In Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “Some questions,” she asks: Will you miss them \ the cruelty and hunger \ the manatees and spoonbills.
I focused on the manatees and spoonbills. They draw huge crowds year over year in Florida the way albatross and humpback whales draw people to Hawaii. Like sandhill cranes to Nebraska. Grizzly bears to Alaska. Wolves to Yellowstone. Our country seems to value endeavors that create money. If these animals go extinct, many businesses would follow suit. But this is not the reason, in my opinion, to save endangered species.
There are numerous scientific reasons to save an endangered animal. The case for biodiversity, for one. The loss of one species can lead to the loss of others.
The alula, a plant that looks like a cabbage on a stick, is so rare that the location of the lone surviving individual in the wild—in the world—is a closely guarded secret. A big part of its demise is thought to be the extirpation, if not extinction, of its pollinator, a moth with the fabulous name of the fabulous green sphinx moth. Fabulous name, yes?
Another scientific reason: trophic cascade in which the loss of a top predator has devastating impacts on an entire ecosystem.
I think of trophic cascade this way: Take the recipe for Grandma Steutermann’s coffee cake. You can substitute Crisco for butter or, even, coconut oil. I could probably skip an egg and add only half the sugar, and the coffee cake would turn out okay. But forget the yeast, and you can forget the coffee cake.
What is the yeast in nature? Is it the giant humpback whale? Or is it the minuscule krill?
Beyond economic, beyond scientific, there are still other reasons to fight and finance efforts to save endangered species.
Jane Hirshfield’s poem ends with the line, “awe’s inexplicable swaying.”
So the closing stanzas read:
Will you miss them,
the cruelty and hunger,
the manatees and spoonbills,
awe’s inexplicable swaying?
My best friend lives on a boat in Florida. When sheltering in place turns into cabin fever, she loosens her boat’s lines, and heads out of the harbor for a quiet patch of water. The other day, she did just that, tying up to a mooring ball and jumping in the water for a swim. After she got back in her boat, a pod of dolphins swam by. “I wonder what I would have done if they swam by while I was in the water?” she asked on Facebook. That’s easy. I know what she should have done. She would have watched until every last dolphin passed, and then, she would have yelled so loudly I likely would have heard her in Hawaii. That’s how Tommye responds to awe in nature—with outlandish exuberant joy.
There’s another reason to go all in on saving endangered species, and it’s not, “Because it makes us human,” or some version of that. I’m not even sure what that means, but it feels like that thinking elevates humans above and apart from nature. We are all part of nature, and nature, with is predilection toward life, is a part of us.
A few years ago, I joined some scientists aboard a boat for a trip to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. They wanted to save the Hawaiian monk seal from extinction, and I wanted to know what would it matter if the Hawaiian monk seal went extinct. After 30 days aboard the Oscar Elton Sette, I still don’t have an answer to my question, not a scientific answer. Whether the loss of Hawaiian monk seals would trigger a cascade the likes a house of cards? Or no cascade, at all. Maybe some other effect. Maybe none.
But I did find an unexpected answer to my question. It occurred one afternoon when a team of biologists returned to the ship from a coral atoll with a sick and emaciated Hawaiian monk seal pup that had weaned from its mother too early to survive on its own. It would now be headed to a monk seal hospital to be fattened up and given a second chance at life. As the team carried the young seal onto the boat, the entire ship’s crew turned out to watch, from the captain to the chief steward to the boatswain to the maintenance crew. And every single person wore a smile that stretched from one end of the Pacific Ocean to the other. That, right there, I thought, is why it’s so important to save seals from extinction.
It feels really good to help save life, to help save a species, especially working alongside others with the same very tangible and very real goal—a common objective and common purpose. But, really, we can help, so we should. It’s as simple as that. Maybe that’s what it means to be human: to help others in need.
We’re up to 224 cases in Hawaii, with our first death, and those helping others during this time of COVID-19 have also tested positive—two fire fighters from the same station, two policemen and at least, one medical worker. We’re holding at 12 cases on Kauai. One visitor here, a man from Florida, was arrested for violating the 14-day mandated quarantine for anyone arriving in Hawaii.