A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

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Animal history at ASEH 2016

Last week I was at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting in Seattle, Washington. I took part in two sessions on animal history that I wanted to reflect on here.

The first was a roundtable “Animal History: Opportunities, Problems, Controversies, Politics”. The session was put together by Susan Nance (University of Guelph) to highlight some of the approaches and questions brought out in her edited volume The Historical Animal (Syracuse University Press, 2015). The panelists had all contributed to the volume: Susan who wrote the introduction; Zeb Tortorici (New York University) who reflected on animal bodies in Mexican archival sources; an interdisciplinary team of Charles Gunnels IV and Nicola Foote (Florida Gulf Coast University) who looked at early contact accounts of animals and humans on the Galapagos Islands; and myself. My piece in the volume “Migrant muskox and the naturalization of national identity in Scandinavia” had challenged conventional scientific analysis of animal translocation by seeing the muskoxen using analytical frames applied to human migration.

Pamir the Przewalski and his places

When I was at the Ménagerie in Paris, which is part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, I found a lovely children’s book in the gift shop: L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski. The book (which you can buy here), written by Fred Bernard and illustrated by Julie Faulques, is a real reintroduction story.

The book begins by backing up in time to present the Przewalski horse as living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Przewalskis were wild, untamable horses, killed as prey by Mongols on the backs of domestic horses. Then the horses are discovered by a colonel named Przewalski in the 19th century. After the discovery scene, the text presents the capture of Przewalski horses which were shipped to zoos “in order to save the species.”

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L'histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Some of the 50 horses captured at the turn of the 20th century were shipped to the Ménagerie in Paris. And now we get to Pamir, who was born in the zoo and is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of animals caught in the wild.

After the Przewalski horses were captured, the species became extinct in the wild. But the zoo populations were carefully bred and grew in numbers, from 13 founding population animals to over 1000. In 1993, when a scientific reintroduction project was begun, the two-year-old stallion Pamir was selected for the program. He was released into a large enclosure on the Méjean Plateau in France along with horses from other zoo collections. The horses had to adapt to wild living, including finding their own food sources and reproducing freely within the herd. In 2003-4, 22 horses were then taken to Mongolia and reintroduced in their prior range — some of these were Pamir’s descendants.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book with a positive story. But as a historian thinking about belonging and reintroduction, a couple of things struck me.

First, there is a claim about the role of France as place in the story. While the book places the Przewalski horse in Asia, one page is dedicated to the horses in the caves of Lascaux in France. “The small horses have a remarkable resemblance to Pamir,” which is an ingenious way of linking this Asian species to France where the Pamir story takes place. The place of the Ménagerie zoo also matters in the story because it was here that Pamir was born — three double page scenes show him in his zoo enclosure. Placing Pamir specifically in Paris makes him all the more real and important to the French children.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Second, there is a continual insistence on the “wildness” of the Przewalski horse. They are “chevaux sauvages” of the plains. When Mongols tried to domesticate them “c’est impossible!” Although the image shows Pamir in the zoo, the text stresses “Pamir remains wild and very well knows how to defend himself. If he does not feel like a caress, beware!”. He moves to the enclosure to be prepared for “la vie sauvage”. It is through the reintroduction of the Przewalski horse after 100 years in zoos that we proved “it is possible to return an animal to the wild who had not previously known it.”

These are not unusual claims: everyone talks and writes about the Przewalski horse as “the last wild horse”, meaning specifically the last undomesticated horse. But I have to wonder how true that claim can be. The horses eventually reintroduced into Mongolia were descendants through many generations of animals that had only ever lived in zoos and were purposefully bred in extremely controlled ways. The stud books of the horse were carefully recorded and managed. Moreover, the horses were bred to look a particular way.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Sandra Swart from Stellenbosch University talked about this in her paper at the American Society for Environmental History meeting in March 2015. She showed a picture of four of the scraggly horses originally from Mongolia, which we can compare to the images of Przewalski horses today which shows extremely consistent animals. (See also another photo taken before 1901 of a captured animal)

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Visual consistency is a trademark sign of intentional breeding. Kate Christen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute also discussed this in a paper at the World Congress of Environmental History in 2014, noting that Przewalski breeding was conducted to produce offspring “conforming to their European handlers’ imagined preconceptions about wild, primitive horses such as those in the cave paintings.” If domestic animal implies one bred for a specific purpose, these horses are no less domestic than fjord horses or shires or shetland ponies. The claim of wildness is a rhetorical one to place this horse as belonging on the Mongolian steppes.

