Plumage and Empire

Adam Phillips

  • Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper
    Fourth Estate, 296 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 84115 650 7

‘Any form represented by few individuals,’ Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, ‘will, during fluctuations in the seasons or in the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.’ That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him. When he describes the all-consuming struggle of species to survive and reproduce there is occasionally, lurking in his sentences, something about the all too human option of giving up. We are, after all, the animals that are making the seasons fluctuate and the animals with a genius for creating enemies. All our self-destructive behaviour, whatever else we think it is, may be an attempt to put a stop to the struggle. And if we begin to hate our own struggle for survival, we may want to suppress it in others. Clearly, our capacity to destroy other species – not to mention others that belong to our own species – was the most staggering fact of the last century. It is not surprising that it occurred to some people that there might be a secret struggle not to survive, that utter extinction might be our best chance.

We have certainly had to come up with some very good stories to make the struggle for survival – and, indeed, struggle itself – seem worth it. The most compelling have tried to persuade us either that in some way or other the struggle is rewarded or that ‘struggle’ is not quite the right word for what we are doing. So we prefer to think of ourselves as pleasure-seeking, or exploring, or competing, or achieving (over or under) rather than merely struggling for a future that can never belong to us. As the only animals that have (articulated) reservations about the struggle we are, by the same token, the keenest and most ingenious at ending, once and for all, the struggle of other species to survive and reproduce. Our reckless, overreaching predatoriness – ourselves as the enemies of our own and only possible environment – is now something we take for granted about (modern) human nature. Putting the planet out of its misery has become the contemporary project, with money and religious beliefs the only things left worth conserving. So Spix’s Macaw, which is many things – a detective story, a love story and a jeremiad – should be read as a sign of the times. What is so disturbing about it – and this is not news, but the way the story is told might make it news that stays news – is how hard people are prepared to struggle, in the name of profit and prestige, to kill what they claim to value, especially when it is rare. As Juniper so starkly shows, it is a mixed blessing to prize rarity: it makes people create rarity in order to prize it.

Darwin helped us to take the extinction of species for granted. But his account of how and why it happens – without ‘plan’ or intelligence behind it – made it easier for us to wonder whether extinction mattered. We obviously don’t want a world without lions or elephants or (some of) ourselves, but we could probably do without the odd wader. In this situation the species we choose to protect, to care about, must reveal something to us about the kind of animal we have ourselves become. If it isn’t the case that everything that lives is holy or that all of the species we share the planet with – more than a hundred million of them – are enemies, then choosing to become the animals that conserve other species is itself an interesting piece of evolution.

Extinction is one of the things that seems to happen in nature – in the tropical rainforests alone, according to E.O. Wilson, the number of species doomed each year is 27,000; each day it is 74, and each hour three – but there are things that can be done to offset it. So what is it about us that would make us bother to do something, as opposed to what is it about us that makes us carelessly and carefully destroy everything that gets in our way? This is not as clear as it should be. We are far more forthcoming about what we call our greed. Indeed, stories about our rapaciousness, both gleeful and guilty, are everywhere available; stories about the alternatives to greed have been poor in comparison. Greed may be a despair about appetite, but it has replaced original sin as the enemy within. So greed is now being blamed for the wholesale destruction of the environment when, as Tony Juniper shows, there are also individuals, and groups of individuals, making choices that have a bearing on the matter. There can be no life without a sustaining environment; but when people are perplexed about what sustains them, their choices about their environment become less and less intelligible. Spix’s Macaw is about a group of people who, in the name of protecting and conserving a rare species of parrot, made it extinct in what is still called the wild. Like all such stories it either makes you wonder how people can do such terrible things, or it makes you wonder what else people might be up to in the doing of such things. It is big business to make resources scarce; and the so-called rare bird trade, as Juniper shows, tells you rather more about trade than it does about rare birds.

