On dozens of islands throughout the world, a little-known group of conservationists is waging a high-stakes war against invasive species in an effort to restore frayed and altered ecosystems to their once-upon-a-time states. But this idyllic outcome has a controversial cost: the outright killing of hundreds and sometimes thousands of animals to spare endangered and endemic ones.
In Battle at the End of Eden, the first e-book published by The Atlantic, Amanda Rose Martinez traces the development of the non-profit group Island Conservation and explores the moral, ethical, and ecological dilemmas of the group’s controversial actions, the collateral damage, how we value one species over another, and the role of human tinkering in nature. Battle at the End of Eden was published as a Kindle Single on December 23, 2012. Here, Martinez talks to T. DeLene Beeland about how she crafted the story of this epic ecological battle. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I first heard about Island Conservation’s work a few years back when I was reporting a story in Santa Cruz, California, where IC is based. The idea that you could take these islands where the ecosystem had been completely altered by humans and the animals they brought with them, and essentially restore them to the point that there was no trace that people had ever been there—this was fascinating to me. I met with one of the scientists who co-founded IC and the photos he had of some of these islands before and after restoration were so dramatic, especially on islands that had invasive goats, which can just maul a forest until you’re literally left with terrain that looks like the surface of Mars.
One “before” picture, I remember, was of a tiny atoll off the Mexican coast in the late 1950s. Invasive pigs had eaten or driven off nearly all of the island’s seabird colonies, which had numbered in the tens of thousands. So in the ’50s “before” photo, you see this expansive field of hay-colored grass, empty, save for three lone birds standing in the middle. The “after” picture, though, taken some 40 years after the pigs were killed, looks like a just-shaken snow globe, if the snow was birds. They fill the sky and stretch across the island as far as the eye can see, and the ground, covered in guano, is bluish-white.
Early in my reporting, I came across a video taken by biologists studying invasive mice on an island in the South Atlantic that starkly illustrated why some island species are so vulnerable to invasive animals. The video shows this big albatross chick sitting in its nest, while house mice swarm around it, chewing into it, eating it alive. It just sits there, blinking, because it hasn’t evolved any capacity to even perceive the mice as dangerous. We’re so used to reading stories about irreparable environmental catastrophe—landscapes lost and species going extinct. The fact that you could resurrect colonies and forests, saving these one-of-a-kind species and essentially staging an ecological do-over was compelling. It seemed noble. I thought: how has the story of what this group is doing not been told?
IC’s method of conservation raises some ethical issues. Which ones piqued your interest the most?
Well it turns out that restoring the island usually means killing populations of the invasive rats, cats, goats, rabbits, etc. in their entirety. This, along with the fact that some of the methods used to dispense with the invaders can be gruesome, exposed a pretty thorny ethical dilemma: Do we have the right to sacrifice some species to save others? Some say: We brought the animals, unleashing their destruction. If we’re able, it’s our moral imperative to remove them, especially when the existence of a species is at risk. Others say: A life is a life, and we have no right to value one life over another, end of story. Who’s to decide? Meanwhile, this is all happening in the context of human-caused biodiversity and extinction crises whose ecological losses are on track to equal or exceed those of prior mass extinction events. High stakes. IC had been sued by animal rights activists, and there’d even been a sabotage attempt on one of the islands. As a result, the organization had been keeping a low profile as far as media coverage was concerned.
Due to the sensitive nature of their work, did you have trouble getting access to the sites or to the IC scientists?
When I asked to write the piece, I’d come along at just the right time. IC scientists had spent years developing their techniques and were ready to scale up their efforts and start working on a bunch of islands. They knew they would draw media attention eventually, so they were open to a story.
And then the plot thickened. Some of the islands where IC plans to work have substantial human populations. (They’d initially worked mostly on uninhabited islands). This raised the stakes again: IC would now have to convince people to go along with its eradication projects, sometimes giving up livestock or pets and changing lifestyle habits. This brought up the opportunity to ask: Well what are ecosystems for? Humans are the dominant species. Do we have some kind of obligation to share environments with other species that may or may not provide a quantifiable contribution to our quality of life? Or as the planet’s clear ecological winners, do we have carte blanche to homogenize every ecosystem, tricking it out with the plants, animals, and landscapes that optimize our comfort?
So you uncovered some compelling ethical questions. Was it hard to find characters to tell the story?
There were great characters: scientists and grad students who would spend years living on some inhospitable, remote spit of land covered in bird crap and commit themselves against staggering logistical, biological, and social odds, to closing what to a remote oceanic island and its endemic species amounted to Pandora’s Box. I was curious to meet them, spend time with them and understand their work and their relationship to it.
Plus, the more I dug into the story, the more I uncovered these great scenes, like a fisherman putting a goat on a Galápagos island as an act of eco-terrorism, or IC scientists driving a van full of falcons up the California coast to a bird sanctuary to safely ride out an eradication, or an animal rights activist sailing an inflatable dinghy across major shipping channels to spread rat poison antidote on a U.S. National Park island.
To me, the story had everything.
