Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler who are tag teaming this post with , “Snakes on a Plane, Lemurs on a Plate: How Human Beings’ Actions Can Have Unexpected Consequences for the Natural World”. Both Molly and Jenny are Chicago based artists that have collaborated on numerous projects. Their most recent endeavor is The Endangered Species Print Project, which has recently been featured on numerous blogs. ESPP raises money through limited-edition art prints for critically endangered species.

Snakes on a Plane, Lemurs on a Plate: How Human Beings’ Actions Can Have Unexpected Consequences for the Natural World

Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler

If you’ve heard much about Guam, you most likely know it as the U.S. Territory that was the site of the Battle of Guam. In 1944, the U.S. took back possession of this tropical West Pacific island from the Japanese, who had occupied it following the attack on Pearl Harbor. You may have also heard the interesting story of a Japanese soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, who was discovered by hunters in 1972, having lived in a cave for 27 years.

Although Shoichi’s story is probably one of the strangest to come out of Guam, during his 27 years living in Guam’s forests, he would have been an intimate witness to one of the island’s saddest stories.


Image © IKONOS Quickbird

Let us imagine our unlikely protagonist on the night of the American invasion (with no accounting for exact historical accuracy): Our Shoichi hears shouts from the beach as the Americans land, and being a simple kind of nature-loving guy, and wanting no part of this fuss, he grabs a canteen and a flashlight and makes his way deep into the forest, nimbly leaping over lianas and roots down the forest paths he’s grown to know during his time on the island. He heads to a cave that he had found some months before, where he’d frequently camped out and laid in some supplies, most importantly, a pair of binoculars. You see, our make-believe version of Shoichi is an avid bird-lover. So, while our Shoichi was evading American troops in his grottoed refuge and keeping his ears open for the sound of shots or approaching footsteps — as darkness settled heavily on the steamy tropical night, he listened with a keen pleasure to the rich chorus of tropical birdsong filling the air.


Image © DAWR

If you or I were to walk Shoichi’s favorite paths through Guam’s forests today, we’d have a very different experience. Sure, you’d see all the hallmarks of tropical forests worldwide: lush vegetation, a truly huge variety of living growing things, moisture hanging thick and low in the warm tropical air — but then as your ears tuned into the sounds of the forest and your eyes strayed upwards, you’d notice two very unusual things — two strangely interrelated changes to the forest, with a single historic origin. Yes, you might hear the sound of insects, the sound of leaf litter being crushed under your feet, but you’d hear no birds. And as you looked upwards through your binoculars, to spy out these unusually silent birds, you’d catch a sticky web across your face, and wiping it away, you’d notice that there were webs everywhere. Guam is a tropical island now devoid of the music of birdsong and filled with enormous colonies of spiders. Clearly, these are the signs of an environmental imbalance — but what could be the cause?

The short and strange answer is, the U.S. Military — and a single reptilian species, Boiga irregularis, known by the unassuming and only slightly descriptive common name: the Brown tree snake.


Image © USGOV

At some point during or just after WWII, Brown tree snakes, a species not native to Guam, came to the island, and finding a habitat that suited them quite well, they rapidly multiplied. Though no one knows the exact method of delivery, and there is a dispute as to whether the stow-away was in the wheel-well of a military aircraft or a the cargo hold of a Navy vessel, and it is also unclear as to whether it was a group of snakes, or a single pregnant female — what can not be disputed, is the absolutely devastating effect that this plain-looking snake was to have on the avifauna of Guam.

Of the 12 beautiful and varied species of native forest-dwelling birds of Guam, 10 of them are now completely gone from the island. Almost half of these species or subspecies were found nowhere else in the world. Two of the species killed off by this introduced snake, the Guam Rail and the Guam Kingfisher, do still exist in captivity, but in small numbers.


Image © The Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Though the Brown tree snake arrived with the Americans who reclaimed Guam in the 40’s, it wasn’t until the 60’s that people began to notice the birds disappearing — and even then, no one could figure out the cause. Since the snake is well-camouflaged and hunts at night, it wasn’t until the 80’s that the the government was able to finger Boiga irregularis…and by then it was mostly too late.


