Of California Condors and The Curse of the Lead Bullet

California Condor #63 soaring above Pinnackes

I wanted to write about the ongoing plight of the California Condor (yes, again), in light of the new paper out this week reminding us that even our best efforts at bringing back species from the brink of extinction continue to flounder in the face of our stupidity in not addressing the root causes that push those species to that brink in the first place. The new paper, bearing the poignant title “Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California Condor” has found that upto 88% of all California Condors now in the wild have detectable levels of lead in their bodies. Further, lead levels are high enough that some 20% of them need to be captured and treated for lead poisoning every year. And, by examining the stable isotopic ratios of the lead in the Condors’ bodies, the study concludes that the primary source is lead bullets used in hunting. This is how one of the most expensive (and in many ways successful) endangered species recovery projects in the world may ultimately fail. Basically, we’ve brought the condors back through captive breeding, but have done very little about cleaning up the toxins in their habitats that pushed them so close to extinction but several decades ago.

I was going to write a full post about this paper, but the wonderful Deborah Blum has spared me the effort with her excellent commentary over at Wired. Allow me therefore to simply point you to her post and go back to frantically getting ready for the first of my sabbatical journeys starting with a flight to Sweden this week.

Please read Deborah’s entire article before jumping to conclusions, because this is not an argument against hunting per se, but about a very specific type of toxic ammunition that causes serious health problems for a variety of wildlife that we all care about, as well as to people who depend on meat from wild game. We have to find a long-term solution or we will forever be in triage mode, treating both wildlife and people who get sick due to our own lack of foresight. Then again, as Deborah’s teenage son observes, perhaps we are too far gone, our minds too poisoned already, to figure this out in time:

It seems like it should be such an easy decision to reduce the amount of poison in our lives, to protect  an amazing species that appears to be disappearing on our watch. We should want to protect our environmental backyards and all the species – including ourselves – that live there. It’s baffling to me that this should be so difficult for us.  Of course, when I raised the question with my teenage son – who seems to regard my babyboom generation as blight on the planet – he pointed out that lead is a known neurotoxin, noted for its ability to depress cognitive abilities. “Your generation has probably eaten too much lead already,” he said. “We can’t expect you to be smart.”

via The Curse of the Lead Bullet | Wired Science | Wired.com.

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About aranyak

I am an associate professor of vertebrate ecology at California State University, Fresno.
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