There were often ‘exotic birds’ for sale in markets in the 1960s, and if you wanted something a bit special – hummingbirds or parrots, say, from South America, or tanagers from Africa – you could usually get them. And the people who could get these birds did not, on the whole, talk about saving the planet; but they were, the ones I knew, fascinated by just how beautiful and unusual the birds were – bulletins from a less drab world. The bird dealers were interested in birds in a way that drug dealers tend not to be interested in drugs. When I kept what were then called ‘tropical birds’ as a boy, well over thirty years ago, the trade was clearly illicit, but the dealers were people you could happily introduce to your middle-class parents. The rough-trade side of it all was very occasionally reported in the press – the stealing of young birds from nests, the huge losses involved in every shipment of birds from abroad – but most of the people I came across called themselves bird-lovers. Enthusiasts, not pale criminals or connoisseurs, tended to collect these birds. It couldn’t have been as shady-genteel as I remember it, but it wasn’t the viciously self-serving world that Juniper describes. In the 1980s, everything became dispensable.

‘The last Spix’s Macaw had been alone for 13 years; he had become,’ Juniper writes, ‘globally famous as the world’s loneliest bird.’ On 1 December 2000 the Brazilian government agency responsible for its protection put out a statement announcing that the Spix’s Macaw was officially extinct in its natural environment. After 13 years the world’s loneliest bird had finally disappeared. Celebrities are supposed to be lonely; and writing about other creatures – all the non-human nature that so outnumbers us – has traditionally consoled us by suggesting that ‘they’ are very like us, rather than the other way round. The other way round has always been a problem because it could only be described in (human) language. Asking what animals are like if and when they are not like us is also a way of asking what we are like if we are not as we describe ourselves. The animal kingdom has long been a device for our own self-reflection. And now we know that we are not like animals, but that we are animals, what animals are like has become an ever increasing concern, though observing nature for clues about who or what we are only results at best in more words. Indeed one reason parrots have been prized, as Juniper explains, is that like us, but unlike us, they speak (another is that they can be extraordinarily beautiful). Parrots talk but they only tell us what we have told them. This, apparently, has been making them irresistible for centuries.

The many ‘qualities’ parrots have – ‘a reputation for devotion, faithfulness and affection’, ‘an instinct for loyalty’, a talent for mimicry, ‘their astonishing and vivid beauty’ – make them sound like versions of ‘perfect partners’, which good pets often are (and good partners usually aren’t). And yet, as Juniper says in a chapter devoted to the history of their charms, ‘the range and depth of their attractions . . . has paradoxically proved a curse . . . Parrots are today part of an illegal trade in wildlife that ranks third in value only to the multibillion-dollar clandestine drugs and arms markets.’ Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ‘the driving force behind the demand for the birds was rarity in captivity.’ And when it came to parrots in particular, because they were such familiar exotic creatures, no one connected rarity in captivity to rarity in the wild. It wasn’t merely that some species were difficult to locate and to catch (Spix’s Macaw is appropriately and unsensationally horrifying in its accounts of the trapping and transporting of the birds): some were dying out because their environments were being destroyed in order to be ‘developed’, making the birds even more valuable commodities.

By 1988, 71 of the 350 known species of parrots were officially listed as being at risk of extinction. The rarer the bird, the greater its price; wittingly, or unwittingly, the traders and the collectors have a vested interest in risking the extinction of the species they want. The parrots closest to extinction were the four species of blue macaw, of which Spix’s was the rarest. ‘Outstanding even among the parrots,’ Juniper writes, ‘for charisma, charm and visual impact the blue macaws . . . have been doomed by their unique qualities to become one of humanity’s most prized possessions.’ Not just punished for their virtues, the blue macaws were doomed. We have never been quite puzzled enough by the fact that we kill the things we love; that prizing things usually means prising them away. For Spix’s Macaw there were, Juniper writes without undue melodrama, and on behalf of all the remaining parrots, ‘just a few last moves . . . left as a final prelude to more than fifty million years of evolutionary memory being wiped away for good’. Juniper’s phrase suggests that evolution is worth remembering; and that it is part of our own evolution to have acquired memory. So what we choose to conserve about ourselves and our environment tells us something about the nature of our contemporary needs.