Image © Ken Ilio

But how was one unassuming tree snake able to cause so much damage, you may ask? As an island, isolated from mainland species, Guam formerly had no tree-dwelling predators. The sad fact of the matter is that when the Brown tree snake slithered up to a Guam Flycatcher, a Cardinal Honeyeater or a Nightingale Reed-Warbler, the birds simply lacked the instinct to fly away. The snakes’ neurotoxic venom, aggressive nature, and predilection for eggs did the rest.


Image © US Fish & Wildlife


Image © US Fish & Wildlife


Image © Kurt W. Baumgartner

But what about all those spiders, you say? Though no one knows for sure, it is suspected that the spiders rose up to occupy the niche that the birds once did. Many of the extirpated birds were no doubt large consumers of insects, and since the insect population on Guam appears to have remained the same, the absence of birds seems a likely explanation for the spiders ability to flourish in such large numbers, dominating the forests as the new top insect predator.

So is that where the trickle-down effects end? If you were a very savvy researcher named Haldre Rogers from the University of Washington, and you walked those same trails where we followed in the footsteps of Shoichi, yet another indirect effect of snakes on a plane might occur to you. The subtle, yet very worrisome thing that Rogers noticed is that the forest itself seemed to be suffering with the loss of it’s birds. Because birds are often key distributors of seeds, for 60+ years, the trees of Guam’s forests had been gradually losing a key component of their life-cycle.

Seeds need to be spread away from their parent tree, a task to which birds are naturally suited. In addition, many seeds must  pass through the digestive system of a bird in order to germinate. Rogers and her colleagues estimated that 60-70% of Guam’s tree species need their seeds to be consumed and dispersed by birds. The team compared Guam’s seed distribution to that of Saipan, a nearby island with a mostly intact bird population. According to Rogers, “The magnitude of difference between seed dispersal on Guam and Saipan is alarming because of its implications for Guam’s forests, and for forests worldwide experiencing a decline or complete loss of birds.”

The logical conclusion is, upsettingly, that in the near future, Guam’s forests (and other forests where many bird species have been lost) could be transformed from a healthy diverse mix, to isolated patches of related trees — a change which would have irreparable and disastrous consequences for the ecosystem as a whole.


Image © Chris Lobban

The one bright spot of this story may be that, after many years, some of the captive-bred Guam Rails are finally being released into the wild, and with some small success. In one 54 acre portion of forest, the snakes’ population has been significantly reduced via trapping — and snake repopulation prevented with a perimeter barrier. Being flightless, the Rails stayed in the no-snake zone, and chicks were produced, but the permanent status of the Rail on Guam remains to be seen. Since Guam Kingfishers fly, and therefore can’t be kept in a snake-free zone, today, they can still only survive in captivity. (A note of interest for Chicagoans: both the Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoos participate in this captive breeding program.) For now, thanks to one medium-sized brown snake, spiders and silence dominate the canopy.

But, really, you may say, let’s not cast the Brown tree snake as a Disney cartoon villain here — they’re just snakes, doing their thing. Yes, no one really likes a plain-looking venomous snake that gobbles up songbirds — but what happened in Guam is, of course, much more complicated. The larger lesson here is that human beings now play (and have for some time) the role of the keeper of the balance in the natural world. The birds of Guam did not become extinct because of a snake, they became extinct because of us.

The accidental introduction of a tree snake to an island during a World War, causing the loss of the island’s forest birds, the rise of vast colonies of spiders, and the possible eventual collapse of the forest itself, is just one of many startling examples of how seemingly small or inconsequential human actions can have wide-ranging and serious consequences…

And sometimes human beings do much larger things that trickle down and affect the natural world in an incalculable amount of small ways. (Climate change, anyone?) Actions that we didn’t guess would precipitate such consequences, have affected, and continue to affect, habitats and species all across the world. Some are ‘accidental’, such as the incident on Guam, but some, though just as difficult to anticipate, are much more blatant and egregious.

As you read this, environmental crime is devastating the forests of Madagascar, putting the species who live there, like lemurs, in serious danger of extinction. The rate of destruction has been staggering. In only a matter of months, poachers, including the notorious “Rosewood Mafia”, have devastated endangered tree and lemur populations in Madagascar’s national parks. This ecological catastrophe is lining the pockets of a few, while ensuring poverty for many.


