Pittas, Giraffes, Elephants, and Cans of Worms

A pitta is a jewel of a bird. Found in tropical forests in Africa, Asia and Australasia, these are amongst the most beautiful of animals – and the Philippines Red-Bellied Pitta is no exception.

This bird was known to be present on many islands in the East Indies, so was considered in no real danger of extinction – even though many of these tiny islands are following the trend of Easter Island and logging every last square inch of forest.

Then a team of ornithologists decided to take a look at this bird, examining the appearance, the DNA, and other facets of individual red-bellied pitta specimens collected from dozens of locations, scattered from the Philippines to east of Papua New Guinea. Once they started the work, it became obvious that each island’s “red-bellied pitta” was often quite distinct from another’s. End result? What was once considered one type of bird is now considered to be thirteen different species.

And what’s most important is that now we know that some of these island species are in grave danger of being wiped out – namely, the Sangihe Pitta, Talaud Pitta, and Tabar Pitta, found on one island each. The pieces of land in question are all small and the population is not necessarily focused on bird conservation. Still, Alex Dale, digital communications officer for BirdLife International, is putting a positive spin on this news. “Thanks to this split, we can now identify which of these species are in need of conservation help.”

As you can tell, I am somewhat bemused by this. We weren’t worried about this species … oops! Now we realize that we’d lumped a baker’s dozen of different types together, and bang! Three of them may be critically endangered.

We did just the same earlier this year with the giraffe. We knew that the giraffe population was in marked decline – like lions, these are iconic African animals that you can scarcely believe are endangered. But genetic analyses of 190 giraffes found in countries all across the continent yielded the astonishing result that the giraffe is a composite of four non-interbreeding species.  As in the case of all those pitta species, we are now in the quandary of not knowing which of the four – the Southern Giraffe, the Northern Giraffe, the Reticulated Giraffe or the Masai Giraffe – we should be most concerned about.

Although these can be considered cans of worms that we wish we’d never opened, this matters. There’s only so much money, only so many game wardens and anti-poaching squads … and we want to be sure our attention is focused. After all, the African elephant is in a power-dive to extinction, and we’re still analyzing if it’s the Savanna Elephant or the Forest Elephant that’s more endangered.

As we begin a new year, let’s pause to be amazed at all the things we still don’t know, and continue to work as hard as we can with our partners around the world to conserve God’s incredible creation.

John Humphreys is a scientist and conservationist who also loves wildlife gardening. He has a website, www.wildlifegardening.org.

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