You published this as an e-book through The Atlantic. Tell us how this arrangement came about and what the process was like.
I had been working with an editor at The Atlantic for the better part of a year on the piece, which was originally intended for the print magazine. But it became apparent that the story could really be expanded to its benefit. The idea to publish it as an e-book was theirs, and I was very excited by the prospect—to have much more room and to be able to write the story to its natural length—it was decadent. Otherwise, the process was the same as that for a print feature.
Were you paid as if you were writing a magazine piece, and did they cover your travel costs? Will you receive any royalties?
I was both paid a fee and will receive royalties from the Kindle Single sales, and yes, The Atlantic did pay for travel.
You did some traveling for the reporting, to Anacapa Island off the coast of California and the Galapagos Islands. How did visiting these places affect your perspective of IC’s work and their critics?
I’d have to say first that visiting these islands gave me an authentic sense of the audacity of IC’s effort. The landscape is treacherous, complex, and dense. On Floreana Island in the Galápagos, for example, we were driving up to the highlands past these vast expanses of overgrown, unkempt, thick vegetation, some of which was native, some invasive, and all providing an infinite variety of places for animals to live and hide. On Anacapa, the landscape was totally different. There are fewer plants; it’s mostly steep cliffs and rocky ledges in every direction, which are pitted with all sorts of crevices—again, seemingly impossible-to-target places. The idea that you could send out a team of hunters or have helicopters fly over and spray poison pellets with the expectation that you would reach every last animal—especially given that there is zero room for error in these eradications—it’s at the edges of the imagination.
Also, when you go through an epic sojourn to get to an island—going from a prop plane to a ferry to a bus ride to a supply boat to a smaller boat, maneuverable enough to get you close enough to climb onto a shore that has no pier, you get a real sense for how infeasible it would be to transport invasive animals safely to the mainland. And then, again, on Floreana, to actually see how people there live, to see their cats and chickens roaming around, and know that those conditions would have to change during and post-eradication; and then also to talk to inhabitants, who, on the one hand, are wary of these strangers coming in, telling them that they have to change some habits regarding pets and how they farm in order to save some mockingbird that’s essentially never been on the island in their lifetimes, but on the other, seem willing to give the eradication a try so long as it results in increased tourism … you get a sense both of the imposition that island residents might feel mixed with their hope for better quality of life, as well as the challenge IC scientists face in trying to justify their work to island communities. All of these experiences greatly heightened my understanding of the controversies surrounding IC’s efforts.
What were some of the challenges you faced in reporting, researching, or writing this story?
For reporting, I was originally scheduled to visit the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. Then the week before my trip, the same flight I was supposed to take crashed as it attempted to land, due to high winds and difficult weather conditions. It was a terrible tragedy. Everyone onboard was killed. The island community was devastated and travel to the islands was suspended. It was a stark reminder of the danger of getting to these remote locations. I ended up going to the Galápagos instead. It’s, of course, much easier to get there, as there are so many tourists, but traveling between islands when you’re not with a tour is tough. I had to hitch rides on fishing and diving boats, and it wasn’t always clear how I’d get to the next spot.
For writing, the biggest challenge was digging into those unanswerable questions I mentioned earlier. The arguments for and against are both strong and so nuanced; trying to represent all perspectives, while giving the reader enough detail to draw their own conclusions was difficult.
You identified many challenges to eradicating invasive species—for instance, that it’s easier to target vertebrate species than insects or plants. Did you find any signs of hope?
Before there were techniques to eradicate rats from large, complex island ecosystems, many thought such eradications would be impossible. Even after initial successes, it was years before the eradication community started to accept it as real. And still, no one is sure if there’s a size limit past which an island would be rendered infeasible for rat eradication. I’d like to think that eradications of some invasive plants and insects are in a comparable state of development now.
In the meantime, there have been some great successes with controlling these types of invasions. Scientists I interviewed who were both for and against island restoration seemed enamored with one example in the Galápagos where the impact of an invasive insect called the cottony cushion scale is effectively being mitigated by the introduction of the Australian lady beetle. You’d think: Well, what’s to stop the shipped-in beetle from getting out of hand once it eliminates the cushion scale, but it turns out the beetle would rather starve to death than switch its prey. I’m not sure how humane that is, but such inventive techniques do offer hope. I’m optimistic that current methods will improve and become more humane, and that new techniques will be developed.
Island Conservation’s work raises a broader question about whether the killing of any animals can be justified. After reporting this story, how would you answer that question?
I think everyone would prefer that animals not be killed. The sad situation is that these endemic species are already being killed by invasive species against which they have no natural defenses and that we have exposed them to. If it were possible to remove rats, cats, and goats without killing them so that the native species could also live, this would be the best outcome by far. But in the context of rapid global extinction and biodiversity loss, it’s difficult to make an argument for doing nothing. These are tough ethical and moral problems, and a big part of why I felt the story should be told.
T. DeLene Beeland is a science and nature writer in Asheville, North Carolina. Her first book, The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf will be released by the University of North Carolina Press this June.