Image © David Haring/Duke University Primate Center

Four years ago DreamWorks’ animated film “Madagascar” earned over 47 million dollars on opening weekend in the US. Both “Madagascar” and the 2008 Sequel “Madagascar: Escape to Africa” won Kid’s Choice Awards. Lemurs were becoming a household name, so to speak, appearing on children’s snack foods and starring in PBS shows.  The unique island of Madagascar, long held sacred by naturalists and conservationists, was coming out to the general US population.

This was, of course, a welcome development. The more people learn about and appreciate the island’s flora and fauna, the more they will want to help protect it — and it’s no secret that Madagascar needs all the help it can get.  Since the arrival of humans, less than 2000 years ago, Madagascar extinctions include more than 16 species of lemur, (one of which was the size of a gorilla), a pygmy hippo, giant tortoises and the famous Elephant Bird, who at 10 feet tall was the largest land bird to ever walk the planet.

Today Madagascar remains a biodiversity hot spot; 80% of the species that occur on the island live nowhere else on earth, and a great deal of these species are vulnerable to extinction. 90% of the island’s natural ecology has already been destroyed by logging, mining, and slash and burn agriculture.  The IUCN Red List currently includes 472 species at risk in Madagascar, among them are some of the most threatened species on the planet. Many of these species, such as the Silky Sifaka lemur, live in Marojejy National Park, a last refuge for plants and animals that once thrived throughout northeastern Madagascar. Today, nearly all of the area surrounding the park has been deforested.


Image © Jeff Gibbs

A thriving eco-tourism industry sprang up around international interest in Madagascar and it’s most-irresistible lemurs. Eco-tourism is the major contributor to Madagascar’s $390 million-a-year tourism industry, and has made wildlife conservation a priority in the region around Marojejy National Park, generating much needed revenue. Local people have financially benefited as a direct result of the ecotourism industry, one of few options for a sustainable income in the area.

The future was looking bright for the biologically unique island of Madagascar and it’s unusual plant and animal inhabitants…

Then, in early 2009 the President of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana was ousted in a political coup by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina with the assistance of Madagascar’s military.  In Ravalomanana’s own words: “I never resigned. I was forced to hand power over, at gunpoint”.

Next, Marojejy National Park, a World Heritage Site, closed for the first time in history. Park officials posted the following notice, dated March 20, 2009, on their website:

“It is with great sadness that we report the temporary closure of Marojejy National Park to tourism. The closure was deemed necessary by park management due to the lawlessness that has descended over the SAVA region during this time of political unrest in Madagascar, and the resultant looting and destruction which is currently occurring within the park. In particular, gangs of armed men (led primarily by foreign profiteers in conjunction with the rich local mafia) are plundering the rainforests of Marojejy for the extremely valuable Rosewood that grows there”


Image © Rachel Kramer

Park officials posted more upsetting news on April 10, 2009:

“We have also recently discovered that large-scale, organized bushmeat hunting is being conducted in old-growth rainforests near and within the newly protected area of Makira. Under the control of an individual who claims huge tracts of rainforest as his own, every type of lemur in the area—including indris and the highly endangered Silky Sifaka—are hunted down by packs of trained dogs and killed. The meat is smoked on site and sold throughout the region—even as far away as the nation’s capital city, Antananarivo.”

With no central government to enforce the law, it is open season for poachers in Madagascar’s forests. Illegal activity that had previously been seen on a smaller scale, such as sustenance hunting of bushmeat by locals, has evolved into organized criminal “mafias” wreaking systematic destruction. Hundreds of endangered lemurs, notably the Golden-crowned Sifaka, Silky Sifaka, and Crowned Lemur, have been illegally poached through this organized bushmeat trade to be sold as delicacies.


Image © Fanamby/Photo by Joel Narivony.

In August, Conservation International released grisly photos of the lemur bushmeat industry. “More than anything else, these poachers are killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. “Wiping out the very animals that people most want to see and undercutting the country and especially local communities by robbing them of future eco-tourism revenue.”

At particular risk is one of the rarest mammals on earth, the Silky Sifaka lemur. The most recent population count (taken before the coup) estimates between 100-1000 Silky Sifakas remain in the wild. These lemurs have a highly specialized diet and have never survived in captivity.

