salt and fresh water. Bees pollinate a quarter of our crops. And the list goes on.
Unfortunately, we humans are causing species of animals and plants to go extinct at a terrible rate. There have been five prior eras of mass extinction—the most recent was 65 million years ago when a huge meteor plunged to Earth. The resulting explosion threw up dust that altered the climate for centuries, and ended most of then current life—including dinosaurs.
Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction of species is about 1000 times normal. The causes of this epidemic include loss of habitat, climate change, introduction of exotic species and pollution. What do these have in common? they are all human-caused. The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.
The dodo is a classic example. It was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius. In the 17th century sailors stopped there to replenish food and water supplies. The dodo had no fear of humans and was an easy target—sailors could walk right up and club them for fresh meat. The last of these innocent animals was slaughtered before 1700.
Closer to home, the passenger pigeon cluttered the skies of North America in the 19th century. Their annual migrations were estimated to encompass several billion birds! They were easy prey for hunters; sometimes people brought them down simply by throwing sticks or rocks in the air. It was thought that the supply of this delicious meat would never end.
You probably already know the end of this story. The last passenger pigeon, “Martha”, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago this month. Attempts to find a mate for Martha had been unsuccessful. Causes of the extinction were overhunting and loss of habitat, since much of the North American forest was being cut down and plowed.
We now know that, even if an amorous male had been found, the species still wouldn’t have been saved. Some species have complex social systems and require large numbers to survive. Passenger pigeons were gregarious—they needed huge flocks to breed successfully. Furthermore, from a genetic standpoint, diversity is important to prevent lethal mutations from gaining sway,
With only a small number of individuals the genetic code is likely to have enough errors that the species will inbreed and die out. We are incredibly fortunate that two other species of birds, the California condor and the whooping crane, were saved from extinction before their numbers reached the critical figure. There were just 23 whoopers alive in 1941 when protection and a captive breeding program saved the tallest of all American birds. Luckily, this small number of individuals must have had adequate genetic diversity to keep the species healthy, because now there are about 600 of these magnificent birds.
Why not splice some of Martha’s genetic material into the DNA of a related pigeon so the passenger pigeon species can be resurrected? Theoretically, “de-extinction” might be possible using modern genetics, but the concept has problems. Remember they need a huge flock to be sustainable. The major problem, however, is that de-extinction is a diversion from saving species from extermination in the first place. What we really need is the humility to share resources with other species.
To commemorate the centennial of Martha’s final flight, the Smithsonian has established the multimedia program “Once There Were Billions”. Striking statues of passenger pigeons, part of The Lost Bird Project (www.lostbirdproject.org), will be on display in Washington.
Bees are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder has devastated almost a third of honeybee colonies worldwide. Many native bees species are also being ravaged. What is causing this collapse? research points to climate change (some flowers bloom before the insects are ready), harmful mites and a virus. In addition, omnipresent neonicotinoid insecticides are probably killing bees.
Biological diversity is essential for human survival, yet, unthinkingly, we are rapidly destroying species in unprecedented numbers. We should safeguard the web of life, for our own species’ sake.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

Integrate Population, Health and Environment

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

            If we had unlimited resources we wouldn’t need to be concerned about human population. We live in a wonderful, rich world, but we need to share with such a large number of people and other living beings.

Some of the richest places on Earth have been called “biodiversity hotspots”. These 35 special areas are home to many endemic species—species that are unique to that one area. Although the hotspots make up only a small fraction of the Earth’s surface (about a 40th), they are home to such a variety of life that isn’t found anywhere else. The sad thing is that much of this wonderful diversity is already lost, and what is left is threatened with extinction.

Hotspots are also fertile spots. People are attracted to settle in them to exploit this productivity. Indeed, it is this humanity that threatens to destroy the fecundity. Fortunately a relatively new constellation of services offers help in a very humane way.

Population-Health-Environment (PHE) programs are the new way to slow damage to hotspots. Starting with the “E”, the first step is to help the local people be more aware of the value of the wonderful place where they live. The locals learn how they depend on ecosystem services, such as mangrove trees that serve as nurseries for fish. A clinic provides simple health care and health education, which are unusual in hotspots. Voluntary family planning is made available along with other health services. Often local women learn to be advocates for family planning and can administer certain modern contraceptive methods.

Many years ago we visited a PHE in Peru. It is the brainchild of an eccentric research scientist turned humanitarian, Eleanor Smithwick. Peru Amazon Conservation is based the small town of Atún Cocha. As Eleanor points out, the mestizo people there have lost their indigenous respect for nature. In the past they felled trees to sell for lumber, but didn’t replant; Eleanor taught them the value of raising saplings.

Eleanor recruited a local bilingual man, Clever Hoyos, to be the health educator. He taught about conservation as well as sanitation and nutrition. Together they set up a clinic that serves 14 villages and about 2500 people.

Their innovation was their family planning program. Most of the people live far from Atún Cocha along the river where the only means of transportation is a slow dugout canoe. On a certain Thursday every 3 months Clever would travel by boat to give DMPA (DepoProveraâ) injections. The women knew when to expect the boat and would be waiting at the dock. This was a very popular program, but unfortunately the cost of the medication rose so high that the program wasn’t sustainable.

A more recent and elaborate PHE program is half a world away in Madagascar. A British physician who loves to SCUBA dive became distressed by the destruction of the ocean life. Blue Ventures has an interesting combination of a nonprofit funded by a for-profit business. The for-profit arm features ecotourism and especially diving, but the nonprofit is more difficult to outline.

Blue Ventures not only conserves endangered species such as sea turtles and sharks, but engages the local children in conservation. They provide school scholarships to be certain that future generations are well educated. Because of the risk of overharvesting crops of fish, octopi and sea cucumbers, they have successfully instituted temporary fisheries closures, which have increased total yields—and the fishers’ incomes.

Health services focus on the basics—water and sanitation—as well as clinical services. They use many modalities to reach the people about health and conservation, including radio, interactive village presentations and school workshops using sports and theater.

Blue Ventures have trained 40 local women to provide voluntary reproductive health services to over 20,000 people in 50 communities. The contraceptive prevalence rate has gone from 10% to 55% in just 6 years. They calculate that voluntary family planning has averted more than 750 unintended pregnancies during this period. Most important, perhaps, is that the vast majority of people recognize the links between reproductive health, family size and food security. I wish that were true for more people in the USA!

To quote from the Blue Ventures’ website, “PHE programmes address the interconnected challenges of poor health, unmet family planning needs, environmental degradation, food insecurity, gender inequality and vulnerability to climate change in a holistic way.” They have great potential to keep biodiversity hotspots from being overrun by people. Just as important are the benefits to the people who live in these rich and beautiful areas.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.