The California condor—the largest terrestrial bird in North America—once graced the sky of in large numbers, riding the thermals up to 15,000 feet on its ten-foot wingspan. But, as of 1992, the sky was empty of this majestic bird because personnel of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had captured the last condor to give it a stay of extinction, but at the cost of its dignity. And what about our dignity? Is not our dignity linked with that of every living thing that shares the planet with us? How can our dignity be intact when we unilaterally choose to erase even one form of life from the Earth? Extinction is forever, and the species we make extinct have no voice in that decision.
An adult California Condor.
In writing about the California condor, I am also writing about myself, and society as a whole. Like me, the condor is far more than simply one of God’s creatures—however you choose to define “God.” Both the condor and I represent biophysical functions without which the world would be impoverished. True, someone else may be able to take over my functional role as an individual, but what creature can take over that of the last condor? And we are more than simply creatures that perform biophysical functions; we represent the health of the global commons—I, as an individual, in a much smaller way than the last condor.
If the condor becomes extinct, its biophysical function becomes extinct, and both the condor and its function will have become extinct because the habitat required to keep the condor alive will have become extinct through its alteration to serve the economic gains of society at the cost of the condor’s existence. This means that a whole portion of the biophysical system, of which the condor was once a part, must now shift to accommodate the condor’s absence. Do we know what this means in terms of the biophysical system—and thus the commons? No, we do not!
There were approximate 279 California condors in the world as of March 2007, with about 130 flying freely in California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico. Despite the 100 California condors living free in California (as of October 2010), the door of extinction is still ajar.
Historically, the condor ranged throughout the western United States from Canada to Mexico, with some populations extending as far east as Florida and New York. Today, however, what few remain, can be found in California’s southern coastal ranges from Big Sur to Ventura County, east through the Transverse Range and the southern Sierra Nevada, with other populations in northern Baja California and Arizona.
California condors most often use caves or crevices in rock faces for nest sites. Instead of having many young and gambling that a few will survive, the condors not only have a gestation period of 56 days but also produce a single egg. Thereafter, the parents provide an extensive amount of care. The chick, in its turn, learns to fly at about 6 months, but will stay with the parents much longer. Adults become sexually mature at 6 to 7 years of age, and can live for 60 years.
Condors may travel up to 150 miles a day in search of their next meal. Lacking a good sense of smell, they find their food primarily through their keen eyesight. Like vultures and other scavengers, condors are part of nature’s cleaning crew. These magnificent birds not only help to keep the land clean of rotting flesh but also of disease. What would our human habitat be like without the services of these birds and their relatives?1
What about the hundreds of species that industrialized nations, such as the United States, Japan, and China, among others, are making extinct around the world through the motive of “profit over all,” which inevitably leads to the destruction of habitats? How will the biophysical system respond on a global basis to these cumulative losses? What repercussions will human society face as the global commons adjusts to their absence? How much of the world must we humans destroy before we learn that we are not, after all, the masters of Nature, but rather exist at Her forbearance?2
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, understood the feeling of extinction. He could remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, said Frankl, but they offered sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a human being but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.3 Can the California condor choose its own way, or will that right ultimately be usurped through human arrogance?
Frankl quoted a fellow prisoner, who said, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”4 The condor, by its nature, is worthy of its suffering. The question is: what have we, as a society, learned from its suffering?
Have we spend over $35 million on recovery programs5 in partial payment for our iniquities and transgressions? Nevertheless, are we not continuing to destroy the condor’s habitat and thereby still relegating it to death row because our bourgeoning human population is increasingly over-exploiting the natural resources in its perpetual money chase?
Would it have been more honest to simply watch the remain condor become extinct in the majesty of the sky, and to accept responsibility for our human failings? Could we have grown more in consciousness of the effects we cause through our ignorance and greed by watching the sky become empty of a child of millennia, a creature that took from the beginning of our planet to perfect—to watch the sky become empty by an act of humans, not of God?
Currently (2012), 173 species of mammals are declining in numbers on six continents, where, collectively, they have lost over 50 percent of their historic ranges. This prologue to extinction is precipitated by the global loss of habitats caused by human activities. And the remaining habitats are increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller “islands” with a severely reduced quality caused, in part, by anthropogenic pollution, such as the greenhouse gases, which are altering the climate. In fact, human alteration of the global environment is continually causing widespread changes in the distribution of organisms—both terrestrial and marine. These modifications in local biological diversity alter Nature’s biophysical processes and thus amend the resilience of biophysical systems to environmental change. As with every species, regardless of size, its extinction (both local and total) represents a loss of its biophysical function, which has profound consequences for the ecological services we humans depend on for survival and a good quality of life.6
If we, as a society, were called before the throne of judgment today, how would we answer the questions of each species’ intrinsic value in the Universal balance, of the trusteeship we each inherited as custodians of our home planet for those who follow? I don’t know, but I think a good start was the restoration of the California condor to its birthright, the freedom and dignity of the sky.
Now, perhaps, our consciousness will be raised a little, and their suffering and ours will have value—provided, that is, we protect them from here-on-out. And should the condors survive, their survival might lead to a time in history when human society and condors can live together in conscious harmony. But the question remains: Who makes this decision? What motive is it based on—and for how long?
Questions about morality, human society, and the environment are becoming more urgent in their need to be recognized, asked, and faced, because, when all is said and done, we will find that the integrity of an issue lies embodied in the questions we ask—questions that illuminate some of the many faces of extinction. After all, the questions we ask are but the outer reflections of the inner desires of our soul. Will our questions be strictly material? Or, will they pertain to our trusteeship and enjoyment of the global commons, the birthright of every living creature, including us?
2. (1) F. Stuart Chapin III, Erika S. Zavaleta, Valerie T. Eviner, and others. Consequences of Changing Biodiversity. Nature, 405 (2000): 234–242; (2) Gerardo Ceballos and Paul R. Ehrlich.Mammal Population Losses and the Extinction Crisis. Science, 296 (2002):904–907; (3) Lian Pin Koh, Robert R. Dunn, Navjot S. Sodhi, and others. Species Coextinctions and the Biodiversity Crisis. Science, 303 (2004):1632–1634; and K. J. Gaston and (4) R. A. Fuller. Biodiversity and Extinction: Losing the Common and the Widespread. Progress in Physical Geography, 31 (2007):213–225.
3. Victor Frankl. Man’s search for meaning. Pocket Books, New York, NY 1963.
6. Same as number 2 above.
Photograph © by Scott Frier of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.