Scarce species: A salvation pilgrimage


"The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds," by Diane Ackerman. New York: Random House. 200 pages. $23 Diane Ackerman has spun a treatise that is as accessible as a travel guide, weaving gossamer words that transfix the unwary armchair explorer. Her motive is to make the reader a captive and then a convert to her ecological spiritualism.

The experience is a sensuous bondage.

In "The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds," she lathers descriptive passages so vividly that the impulse is to pause and shade one's eyes, as if to ward off images.

Depicting an Amazon tributary, she writes: "A flock of parakeets sounds like wet rope twisting into chirpy screech. Toucans yap like distant dogs . . . We float past a hemantanthus tree with bold white flowers, whose alkaloids are used in heart medicine . . . The new moon makes a slender white canoe above the darkening trees. Bats scout overhead."

Describing her state that night as "deliciously exhausted from the sheer sensory whelm of the day and eager for the days to come," she sums up the effect on the reader as well.

As a tactic, the largesse succeeds in bringing alive the far-flung habitats of fragile creatures, named and unnamed, that Ms. Ackerman so passionately wishes to champion.

She whisks the reader from the Pacific islands of the monk seals to the Florida scrublands, where entomologists spy on the sex life of the orange-and-brown spotted ornate moth, which harbors a substance that could become a drug useful to humans. Throughout, Ms. Ackerman subtly dangles the potential of pharmaceuticals and less specific benefits of biodiversity, no doubt angling for opponents of environmentalism. Her narrative comes at a time when Congress is set to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, which critics say is wasteful and abuses property rights.

Ms. Ackerman bolsters her presentation with scientific observations. But her target is neither the expert tallying genetic traits nor the politician pondering cost-benefit analysis. It is, rather, the ordinary person likely to be moved by the story of forlorn adolescent monkeys, Ziggy and Maria, huddled in each others' arms.

Ms. Ackerman makes her strong case for scarce species by dramatizing the plights of those forced to the brink of extinction, and the travails of the scientists who study and protect them.

She chronicles the slaughter of five million short-tailed albatrosses whose delicate feathers went to stuff mattresses and quilts. Their killers gave them a name, ahodori, that means "fool" because the gentle birds were so uncomprehending of their executioners' intent. The reason she risks the hazardous journey to see the surviving birds is also the rationale of her book: " . . . I go in part to stand witness. Lifeforms such as these need to be beheld and celebrated. That is my privilege, as an earth ecstatic, but it is also my duty as a member of the species responsible for their destruction."

Patricia Fanning is The Sun's science and medicine editor. Previously she was assistant professor, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University; a writer-editor for Time Life Books; an editor for the Washington Star, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a National Observer columnist.

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