So Pamir is a story about how an animal can belong in two places at once. Reintroduction causes a shift of physically belonging from one place to another, but the ontological belonging to both places remains.

Citizenship for the starling?

In 1939, not long after publishing her first major essay Undersea, Rachel Carson published a short 3-page article called “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” in Nature Magazine. In the article, she discusses the recent spread of the European starling, a bird which had been introduced from Britain to New York in 1890-91. While admitting that the some people considered the starling a foreign nuisance, she felt that its service as an insect-catcher outweighed those concerns. This service deserved recognition:

On one point ornithologists are pretty well agreed –the starling is here to stay. Shall we then continue to regard him as alien or shall we conclude that his successful pioneering and his service in insect destruction entitle him to American citizenship?

Like all the pioneer settlers of the US, who at first were foreign, according to Carson, the starling had laid claim to his right to be there.

The starling in the US from May Thatcher Cooke, The spread of the European starling in North America (to 1928), US Department of Agriculture.

The plumages of starling. In May Thatcher Cooke, The spread of the European starling in North America (to 1928), US Department of Agriculture, 1928

Carson was not the first to discuss the starling’s status within citizenship language. Frank M. Chapman, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History and editor of the Audubon Society’s Bird-Love , had published an article “The European Starling as an American Citizen” in 1925. Chapman directly made the connection between starling settlement and American colonists:

Nature has accorded him ‘papers’ and he exercises all the privileges of citizenship. … Now whatever we ourselves may be, whether our forebearers came over on the Mayflower or on the Mauretania, there can be no doubt that these birds are Americans.

Citizenship language is a major way that people talk about animal species. Nationalism and patriotism are in play in many reintroduction efforts. Both the muskox and beaver reintroductions in Sweden have included talk of them being inhabitants and countrymen. In the case of the muskox, their ‘citizenship’ status is still denied so they cannot be protected by a threatened or endangered species action plan. At the same time, some introduced species have overcome their introduced status and even earned a place as state symbols.

Both Chapman and Carson were making claims about the ‘belonging’ status of the starling in the US. While the birds were a relatively recent introduction, their great success at spreading rapidly through the country and their service as insectivores (even though it was often unacknowledged) meant that they belonged in this land. They had earned a right to live here.

After her work pointing out the dangers of chemical insecticides and pesticides in Silent Spring, Carson would likely be horrified that there is a pesticide, Starlicide, manufactured to target starlings. Although its target is starlings, ravens, crows, pigeons, cowbirds, grackles, blackbirds, magpies, and certain gulls, the Environmental Protection Agency assessment of the pesticide shows a high risk to non-target birds and small mammals. Starlicide is most often used to get rid of starlings considered farming nuisances. Starlings are not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act–it is one of only three birds (the house sparrow and pigeon are the others) which have no federal protection in the US. Obviously, the starling has still not been granted the citizenship status that Chapman and Carson argued for.

Thinking extinction with sci-fi

Steward Brand, President of the Long Now Foundation, has a new essay out titled “Rethinking Extinction”. Brand argues that the current discursive emphasis on extinction, especially crisis language of the “Sixth Mass Extinction” à la Elizabeth Kolbert, takes the emphasis away from the real problem of decreasing wild animal populations. He believes that the negative spin of extinction headlines leads to inaction:

As they accumulate, they frame our whole relationship with nature as one of unremitting tragedy. The core of tragedy is that it cannot be fixed, and that is a formula for hopelessness and inaction. Lazy romanticism about impending doom becomes the default view.

Is this true? Does a tragedy narrative necessarily lead to hopelessness and inaction?

The timing of this article and the questions it raises couldn’t have been more appropriate for me because just yesterday I gave a lecture on animal species extinction in science-fiction for the course “Science goes fiction” at KTH in Stockholm. In that lecture I grouped my material into three questions about animals that sci-fi extinction narratives raise:

  1. Are humans less human without non-humans?
  2. Are humans harmed without non-humans?
  3. Which is more important: us or them?

Androids_DreamI think the work I discussed in relation to the first question — Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) — addresses Brand’s claim most directly. Animal extinction pervades throughout the narrative in the novel (but not really in the movie Blade Runner from 1982 based on the book). In a post-World War Terminus, there are no wild animals. The first signs that radioactive fallout was destroying life on the planet was the death of owls, something the protagonist Rick Deckard reflects on:

A thousand thoughts came into his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day — foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.

