Guam, a Lesson in Conservation Errors

Recently a friend who came to speak at my bird club mentioned that all the birds on the island of Guam were now extinct there. I had no idea. I am stunned and worried and basically wishing I could have done something to stop this from happening. Of course, I could not. It’s just something that happened.

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According to Guampedia, there are three species of birds left on the island in the wild. One species has not been seen since 1985. Others are being successfully raised in captivity or have been moved to other islands. The reasons for this devastation is laid at the door of habitat alteration but also, and largely, due to the accidental introduction of the brown tree snake.

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The snake stowed away on military ships arriving around the end of World War II. They had no natural predators on Guam and a feast of birds and eggs in the jungles. Without the birds, spider populations have increased and caused problems of their own. The nocturnal snake also impacts electrical power lines so that the residents have endured “brownouts” from loss of power due to snakes.

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Precious populations of the birds in danger were gathered and put into captive breeding on the island or nearby. Imagine the fear of those keepers when two global powers began to threaten missal launches with Guam as one of the targets. Unbelievable.

Currently, concerns have grown over the possible snake attacks on small children. They have also managed to impact the population of fruit bats on Guam, easy prey for the snakes. Birds as diverse and the Marianas crow to the Guam rail are kept in captivity for their own protection. The last 150 Guam kingfishers were distributed to US zoos for safe keeping.

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The department of Guam Agriculture Animal Defense and Control does its best to capture and remove the snakes from the island, and to prevent the snake from hitching a ride to a new island where it can once more feed on unsuspecting birds and mammals. In the wild, the damage control workers capture an average of 60 snakes per day. They use a very clever trap that keeps a rat safe from the snake and with food and water for its needs. The snake enters the chamber next to the rat and can’t get out. A worker checks it and removes the snake, making sure at the same time that the rat is staying healthy.

In the airports, where stopping the spread of the snake is key, terrier dogs are used to sniff out the reptiles and alert their handlers to the snake’s presence in cargo and machinery. A great use of dogs for their natural instincts to smell and find prey or, in this case, unwanted snakes.

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Time is running out on Guam, so these measures need to be stepped up and improved as much as possible. Because forests and trees rely on birds and bats to scatter their seeds. With the avian and rodent populations gone and the bats severely reduced, trees are lucky to get 10% of their seeds spread beyond the parent trees. On other non-brown-snake-infested islands, 60% of seeds are scattered far from the parent trees.

The US Department of Agriculture on Guam has turned to chemical means of defeating the enemy. Generic Tylenol is toxic to many animals, and brown snakes are on that list. Deploying thousands of dead mice stuffed with the drug, they know the snakes are taking the bait but haven’t got lots of data back yet on the results.

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The Island of Guam is in a shaky position in many ways. The native population would like to be self-governing. The invasive snakes’ removal is very costly, so they need the help in that area. And the possible death and destruction of the jungles carries more economic problems. Life is not easy on the beautiful island. But the good thing is, the people there are involved in helping turn the conservation picture around.

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back next Sunday.

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