Mel White’s “Terra Incognita” (Winter 2012), describing the expedition into the Foja Mountains of New Guinea, misses the mark. The article would be more suitable for an adventure travel magazine than a scientific/citizen-science journal such as Living Bird. The author does a nice job of describing the geology and location of the Fojas as well as the interactions and contributions of the indigenous people during the expedition. There are also good descriptions of the birds in or near camp and the difficult camp logistics. Unfortunately, the purpose of the expedition and its importance to the Cornell Lab and the benefits to the Fojas, its endemic species, ecosystems, and ongoing conservation is limited to the phrase, “to continue the exploration and research.”
Nowhere does the author provide a summary about the research being conducted, other than stating nine pages into the article, “People were actually doing research.” He describes Ed Scholes’ work of wanting to prove the Carola’s Parotia should be split into separate species and of “Nev” seeing an unknown pigeon and wanting to kill it with an air rifle presumably to collect the skin. The reader receives zero context as to the breadth and vision of the research being done, its purpose or importance. The author mentions the mining and logging companies but fails to describe the status of the Foja Mountains or any of the ongoing conservation initiatives, if any, to protect them.
This article was the main feature for the 50th anniversary issue of Living Bird and should have reflected how far science and its connectedness to ongoing discovery and conservation have come. Unfortunately, the expedition described could have been taken from the journal of a 19th-century collector in the Hawaiian Islands, collecting endemics in a race to be the first and collecting for the sake of collecting.
San Francisco, California
I loved reading Mel White’s fine article about the Foja Mountains. This is science writing at its best, capturing all of the excitement and adventure of an expedition as well as the humor. Bravo!
Los Angeles, California
The Cork Dilemma
Hugh Powell’s article on cork forests (“Put a Cork in It,” ScienceScope, Winter 2012) highlighted a problem of which, I suspect, most wine drinkers are wholly unaware: that the wine world is fast moving away from cork closures. Just this week at a wine conference I heard a master sommelier give an impassioned plea against corks because, as industry figures now show, about 10 percent of all corks are tainted with TCA [trichloroanisole]. Because that failure rate is unacceptably high, especially in an expensive bottle of wine, even the high-end sector of the industry is gradually switching to alternative closures. So if the plan for saving Iberian cork forests is to convince wine drinkers to shun screw caps and plastic “corks,” that isn’t going to happen. Ecologists, cork farmers, and marketers need to come up with another strategy for preserving the cork economy and the wildlife it supports.
An Imperial Lesson
I read Tim Gallagher’s article, “Return to Durango” (Autumn 2011) with great hope. I was filled with the hope that the expedition to Durango led by Martjan Lammertink would indeed find a surviving Imperial Woodpecker. Sadly, all they found was the same ignorance, poverty, and greed that led to the demise of this magnificent bird. Though the specifics are different, the stories of the Ivory-Billed and Imperial woodpeckers are basically the same. Trying to survive against the longest of odds, these two lost members of our planet’s ecosystem never really had a chance in the modern world. The author calls his expedition “one of the most sobering and depressing journeys of my life.”
Indeed this is a story that has sadly been told all too often. Because man’s needs always come first, we will continue to lose more species that most of us will never see. I hope to see a turnaround in my lifetime, but it seems doubtful. The burgeoning ecotourist industry that is starting in South and Central America is certainly a start. At least these poor nations are attempting to stem the tide of wildlife destruction. But I fear that too little is being done to stop the abuse being waged on our planet. I’d like to thank William Rhein for not giving up and for giving us a glimpse of the Imperial Woodpecker in its full glory. Maybe enough of the human race will step up and follow his example regarding the world we live in before it’s too late. All we can do is hope.
West Milford, New Jersey