This passage would appear to confirm Brand’s idea that a constant stream of bad news will lead people to tune out — they stop reading.

Yet, Dick portrays a world in which animal ethos is the thing which is characteristically human. The few remaining animals are highly prized and highly priced merchandise. To own an animal is everyone’s dream. Although many people have to settle for electric replicas, like Deckerd’s electric sheep which inspired the title, they always yearn for the real thing. The test that distinguishes humans from androids relies on questions about killing animals, something which Dick envisions would be never acceptable in the post-WWT world.  For Dick, humans are less human without non-humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? proposes that animal extinction and near extinction can lead to a great empathy for animals, prompting drastic efforts to keep and preserve them. This is no “lazy romanticism about impending doom”. It is certainly a tragedy story, but it is also a story about potentialities in the face of tragedy.

This is of course the same kind of thing I have seen in the history of beaver reintroduction in Sweden. The narrative of the last beaver in Sweden, recognition that it was gone, is important because it leads to desire to change the situation. The tragedy is reframed as possibility.

While the doom-and-gloom narratives of extinction may fill the headlines and we become wary of the “perpetual animal obits”, those same stories may inspire a new animal ethos, an understanding of the world from the animal point of view. To see tragedies might inspire people to value animals more and work to avoid more tragic endings.

Burning badger babies

On a Sunday afternoon, 18 May 2008, a rope factory in the urban center of Oslo caught fire. Over a hundred people living in the area were evacuated because of the smoke. During work to suppress the blaze in a garage building, fireman Odd Arne Lande noticed a badger kit, which he grabbed before running out of oxygen. After the flames in the main area had come under control, Lande and fellow fireman Espen Solli reentered the building, which was still smoldering on the roof, and broke through the floorboards to expose the a den where more kits were huddling. The two rescued the youngsters, who according to Lande showed no fear of the men and a willingness to be taken out of the hole. The mother was nowhere to be seen. The two firemen were hailed as heroes of the day and all of the news outlets carried pictures of the men and the recovered badger babies.

Reddet i sikkerhet" (Taken to safety), one of the photos accompanying the news article "Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen," Dagbladet, 18 May 2008.

“Reddet i sikkerhet” (Taken to safety), one of the photos accompanying the news article “Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen,” Dagbladet, 18 May 2008.

"Heroes" is how the newspaper VG captioned this photo that led their story about the burning badger babies. "Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen," VG, 18 May 2008.

“Heroes” is how the newspaper VG captioned this photo that led their story about the burning badger babies. “Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen,” VG, 18 May 2008.

The jubilation was not to last. The following day, the firemen (and the news media) discovered that the badger kits had been euthanised. The firemen were furious! Lande told the national NRK service, “Our purpose is to rescue people, animals, and property. In that order. This feels completely pointless….We underlined when we turned in the animals that they must be treated well. We knew that this would be a media story and we hoped that it would bring forward people who could take care of them.” Solli felt betrayed: “I said clearly – in fact very clearly—that all possibilities had to be sought by those who accepted the badgers.”

The spokesman for the city of Oslo’s wildlife committee (“Viltnemda”) defended the decision: “We don’t have a system for rehabilitation of badgers. We did not have the capability to call around in the country to find something like that. From an animal welfare standpoint, they were euthanized….It was not so easy to contact organizations on a Sunday.” When the reporter asked why the committee couldn’t have waited until Monday or tried to contact a zoo, the answer was “We thought about waiting, but we didn’t have the possibility to do it.”

Animals in housing areas. Exhibit case in the Natural History Museum of Oslo. The case featured squirrels, ducks, a pigeon, a fox, a badger, and more.

“Animals in housing areas” exhibit case in the Natural History Museum of Oslo. The display featured squirrels, ducks, a pigeon, a fox, a badger, and more.

I used this story as part of a paper I presented last week at a workshop titled “Urbanizing Nature. The Transformation of City-Nature Relations 1500-2000” held in Antwerp, Belgium. My point was that the modern city is actually filled with wild animal inhabitants: squirrels, hedgehogs, pigeons, sparrows, frogs, and many more small critters live within the confines of European cities; it is their natural habitat. Although mice and rats received the most frequent negative response, particularly when they take up residence inside of human houses, many of the others are seen as desirable—indicators of an environmentally-friendly urban area.

