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The earth is powerful, yet it needs to be properly adjusted and balanced. Just as an arrow bends a branch, a slight perturbation in direction will increase as the arrow moves. Just as the smallest change in our earth’s balance sets off a chain reaction far beyond our expectations.
When the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller won the 1948 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine for his development of DDT as a pesticide, no one knew that DDT was a “branch”. It wasn’t until the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 that suspicion grew about DDT killing more creatures than the bugs it was intended to kill.
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, as it is scientifically referred to, quickly contaminates wildlife as small predators feed on poisoned insects, then succumb to larger predators, causing DDT to scale. the food chain until the top predators accumulate the highest concentrations of the toxin. Most animals do not show any visible effects from DDT, but one species cannot be overlooked: the peregrine falcon. It is a unique case showing the negative effects of human disturbance on the ecosystem.
By the early 1950s, the peregrine falcon was extinct east of the Mississippi River and 85% of its western population disappeared. Research shows that widespread use of DDT is to blame. The peregrines suffer from poisoning in several ways; In some cases, he killed them outright, while other traitors were so obsessed that they lost all ability to care for their children. But the worst
effect is a toxic attack on the calcium metabolism of the bird. DDTs thin their eggs so that when the mother fertilizes the eggs, they will break. Unfortunately, the very act that brings life to every peregrine is sending them on a crash course to destruction.
When scientists and criminals discovered this, they began to carry out captive breeding programs. Falcons recovered from rock groups in western Canada where DDT had not left a scar in the breeding chambers. Successfully rehabilitated after several years, the falcon chicks were hand fed by a mother-like doll in order to suppress their natural fear of humans which is essential for any animal released into the wild. The main goal of the project is to “catch” young chicks in hopes of rebuilding the wild population.
“Jisapa” is an ancient falconry method that allows the falcon to learn to hunt on its own. The falcon is placed on a secure platform high on a pole or building called the cutting site. Many times a day food is passed up to the platform in a fashion that gives the falcon no idea that a human is feeding it. As the bird grows, it flies around the platform flapping its wings to increase its strength. Finally, the falcon will fly off the platform and into the sky. As time passes, the falcon will become better at flying and gradually learn to hunt on its own. On days of unsuccessful hunts, the falcon can rely on returning to the cutting site for a free meal. Soon the falcons will become more adept at hunting and visit the cutting site less and less. At this time, a footman will capture the bird and train it for falconry. But in this case, the falcons were fed until they were of their own accord and returned to the slaughterhouse.
An important question has to be answered. Where should they place the cutting sites? When releasing any animal into the wild, there must be a suitable habitat with an abundant supply of food. Of all the areas where falcons would thrive, scientists decided to release them in New York City.
To many people, this seems like a terrible idea. Why would someone release animals into one of the most crowded cities in the world? But, it’s a nice decision. It fills both criteria for release: number of habitats, since peregrines nest on cliffs and they consider skyscrapers and bridges as complete cliffs; and the food supply could not have been good because a peregrine’s favorite food is pigeon.
The city became a very successful hunting ground, more than a country place. Buildings provide perfect cover when falcons fly down the road chasing prey. If they are lost, the houses hide the presence of the bird from the potential prey on the neighboring blocks. The insult can then jump to the next road and try again. In a large open field where wild peregrines hunt naturally, the prey has a chance to see the falcon coming from a distance and will hide until the shore appears.
The project was so successful that New York City now has one of the highest concentrations of peregrines in the country. Year after year, the young spread out in search of new areas in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York-state, occupying old peregrine nesting sites that have been abandoned for 50 years. Also, bridges that line the Hudson River from New York City to Albany now have peregrines nesting on them every spring.
In 1972 the United States banned the use of DDT, as did many other countries. Unfortunately, many Third World countries do not, and peregrines continue to be at risk of poisoning as they travel outside US territories. The word peregrine means “wanderer” and they have been known to fly thousands of miles during migration entering lands where there are no laws against DDT.
However, after the peregrine project was implemented many large cities throughout North America followed suit. And after being the first animal placed on the Endangered Species List in the United States in 1973, the peregrine falcon was removed from it on August 25, 1999.
This recovery has become one of humanity’s greatest success stories about a species pushed to the brink of extinction. Realizing our mistakes, we have succeeded in restoring the population. This does not give us the right to rest on our laurels and believe that it will always be easy.
In the case of the peregrine falcon, there is an element of bad luck. What opportunities can help other endangered species thrive in a city? I doubt that I will see cheetahs running throughout the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa.
But DDT didn’t just affect the peregrine falcon. Another disaster occurred on the island of Borneo in the 1960s. In an attempt to end malaria, the World Health Organization began a major campaign to eliminate the mosquitoes that carry the disease from the tropics. Borneo was targeted and DDT spraying began throughout the worst affected areas. Initially, the program seemed to be very successful and the population of mosquitoes dropped dramatically.
Again, the mosquito is not DDT’s only prey. A minute wasp was destroyed by the spraying; The bark used to make thin insects that live in the roofs of houses that have been cooked in the community. When the insect was gone, the residents who lived on the roof started to get hurt, and they started to eat the whole roof.
While the spraying campaign continued, a second chain of events occurred. Poisonous mosquitoes are eaten by gecko lizards, which quickly become sick and easily fall prey to local cats. As a result, the cats accumulated large amounts of poison and began to die by the thousands, which caused the rat population to explode in numbers. Many rats eat the local crops, and they bring something more dangerous to the island than malaria, the bubonic plague. In great desperation, the Borneo government called for cats to be parachuted into the affected areas.
To this day, malaria has returned to the island with mosquitoes that have developed resistance to many pesticides. As in the case of the peregrine, we got more than we bargained for. Convincing that pumping water is never a good answer, and other options must be explored.
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