Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Science Watch

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Science Watch

Article excerpt


Rare Somali Bird Ignites Scientific Controversy in U.S. and Europe

"It was totally and absolutely the right thing to do. We cannot possibly, as conservationists, advocate the collection and killing of a species right at the edge of extinction."

--Dr. Nigel Collar, research fellow at the International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, England

"It's sentimentality getting in the way of good science. It's not rational. It's not logical."

--Dr. Storrs L. Olson,

Curator of Birds, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Human beings are not the only victims of the chaos in Somalia. As cyclical droughts and years of civil war turn once fertile, populated areas into wind-scoured empty wilderness, natural environments are vanishing, with all the plant and animal species they contain.

The case of one rare Somali bird species illuminates a conflict unusual in the 20th century, but likely to become all too common in the 21st. It began in Somalia when biological researcher Edmund Smith spotted from his car a bird he could not identify. Colleagues trapped the bird, a black and white shrike, which they tentatively named the Bulo Burti boubou, a bird so rare that, although Western scientists had heard of it, none had ever before seen one.

Unfortunately, it seemed to be the only one of its kind living in the area. Biologists videotaped and photographed the robinsized bird, tape-recorded its cry, and took blood samples. But the war was closing in on the researchers. Finally, when scientists evacuated the country, the boubou (pronounced BOO- boo), went with them in a cage to spend a year in Germany. The first blood sample was lost with misdirected baggage from Somalia to Europe.

In Europe, after new blood samples were taken and feathers collected, the researchers felt certain it was of a species never before described in scientific literature. Normally, when a new species is discovered, it is measured, dissected and the "type" specimen kept in a museum collection, where it can be compared with similar specimens to decide whether they are of the same or different species.

The problem with the Somali bird was that, in the absence of further field research, scientists feared the bird might be so scarce that killing and preserving even this one specimen could endanger the survival of the species. On the other hand, to systematists who name, describe and eventually determine where a new species fits on the evolutionary tree of life, releasing the only specimen of its kind was unthinkable.

The bird was described in 1991 in an ornithological journal, Ibis, and further discussed in a scientific news magazine, Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Then, however, began a chapter in the scientific saga of the shrike that would not have occurred even 50 years earlier.

As described by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, writing in the April 28, 1992 New York Times, from whose article much of this material was drawn, a scientist loaded the bird in its cage back into an airplane for release in troubled Somalia. Dr. Neil Collar, quoted above, was the scientist who advised releasing the boubou. "I have no concern at all, absolutely no concern at all. It was the right thing to do," he says.

Dr. Storrs L. Olson of the Smithsonian Institution, also quoted above, takes the opposite position. …

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