Institutions of care for wildlife have been set up in Scandinavian cities. The city government of Oslo, for example, provides information on their website about who to call in case an injured bird or small mammal is found. It is the Viltnemda that is responsible for either finding treatment for the injured animal or ensuring that it is humanely euthanised, both of which are understood as ways to care for the animal.

Although the burning badger babies story did not have a good ending for the badgers, it shows how animals both live in our cities and are recognised as urban residents (thus the Viltnemda’s responsibilities to find care for them). When I presented my first oral version of “Rethinking rewilding” at a workshop in Cambridge, I modified the ending on the fly to show a film of birds singing in a Cambridge garden I had taken that day. My idea was to question the division between wildlife and humans that has been inherent in most of the rewilding proposals. Birds, badgers, and a myriad of other animals belong in many places, including the modern city.

In search for the Golden Fleece

I ran across a lovely poem by the modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) this week titled “The Arctic Ox (or Goat)”, published originally in her collection O to be a Dragon (1959). Here is an excerpt:

To wear the arctic fox
you have to kill it. Wear
qiviut–the underwool of the arctic ox–
pulled off it like a sweater;
your coat is warm; your conscience, better.

I would like a suit of
qiviut, so light I did not
know I had it on; and in the
course of time, another
since I had not had to murder

the “goat” that grew the fleece
that made the first. The musk ox
has no musk and it is not an ox–
illiterate epithet.
Bury your nose in one when wet.

Lying in an exposed spot,
basking in the blizzard,
these ponderosos could dominate
the rare-hairs market in Kashan and yet
you could not have a choicer pet.

They join you as you work;
love jumping in and out of holes,
play in water with the children,
learn fast, know their names,
will open gates and invent games.

If you fear that you are
reading an advertisement,
you are. If we can’t be cordial
to these creatures’ fleece,
I think that we deserve to freeze.

She wrote “The Arctic Ox (or Goat)” based on an article written by John J. Teal, Jr. titled “Golden Fleece of the Arctic” published in the March 1958 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Teal was the major proponent of muskox domestication in the US from the 1950s to 1980s. He had an interesting longstanding relationship with the muskoxen in Norway.

In the early 1950s, he looked to Adolf Hoel’s work importing muskoxen to the Norwegian Dovre Mountains as an example to follow in muskox domestication. He wrote an article “The Norwegian Musk-Ox Experiment” published in The American-Scandinavian Review in spring 1954 extolling the “important information … regarding their feeding habits, sicknesses, and peculiarities” coming from John Angård who took care of the calves destined for release. Teal was encouraged by “the Norwegian experiment” and was eager to use it as the basis for his new muskox domestication project. Although the Norwegians never framed the Dovre releases as ‘domestication’, the knowledge they produced was repurposed by Teal.

Corralled muskox on the Alaska farm, late 1960s. University of Alaska Fairbanks collection, UAF-1983-209-54

Corralled muskox on the Alaska farm, late 1960s. University of Alaska Fairbanks collection, UAF-1983-209-54

In 1954, Teal captured some muskox calves in the Thelon Refuge of Canada and relocated them to a farm in Vermont working as the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research. His vision was that the animal would be “useful not only for Arctic husbandry but also for the many sub-marginal farming areas in our northern states” (quote from “The Norwegian Musk-Ox Experiment”). In 1964, Teal decided to move his project to Alaska and founded a farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks using animals captured on Nunivak Island (I discussed these animals previously here). He set up the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Cooperative to knit the wool in 1969.

Because of his extensive experience working with muskoxen in domestic settings, when Norwegians began floating the idea of setting up a muskox farm in northern Norway, they called on Teal’s expertise. In 1966, he visited Tromsø and the little town of Bardu to discuss the idea of importing some of his animals to northern Norway.