The loggers are also hunting and eating the lemurs as they pass through the forests, cutting down old growth rosewood and ebony trees. Over 100 species of ebony and 47 species of rosewood that are found on Madagascar are unique to the island. Rosewood is most commonly used to produce furniture, guitars, and luxury flooring. Between January and August 2009, an estimated 23,325 – 46,650 endangered rosewood trees, worth over 100 million US dollars, have been illegally harvested from Marojejy and Masoala National Parks. Some rangers in Madagascar’s parks were reported to have abandoned their posts in fear for their personal safely.


Image © Bernard Gagnon

More news came in from Marojejy National Park’s website on April 10, 2009:

“Extremely disturbing reports continue to filter out from villages near the park entrance—villages now too risky for us to access. Tons upon tons of rosewood are being cut from Marojejy and the entire SAVA region, all apparently bound for China. Loggers have their run of the park, operating large camps, conducting business openly in broad daylight, threatening villagers and bribing local policemen. The Rosewood mafia, based in Antalaha, is powerful, organized, and dangerous.”

As Madagascar is reportedly a poor nation, some may deem these environmental crimes necessary for human survival; a way to earn much needed income.  However Erik R. Patel, PhD candidate at Cornell University who has been studying the Silky Sifaka since 2001 has said, “Harvesting these extremely heavy hardwoods is a labor intensive activity requiring coordination between local residents who manually cut the trees, but receive little profit, and a criminal network of exporters, domestic transporters, and corrupt officials who initiate the process and reap most of the profits.” In fact, Fanamby secretary general, Serge Rajaobelina, noted “The middlemen pay about 1,000 ariary [53 cents] [per lemur] and they sell them for 8,000 ariary [$4.20] to the restaurants and markets in the region.” In the end, the local peoples’ ability to prosper, which is linked to their environment, suffers right along with the endangered trees and lemurs.

Many experts maintain that Madagascar’s future prosperity depends on eco-tourism.  Tourists who hire local guides, pay park entrance fees, and buy local handicrafts, provide an economic incentive to conserve the remaining natural resources for a country whose rural citizens are among the world’s poorest.


Image © Stuart Pimm

Sadly, millions of dollars in foreign aid slated for development to reduce poverty, as well as to support environmental programs in Madagascar, is being withheld until the political instability is resolved. At a time when it is most needed, funding is not available.

Repercussions of the political coup include Madagascar’s suspension from the African Union and the African Growth and Opportunities Act. A formal statement of protest was issued by the International Community and Conservation Partners Resident in Madagascar, and on November 4th the US House of Representatives passed the Blumenauer Resolution condemning the illegal plundering of natural resources in Madagascar.

Despite this international outcry, a decree issued on December 31st, by Rajoelina has legalized the export of illegally harvested rosewood logs.

As of January 18th, the political turmoil in Madagascar continues. Rajoelina has rejected power-sharing agreements signed in 2009 with the leaders of Madagascar’s three main political parties.  According to the U.S. State Department, Madagascar may soon be facing sanctions if the atmosphere of intimidation and unilateralism continues.

The effects of Madagascar’s political unrest on the natural world have been ruthless and immediate…so far. The long term effects on the forest, as we see on Guam remain unknown.

Marojejy National Park reopened in May 2009. Although the illegal logging in the park continues you are encouraged to visit and support the island’s ecosystems, where you may still see some of the world’s most charming and unique animals.


Image © Duke Lemur Center

As grand in scale as a nation-changing political coup and as seemingly inconsequential as a little brown snake in the wheel-well of a plane, human beings’ actions can have vast and surprising repercussions for the environment and the species with which we share our planet. The lesson for us all is to pay more attention to our actions, large and small. When you throw out a six-pack ring you might be ensnaring an endangered turtle 2,000 miles away. When you purchase a new rosewood dining set, you may be funding eco-criminals. The information is out there though, and it’s just a few Wikipedia articles away. So look it up; you never know when the butterfly-effect may originate with you.

About the posters:

Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler met while studying for their MFAs at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The two artists have collaborated on many projects relating to their mutual interests in the intersection of Nature and Culture — and general nature-geekery. Most recently, they have created The Endangered Species Print Project, which raises money through limited-edition art prints for critically endangered species. They also write a blog for ESPP, which will keep you up-to-date on all kinds of great nature nerd-ness.

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