Editor’s Note: This article was originally published through The Revealer, an initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Many journalists have difficult rhythms – specialist topics that they cover exclusively or repeatedly. Some write about homicides, some cover local politics, others specialize in investigating sexual assault.
For the past 15-more years, I have been on the pace of extinction. I catalog the dead and the dying.
It is important to me, but it is not an easy task. It’s hard work, it’s emotional, it’s seemingly endless, and it doesn’t make me very happy at parties (well, parties I still attended before the pandemic). My wife is worried about me.
September 29 was a particularly difficult day.
This is the day the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared its intention to withdraw 23 long unknown species– including the ivory-billed woodpecker and a mussel called the flat pig – for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency did it not because these species have recovered, but because they never will.
You cannot continue to protect what is probably off.
These species have not been seen for decades and most of their habitats have been damaged or destroyed. Of course, some dedicated people will likely continue to seek out more of these species, especially the woodpecker, but the odds are not in their favor.
Lost species reappear from time to time, even after being declared extinct, but in all likelihood these 23 are long gone. Many have disappeared while waiting to be added to the endangered species list. Others were so rare at the time they were protected that their chances of recovery ranged from slim to none.
As they disappeared, as their habitats suffered, pieces of our culture, of our interconnected environmental network, of our safety nets, of our souls did the same.
I spent most of September 29 wrapped in a melancholy shroud.
September 30 was different.
I got up. I stretched. I took several deep breaths. And I got down to work to see what species could still be saved.
It is the hidden truth to work the rhythm of extinction. I report on the dying and the dead, of course, but I also spend my days talking to scientists, conservationists, activists, politicians and ordinary citizens who work hard to ensure that the as few species as possible follow the path of the Flat Pig’s Foot, the Molokai Creeper, the Madcat Scioto, the Little Mariana Fruit Bat, or any of the others 19 species that the Fish and Wildlife Service has just proposed as extinct.
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Writing about extinction and endangered species is inherently positive
beat, because the lessons we learn from the loss help prevent further grief in the future.
Because everyday heroes are there to make a difference.
Because the more we learn, the better we can adapt.
Because the more we fight, the better off we’ll all be in the long run.
These lessons are not always easy to follow. Most extinction announcements sink like a stone in black water, disappearing without making a wave. I have reported hundreds of species at risk and extinctions that no other journalist covered. It’s hard to get people to care about mussels, snails, insects, distant plants and mammals rarely seen when they have daily difficulties with work, childcare, aging parents, children. political conflicts and the pandemic.
But this time, I admit, it was different. Perhaps it was the iconic ivory-billed woodpecker; Perhaps it was the fact that Fish and Wildlife presented a bulk list of extinctions. But reporters, editors and the public have taken note. The story of 23 presumably extinct species have made the headlines of almost every major newspaper. Evening TV news and 24the hour-long cable TV channels covered the loss. For a brief shining moment, he was even trending on Twitter.
And most of the reporting did a good job. The media have discussed the causes of the extinction crisis and what it is costing us and the planet. They unearthed evocative old photos and videos. They spoke to scientists who were choked with emotion during the interviews. They expressed the pain of the loss.
Hopefully they will do that next time too. Because there will be the next times.
But let’s keep talking about the present. Have you seen these reports and felt this pain? Did you feel a sense of loss? Has the news, or the extinction crisis more broadly, made you sad and angry?
Good – it should.
Use that pain.
Embrace this grief.
Refuse to accept other refusals.
Take a deep breath, stretch, talk to someone about the job they do, and find out how you can support them. Act.
We can get away with it – the same way I do every time I write a species obituary – and promise to do better.
Otherwise, these 23 species died in vain. And that would be the ultimate tragedy.