(An aside about how global this all is: The calves caught in East Greenland had been shipped to Norway in 1929 then sold to the US in 1930 and shipped via boat then train to Fairbanks. In 1936, the animals were relocated to Nunivak Island.  In 1964, calves caught on Nunivak were taken to Teal’s farm. Now, the idea was to take calves from Teal’s farm back to Tromsø, Norway. My head is spinning…)

Anyway, the import from Alaska ended up not being practical, so the Norwegians went to East Greenland (the source population) instead. Teal continued to play a critical part in the plans for domesticating muskox in Norway. The veterinarian who prepared an official report for the Norwegian Parliament about the suitability of muskox as domestic animals visited Teal’s Alaska operation in 1968. In 1969, Teal once again visited Tromsø as an expert consultant and he became the official advisor to the farm set up by Norsk Moskus A/S. One newspaper account even called Teal “the father of the idea [of muskox domestication] here in Norway.” (Aftenposten, 28 Nov 1970). I would agree that he was a booster and expert, but father of the idea is stretching a bit. Instead, what we see is a circular, self-reinforcing relationship: Teal looks to Hoel and the Norwegian import as example, Teal sets up farm in Vermont then Alaska, then Norwegian interests in northern Norway look to Teal as example.

Items for sale at the Myskoxcentrum in Tännäs in June 2013

Items for sale at the Myskoxcentrum in Tännäs in June 2013

When Marianne Moore wrote her poem, she bought into Teal’s boosterism. Muskox wool (qiviut) was the miracle fibre that would dominate the winter fabric market. Muskoxen were tame, easily playing side by side with children. These characteristic ended up being proven untrue. Teal’s farm was indeed successful–on a small artisanal scale–and it remains so to this day, selling products through the cooperative. But qiviut never became a household item. The northern Norwegian domestication attempt folded in the 1980s. While you can buy qiviut mittens at the muskox breeding center in Tännäs, Sweden, this is not its main business. Being cordial toward muskox fleece, as Moore implied, turns out to not be enough.

The last _____

When the last eagle flies over the last crumbling mountain
And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain
In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn
They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn.

– America, “The Last Unicorn”

When I was a young girl I saw The Last Unicorn, a film from 1982 based on a book from 1968 by Peter S. Beagle. In fact, I saw it many times thanks to HBO cable television. It was mesmerising to me to see the beautiful unicorn in search for others like herself, her quest to know if she was the last. Along the way, she is turned into a human to avoid danger and learns to love and regret.

This week I’m at the Im/mortality and In/finitude in the Anthropocene conference in Stockholm which is an interdisciplinary humanities and arts conference pondering questions of temporalities of life and death in a changing environment. Tomorrow I will give a paper which I’ve titled “The Last ___ (fill in blank)”. The talk will begin with a clip from The Last Unicorn in which, after overhearing a hunter proclaim that she is the last unicorn in the opening scene, the unicorn ponders:

That cannot be. Why would I be the last? What do men know? Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished. We do not vanish! There has never been a time without unicorns. We live forever. We are as old as the sky, as old as the moon. We can be hunted and trapped. We can even be killed if we leave our forests but we do not vanish. Am I truly the last?

In this soliloquy, the Unicorn is reflecting on the problem of seeing and knowing, or better said, the problem of not seeing and knowing. “Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished,” the unicorn says. Later when a farmer then cart driver see her but think she is a mare instead of a unicorn (the horn is invisible to them), the unicorn ponders to herself, “I had forgotten that men cannot see unicorns. If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be other unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it.” The question is: Can one be sure that something is not there simply because one doesn’t see it?

The Unicorn’s questions are relevant to the histories of reintroduction I’m working with because these same kind of questions appear. At what point do you say a species is extinct? How much confirmation should there be to prove the species was still alive? Or more pressing, can lack of evidence mean the species is really extinct?

Beaver illustration from S Nilsson, Illuminerade Figurer till Skandinaviens Fauna, vol 1, Lund (1832).

Beaver illustration from S Nilsson, Illuminerade Figurer till Skandinaviens Fauna, vol 1, Lund (1832).

In the case of the beaver in Sweden, the population had been in decline for centuries. Nils Gisslet noted in his “Om Bäfverns Natur, hushållning och fångande” from 1756 that he thought the beaver was being overhunted in Sweden. In 1834, S. Nilsson noted that the beaver was then found only in the northern half of the country and “there is no place that he is numerous, and he seems to become more rare each year. … A generation ago, one found them there [in Jämtland/Norrland] in smaller colonies of 12-16 individuals; now one finds never more than a pair together, or a female with her young.”

Increasing rarity might be easy to recognise, but what about admitting something is no longer present at all? That happened with the beaver in 1873, when F. Unander wrote an article in Svenska Jägarförbundets Nya Tidskrift in which he examined the evidence of beaver sightings and found that the latest evidence was from the far north in 1864 (the editor added a footnote that beaver was seen in Jämtland up to 1866). Unander concluded:

that as long as no proof is shown that beaver is found in the Swedish dominion and by which refute the before given facts and figures, he [beaver] must be regarded as an animal extinct from the Swedish fauna.