It seems obvious, in crude economic terms, why people continue to destroy environments to profit from raw materials; why corporate enterprise tries to persuade us with creation myths – myths about the creation of wealth and jobs – though destruction is what is actually happening; and why the poorer people in a given place want to make large sums of money from what is for them the local flora and fauna (Hyacinth Macaws, one of the four blues, have a retail value of more than $15,000). What has become increasingly difficult is to give an effective account of the reasons the so-called natural world is worth conserving. Business and government have been notably unimpressed by science or sentiment on this particular issue. What would ‘natural resources’ be for – how would we describe them – if they were not commodities, or commodities in the making? This is the difficulty that Juniper and his colleagues keep coming up against in their nearly failed attempt to keep the rarest of parrots in circulation, and not merely in economic circulation.

That the natural world could be there for anything other than our gain, material or otherwise, has always been difficult to imagine. We tend to think of ourselves, whether we are ‘nature lovers’ or not, as getting something from it, if we can. When Dr Johan Baptist Ritter von Spix, a Bavarian polymath, set out for Rio de Janeiro in 1817 to study and collect the native fauna, he was sponsored by his King: Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria was, Juniper tells us, ‘a bird collector in his own right’ and hoped that Spix ‘would bring him novel and unique prizes’ from the expedition. Rare birds, and especially parrots, had been kept, at least since the Romans, as what we would now call status symbols (‘so valuable did they become,’ Juniper notes, ‘that they were often sold for more than the price of a human slave . . . Noblemen carried the birds through the streets of Rome as a colourful accessory’). Plumage and empires are inextricable. In his apparently benign plunder, undertaken in the interests of science and his King, Spix managed, despite the incredible hardships of his expedition, to bring back a vast array of creatures, dead and alive. Among them was ‘a magnificent long-tailed blue parrot’, shot for the collection. ‘It lives,’ Spix wrote in his journal, ‘in flocks, although very rare, near Juazeiro in the region bordering the Sao Francisco, and is notable for its thin voice.’ What this unusual bird, with its thin voice unlike that of other macaws, got was Spix’s name, and the beginning of its end. Spix, Juniper writes, ‘didn’t realise that he had just taken the very first specimen of a bird that would one day symbolise how human greed and ignorance were wiping countless life-forms from the record of creation’. There would never be such innocence again. To be named and officially recorded proved to be what Juniper calls, rather mildly, ‘a mixed blessing’: ‘It intrigued not only scientists but also conservationists and collectors, the former seeking to save the species, the latter to own and possess the most sought-after of all birds.’ Recognition was very nearly the prelude to extinction for Spix’s obscure object of desire. The question is: in what way would it have been better for us if it had never been seen at all?

As it happened, it wasn’t seen at all for 84 years after Spix had first seen and shot one. In 1903 Othmar Reiser saw several during an Austrian Academy of Sciences expedition to north-eastern Brazil. Though they were extremely rare in Brazil they were, as Juniper puts it, ‘certainly leaving Brazil for a life in captivity overseas’. After Reiser’s sighting there was only one other, in 1938, and ‘the species was not heard from again in the wild until the 1970s.’ The bird was leading a double life, privately in the wild, and publicly as a special acquisition in a few zoos and private collections. And it was during the 1970s that demand for the birds increased, and ‘the openness with which collectors declared the ownership of such rare creatures sharply declined.’ Despite national and international legislation banning the export of wildlife, the flow of macaws out of the country couldn’t be controlled by the Brazilian authorities: ‘the trafficking was increasingly secret, the volume of commerce and the final destinations for birds being captured was unknown to anyone but a few dealers, trappers and rare-parrot collectors.’ The only hope, apart from wholehearted government protection, was collaboration and co-operation among the wealthy collectors. As Juniper remarks in passing, people don’t tend to get that rich by being flexible, accommodating and disinterested. These wealthy individuals were unusually free to ‘determine their own “conservation” priorities’: ‘conservation’ in quotation marks because most of the wealthy rare-bird collectors referred to here were interested only in conserving their own eccentric independence and prestige. ‘The deathblow for Spix’s Macaw was the result,’ as Juniper shows in unsparing detail, ‘of the disastrous clash of human styles, egos, pride and vested interests.’

