Daily Archives: 12/24/2004

The Perilous Plight Of The Sihek

The Micronesian KingfisherThe St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a wonderful commentary yesterday about the plight of the Micronesian Kingfisher on Guam. The small little bird, known as the sihek in Chamorro, is extirpated in the wild because of the insidious brown tree snake. The sihek now only exists in zoos throughout the world, especially the St. Louis Zoo, part of a massive effort by the world’s zoological parks to save the indigenous birds of Guam from the rampages of the brown tree snake and modern development.

The island of Guam is 30 miles long, but its geographic importance belies its small size. It was a sleepy tropical paradise until World War II, when it was thrust onto the international stage as perhaps the single most important military base in the war’s Pacific theater.

Today, we are waging a very different kind of war in Guam. The St. Louis Zoo is battling to save a bird, the Micronesian kingfisher, from extinction. Ironically, we believe it was World War II that eventually pushed the kingfisher to the brink.

Although we never will know for sure, we suspect that either during or immediately after the war, a military transport ship coming over from New Guinea inadvertently brought some deadly stowaways to the island: brown tree snakes. These venomous snakes had no natural predators on the island, and in a matter of a few short years, their numbers exploded. At present, biologists estimate that there are several thousand tree snakes per square mile on Guam. As their numbers grew and their appetites demanded satisfaction, the birds that lived on the island (including the Mariana crow and the flightless Guam rail – along with the little kingfisher) began to disappear.

The world’s zoos have banded together to breed the Guam birds, with the St. Louis Zoo specializing in the kingfisher. Since we began several years ago, the world’s population of Micronesian kingfishers has stabilized at around 70, but this year gave us cause for hope in their future.

First, we had a very good breeding year here at the zoo, with three new chicks hatched. Second, our vet, Dr. Randy Junge, traveled to Guam with several of the precious creatures and great hope. He felt it would be possible to breed them more successfully in a protected aviary in Guam. If that proved successful, we anticipated releasing them in a 60-acre snake-proof habitat that the Air Force was planning to build on Andersen Air Force Base.

The Andersen base includes 24,803 acres of tropical forest – the only remaining wild habitat on the island of Guam. If we are to save the endangered birds of Guam, Andersen must play a pivotal role. But last year, the Bush administration proposed and Congress approved an order that exempts military facilities from the “critical habitat” provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Like you, I never even noticed.

But I did take notice a few weeks ago when the Air Force announced plans to expand its operations, reducing the 26,803 acres of critical habitat to 376 acres. Government biologists have been told to expect that most of the rain forest will be cut down to pave the way (literally) for a $1 billion to $2 billion expansion of the base. The plans for the snake-proof habitat were canceled.

When the government advocated exempting the military from the critical-habitat provision of the law, it argued that we could trust our government in general and our military in particular to protect the environment. Forgive me, but if I can no longer trust them to protect the environment of the Micronesian kingfisher, then I can no longer trust them to protect the place where I live. These two go together, inextricably interwoven.

Earlier this year, my uncle died. He was wounded critically in the Pacific theater of World War II but survived, although he was disabled for the rest of his life. If he were alive today, I think he would tell me that the Micronesian kingfisher almost became a casualty of war. My uncle, along with fellow Marines who were not so lucky as he was, probably would tell me that the actions that led to the near-extinction of the kingfisher were justified by our need to stop the brutal authoritarian regimes of the Axis from triumphing over the United States, England and the rest of the Allies.

But I wonder what he would say about what our military is doing now: destroying the rain forest on Guam and, in the process, the species whose lives depend on it. When my uncle died, I lost more than a dear relative; I also lost a moral compass. I’m afraid that, with respect to the Micronesian kingfisher at least, our government and our military have lost their moral compass, as well.

-Jeffrey Bonner, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo

Of course, most people on Guam are ecstatic at the news that the Air Force is basically going to pave over the entire northern end of Guam in a $2 billion construction binge. After years of economic hardships, the local sentiment is “bring it on” and damn the consequences. Or at least that’s all the Pacific Daily News cares to print. Stories about protestors or environmentalists voicing their concerns are not fit for publication. I am certain that more than a few people on Guam are concerned about this headlong destruction and development occurring in one of Guam’s last stands of jungle habitat. But is there anything to be done about this? The U.S. military does not take no for an answer, and when push comes to shove, I am certain the needs of the Micronesian Kingfisher and the environment of Guam are the very last things the Air Force is concerned about.