After that point, I’ve not found anyone claiming that beavers remained in Sweden, although there were debates about when and where the last was killed (or found dead). In publications which reported on the reintroduction efforts that began in 1922, extinction stories always an important part of the discourse because the extinction provided the grounds for the action. So for example when Sven Arbman wrote about the first reintroduction in “När bäfvern återinfördes i Bjurälfven”, he framed it within an extinction story about the last:

There is beaver in Sweden, wild, free, Scandinavian beaver, since June 6th 1922, 3:30 in the morning. It is more than half a century since that could last be said. 1871 the last was shot in a stream near Sjougdnäs.

Highlighting the previous last beaver gave these new first beavers significance.

The Last Unicorn is also a story of reintroduction in the end. It turns out that the Unicorn is not the last, although she was the last in the wild. Through her courage, she is able to free the enslaved unicorns and they are reintroduced to the world. The last becomes a way to tell a story of salvation for a species, just as it did in the discourse of the last Swedish beaver.

But of course we can also ask about the “last” beaver in Sweden as the unicorn asked about her own status: Was it really the last? Just because no man has seen it does it mean that there are no more? We will never know.

Parasite co-reintroduction

I’m happy to report that I have a new article out in the journal Conservation Biology titled “Conservation implications of parasite co-reintroduction” (read it here w/subscription) based on The Return of Native Nordic Fauna project. The idea for the article was spawned by my discovery in 2013 of P.M. Jensen-Tveit selling beaver beetles as part of his business in the 1920s.

Letterhead of P.M. Jensen Tveit. Notes the items he has for sale, including "bæverbiller" (beaver beetles). Original item in Natural History Museum (London) archives.

The letterhead of P.M. Jensen Tveit lists the items he has for sale, including “bæverbiller” (beaver beetles). Original item in Natural History Museum (London) archives.


That discovery led me to research the beaver beetle, what is was, and why it would have been for sale. What was fascinating to me was how the beaver beetle, a parasite that lives on beavers and looks very much like a louse, had basically hitched a ride to recovery–as the European beaver population had shrunk, so had the beetle’s, but as the beaver’s range expanded because of reintroduction, the beetle’s had too.

I thought it was a story interesting enough to publish, but I had difficulty getting a biological conservation journal to publish it. It was too ‘historical’ for their tastes. While I still think the detailed beaver beetle story has appeal (and I hope to find a home for it in a journal more focused on history of science), I decided to do some more research to broaden the story. Instead of being just about the return of the beaver beetle, the article would take on ‘parasite co-reintroduction’ as a larger phenomenon.

The article I’ve published in Conservation Biology is thus a more overarching, synthetic piece (yet as required by word limits of science journals, it is also extremely concise). It assembles all of the known cases I could find of species-specific ectoparasites (that is, parasites that live on the outside of a host and are known to inhabit only one host species) which were either unknowingly reintroduced along with their hosts or became extinct when they were eliminated from hosts that were later reintroduced. People in the past didn’t think about taking care of these parasites–and even today in most reintroduction projects, parasites are thought of only as disease carriers and thus intentionally eliminated.

My take-home message with the article is that these species-specific ectoparasites are worthy of conservation too. I find it incredibly sad that people are willing to invest so much time and money to conserve mega-fauna with photo appeal but yet turn a blind eye to the loss of other parts of our planet’s diversity. These hidden reintroduction possibilities deserve to come out into the open.

Treating humans as unnatural

This week I’ve been at the Society for Ecological Restoration Europe 2014 meeting in Oulu, Finland. It’s always interesting to hear how the scientists of restoration ecology and practitioners of ecological restoration go about their work. One of the things that struck me early on in the conference was how many of the projects were restoring human-created ecosystems that harbour rare plant species, particularly open wood pastures, rangeland and grassland which only existed because of livestock grazing. I recently published an article on medieval wood pasture management in the edited volume European wood-pastures in transition, so I liked these restoration projects. However, I noticed that not many people overtly said that they were restoring anthropogenic landscapes. It was almost as if they didn’t want to admit it was what they were doing.