Spix’s Macaw is compelling partly because Juniper can be passionate about the birds and what their story represents without needing to demonise the villains of the piece – his concerns about conservation are not the usual secularised religiosity – so it is of some interest that the shady characters in the book, and there are many, become too dark even for him. He is mindful of the fact that only money can save the species that are dying out (though not money alone) and that by the same token it is the rich, with all their freedom to be contradictory, who are collecting and collecting up the rarest species. Perhaps the most devastating paragraphs in Spix’s Macaw are Juniper’s straightforward accounts of the words and actions of the ‘elite’ bird collectors. Declaring that ‘Brazilian bird protection is a joke,’ one of these men

casually reveals a recent offer made to him of 50 Hyacinth Macaw chicks taken from the wild. Although he laments that Hyacinth Macaws are ‘well on their way to being extinct’, he evidently sees no contradiction between that thought and his personal ownership of the rarest blue macaws. He also showed no sense of irony when he suggested that those smuggling rare parrots should face ‘the stiffest penalties’.

There are three ways of protecting endangered species. One is to protect them in and with their environment; the second is to breed them in captivity in newly created artificial environments; the third, which combines the other two, is to breed them in captivity and reintroduce them into the wild. Money is the constraining factor, once a plausible rationale has been provided for the conservation project. But the second two options are also constrained by genetics, because the rarer the species the greater the likelihood of inbreeding. Hamsters, as Juniper tells us, have been our inspiration here; all the Golden Hamsters in the world come from three siblings, two brothers and a sister, taken from a wild nest in Syria in 1930.There are now millions of them. With Spix’s Macaws, though, the stud books were mishandled and that, combined with sabotage on the part of collectors, had the effect of thwarting a well-worked out and internationally co-ordinated project to breed the birds in captivity and reintroduce them into their natural habitat.

The narrowing gene pool was not in itself an insurmountable obstacle. The obstacle, in Juniper’s view, was ‘the people who are obsessed by owning blue macaws. The men who have so consistently and ruthlessly sought to cage and control these creatures have between them ultimately destroyed the object of their desires. Although it appears this was not their intention, it has nonetheless been the result.’ It must, though, have been their intention, because it was the predictable and inevitable outcome of their actions: unless the breeding programme for rare birds was supported, all the birds would die out. Blaming people may not be the most morally impressive thing we do, but it keeps alive the sense in which people can be held responsible for at least some of their actions. The challenge left by Juniper’s book is how one would go about persuading someone who didn’t already take it for granted of the importance of conservation; of valuing a time before and after one’s own time; of respecting rather than disowning one’s affinity for other living creatures. To be the only creatures that are concerned about all the other creatures in the world sounds unnatural; but to describe ourselves as that part of nature that is intent on destroying nature sounds a little too theological.

Spix’s Macaw suggests that a private collection, at least of wildlife, may turn out to be a contradiction in terms, a dangerous nonsense akin to the idea of a private language. Rich and rare rare-bird collectors turn their birds into extinct currency. In Juniper’s account the unscrupulous ingenuity, the boastfully good intentions of these people seem, knowingly or unknowingly, to be a form of hatred, given that the result of their tenaciousness is that beautiful rare creatures are forbidden to exist. Besides, if, as this grim tale suggests, part of the pleasure of collecting rare objects is the pleasure of depriving others of the pleasure they might take in them, then depriving all others, for ever, must be among the pleasures of collecting rare species of wildlife. Spix’s Macaw, in other words, is as much about desire as it is about parrots. It is fortunate for us that parrots cannot really talk.

The increasing demand for rare species and the way rarity increases demand looks like a zero-sum game. It will be called investing in extinction, and it will be the only thing left to invest in. Rare parrots – the dead parrot sketch – are, as Juniper’s book makes abundantly clear, emblematic victims of a terrible project.