Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
No Way Home

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

No Way HomeNo Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations
David S. Wilcove

Not only are many species of animals threatened by extinction, but those that migrate in large aggregations may be particularly vulnerable. This is tragic, for the coordinated movement of great animal groups is one of the most inspiring sights on Earth for animal lovers.

Eucalyptus trees festooned with migrating Monarch butterflies in Big Sur; Alaskan caribou moving from their winter range to their summer breeding grounds; gray whales cruising north and south off the West coast; the high V of Canada geese on the move; the annual procession of songbirds up and down the great flyways of North America; the storied voyages of leatherback sea turtles, albatrosses and arctic terns; all these and many more epic animal journeys quicken the hearts of wildlife watchers.

Animals that migrate are subject to predation, as the wildebeest in the Serengeti are shadowed by lions and hyenas on their annual migration. Animals whose survival strategies have led them to live or move in great masses have often been subject to ruthless hunting and often extinction, as the passenger pigeon and, almost, sea otters and the bison in North America.

As migratory animals must depend upon resources available to them on their journeys, and upon the target habitat to which they are traveling, any disruption or destruction of habitat along the way takes its toll. Many Western Hemisphere songbirds, for example, are suffering from habitat destruction in their wintering grounds in Central and South America, as forestlands are cleared for farming.

Human activities can create obstacle courses and bottlenecks for migratory animals. Yellowstone bison that wander outside of park boundaries into Montana are subject to being destroyed, for fear they might transmit brucellosis to cattle. Within the 27 million-acre Yellowstone region, encompassing the park and surrounding federal, state and private lands, no fewer than 58 percent of the elk migratory routes, 78 percent of the pronghorn routes, and 100 percent of the bison routes have been lost due to encroaching settlement, road construction, and fencing.

It is well known that damming of rivers and streams destroys the salmon populations that spawn in the upper reaches of those waters. Even the installation of fish ladders, to enable the migrating salmon to bypass dams, is not particularly effective. Though some adults are able to make their way upstream, it is very difficult for the young to make it downstream safely to the ocean where they are to grow to adulthood. Consequently, many populations of salmon that were spawned in Western rivers no longer exist.

And, it is easy to overlook, there once were great runs of salmon, menhaden, shad and many other spawning fish in Eastern American rivers. Since they were mostly wiped out by Colonial times they are now all but forgotten. The earliest visitors to North America were astonished by the sheer numbers of wildlife they saw everywhere: flights of migrating passenger pigeons that darkened the skies for days; herds of buffalo on the plains that numbered in the millions; rivers choked with migrating fish, literally shoulder to shoulder, moving upstream to spawn.

In this fascinating book Wilcove details many migratory patterns – of fish, turtles, mammals, even insects – and discusses the mysterious mechanisms that guide these epic journeys. He describes new information made available by the use of tracking devices that have been placed on animals on the move. Much more is now known of “where they go”, since, particularly for fish and birds it is very difficult to physically follow the animals.

He describes the heartbreaking vulnerability of migrating animals who nest or breed or congregate in relatively small areas and are thus very susceptible to being hunted, or having their reproduction or nesting interrupted. Sea turtles who return to the same beach generation after generation have been decimated by being hunted for meat, and by having their nests robbed of eggs before they hatch. Most of the Monarch butterflies in North America migrate to a small mountainous region in Mexico where they cluster in densities of up to twenty million butterflies per acre; they are endangered by habitat degradation as logging is increasing in the area.

Wilcove tells stories of his own joy at witnessing massive groups of animals – as a day in the Serengeti where a hundred thousand wildebeest and zebras were on the move; a rare group of right whales spotted off the coast of Maine; or an autumn day in Cape May, New Jersey, jumping-off point for millions of migrating birds and dragonflies as they pause there before crossing the Delaware and continuing southward.

This is a passionate book that pleads for serious protection for the remaining migrations. Wilcove says: “…great migrations are best viewed as irreplaceable treasures, increasingly scarce reminders of a time when humans did not dominate the earth. Protecting the few such spectacles that remain, whether they involve wildebeest and zebras in the Serengeti, sandhill cranes along the Platte River, monarchs in Mexico, or caribou in the Arctic, should be a top priority for conservationists around the world.”

He emphasizes the necessity for governments to work cooperatively across political boundaries, since animals range widely without respect for these jurisdictions. He also urges that conservation efforts be proactive; we have seen too many migrations destroyed before it was possible to intervene.

There are successes to report. The Serengeti ecosystem is an example where two countries, Tanzania and Kenya, have worked cooperatively to maintain contiguous national parks that preserve the migratory territories of the massive herds of wildebeest and zebras. The international treaties that have stopped most of the overexploitation of the great whales are another example of successful international cooperation. A third example of a successful international agreement is the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico which created a multinational framework for regulating hunting and protecting habitats for 37 species of ducks, geese and swans.

Wilcove calls upon rich nations to help protect the migratory routes of “their” animals by providing conservation aid and support to the other countries visited by the travelers. He lauds habitat protection efforts by the Nature Conservancy and others and calls for more lands to be protected, particularly along migration corridors. He also urges the development of standards to classify particular populations of migratory species, along the lines of the endangered species criteria developed by the World Conservation Union. Such classification could alert conservationists if a particular migratory population, for example, suffered a significant drop in its global population over a specified time.

This is an inspiring, tragic yet ultimately hopeful book that provides a fascinating overview of animal migration, as practiced by a variety of species, including birds, mammals, amphibians and insects. Wilcove begins the book by describing the ubiquity of migration: “Every hour of every day, somewhere, some place, animals are on the move – flying, walking, crawling, swimming, or slithering from one destination to another. It is the ancient ritual of migration, and it is happening everywhere.”

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