Then today I went to a paper about “non-native” species in “contemporary human-made habitats” (those were words in the title). Those habitats were defined as places that had previously had intense effects, like wetland drainage, mining, forestry clearance, etc., but it didn’t include those more positively viewed anthropogenic habitats that I had noticed in other papers. I could live with that, but what really bugged me was the definition of “non-native”. I’ve mentioned before the inconsistent time frames which European countries use to determine eligibility for Red List purposes. “Non-native” in plant circles comes in two categories: archaeophytes (species which arrived anytime from the Neolithic to 1500) and neophytes (species which arrived after 1500). Any plant that arrived in the speaker’s study area of central Europe after around 7000 years ago, i.e. since humans migrated to the area, was a “non-native”.

Herbarium specimen of Papaver rheas collected by Frances Giles (pharmacist) on 12 June 1895 in a cornfield near Folkestone, Kent. From the Kew collection

Herbarium specimen of Papaver rheas collected in 1895 in a cornfield near Folkestone, Kent. From the Kew collection.

To me, that seems like a ridiculously long time for a plant to be going about its business growing and reproducing for it to still be considered “an outsider”. I asked myself, how long is long enough? After all, archeophytes like the common poppy–you know the red one covering the European fields of the World Wars and now pouring out of the Tower of London–have been in northern Europe for thousands of years but not before the Neolithic. I came to realise that the labelling of a plant as “non-native” isn’t really about time–it’s about agency. Plants that humans brought are “non-native”. Humans brought these species either accidentally or intentionally as they expanded throughout Europe. So what it really comes down to is that those plants which came from the Neolithic onward are considered “tainted” by humans. Seen in this light, the vegetation can never be “native” because the spread of these plants is “unnatural”.

The problem with this definition of “non-native” is this: The spread of plants which come along with humans can only be considered “unnatural” if you think that humans and what they do are unnatural. It only puts up more walls between humans and nature–walls environmental historians need to work on breaking down.

A bird in the hand

At the 2nd World Congress for Environmental History earlier this week in Guimarães, Portugal, I heard a paper by Emily Scott (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) on the art film Raptor’s Rapture from 2012. The film juxtaposes a live griffon vulture and a flautist playing a 35,000 year old flute made from a griffon vulture bone. You can see a short clip here and listen to a bit of the flute here. Scott discussed the way that the film bridges temporalities (with a prehistoric flute played in the past now played in present and a live vulture in the same room as a bone from its ancestor) and bridges species (the vulture and human are simultaneously there in both past and present). My interest was particularly piqued when Scott mentioned the griffon vulture has been reintroduced in several places, so I’ve done a little reading about them.

Griffon vulture illustration in Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands, issued by Lord Lilford, 1885-1897.

Griffon vulture illustration in Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands, issued by Lord Lilford, 1885-1897.


Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) are carrion-eating large birds that live in a fairly large range across northern Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and India. Although the population is high enough now to be considered a ‘least concern’ species by IUCN, their numbers had markedly declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly because of anti-predator persecution. The antagonistic human-vulture relationship is captured well in the poem ‘1 July 1972. Gyps fulvus’ which I ran across in the Brown Library Digital Library:


Clearly there was no love lost for vultures in 1972 for some people. But at the same time, others were planning to reintroduce the bird in its lost European territories. A reintroduction effort was started in France in 1968, but it took until 1981 to get their first birds from Spain to release. The number of griffon vultures in France had probably been down to 50 breeding pairs, but he highly successful reintroduction efforts doubled that number by 2003. Bulgaria followed suit with a reintroduction project beginning in 2000. The project has had mixed success and failure and continues to the present.

The relationship between human and vulture in Raptor’s Rapture was intimate yet distant. The human interacted with the prehistoric vulture bone but not the vulture in the room. In the reintroduction projects, the relationship is radically different. A video about the vulture’s return in Bulgaria can be contrasted with Raptor’s Rapture. It shows humans breeding vultures in zoos, moving young birds to new homes, holding them up to pose for pictures, and cheering them on to fly free. Human technology looms large in the video: the crates used to move the vultures, the temporary adjustment aviaries, the GPS trackers attached to each bird.

These griffon vultures have been taken into human hands–and, I would argue, moulded and shaped into something more than just vultures in the process. They come to embody hopes and dreams. They represent ‘conservation’ as an ideal. They become intertwined in sociotechnological systems and become technological hybrids. In short, reintroduction demands that humans engage with vultures beyond the disembodied bone flute to the living bird itself.

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