Watching, from
the Edge of Extinction

by Beverly Peterson Stearns
and Stephen C. Stearns
Yale University Press,
1999, 287 pages

Cynthia Salley makes an unlikely hero for an environmental fable. A Hawaiian cattle rancher, Salley has tussled for years with the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over an endangered species on her property. Yet the authors of Watching, from the Edge of Extinction credit her with saving the ‘Alala, or Hawaiian crow.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Salley, whose 15,000-acre ranch is home to the last remaining wild population of the crow, has fought a good fight for 20 years to keep the birds alive and well. In the late 1970s, she banned researchers from her property, believing they were virtually studying the crows to death, conducting research for the sake of research with no discernible benefit to the birds. In later years, she held her ground against environmentalists and government scientists who wanted to take the crows from her land and put them in a captive-breeding program. Her stance prompted the Audubon Society to file suit against her for violating the Endangered Species Act. Ultimately, after a report from a National Research Council panel lent support to her position, Salley softened and began to cooperate with scientists to help maintain a wild as well as a captive population of the ‘Alala, both of which persist, albeit precariously, today.

Salley’s saga — which raises a host of pertinent questions about the motives and wisdom of some researchers and conservationists working with endangered species — is one of 10 stories told by Beverly Peterson Stearns and Stephen C. Stearns in Watching, from the Edge of Extinction. The book captures the voices of impassioned scientists and activists around the world working to save species that are tottering toward disappearance. In other chapters, we hear the perspectives of chimpanzee researchers in the Ivory Coast, a lepidopterist trying to save the large blue butterfly in England, a marine biologist toiling on behalf of the Mediterranean monk seal, and many more dedicated individuals.

Stearns and Stearns’s collection of stories gives a nicely rounded view of the extinction dilemma. Much of their information was gleaned from extensive interviews with people working on the ground, and in an apparent effort to respect the voices of those with whom they spoke, the authors let the interviewees’ words take center stage. They refrain from making explicit judgments about approaches and perspectives, and even from drawing connections between the different stories they relate. This hands-off narrative strategy sometimes results in compelling, close-up views and sometimes in dry recitations of events and facts without illuminating context. In the end, the book seems a set of brightly colored, inviting patchwork squares laid out side by side but not stitched together. Still, the interesting individual stories certainly make the book a worthwhile read.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Other Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Intelligently affecting stories of animals reduced to rarity, what leads to their predicament, and the people and ideas working to ward off extinction. Considering the current wave of extinction — roughly estimated at two species per day — journalist Beverly Stearns and her husband Stephen (Zoology/Univ. of Basel, Switzerland) ask how much of it is natural, how much attributable to poaching, indiscriminate harvesting, disease, predators, habitat loss, and competition with exotics.

Publishers Weekly
Beautifully written and lovingly illustrated, this powerful report on endangered species — and on the efforts of conservationists, scientists and activists to save them — personalizes the ongoing saga of mass extinctions of animals and plants around the globe. Stephen Stearns, a zoology professor in Switzerland, and his wife, Beverly, a freelance journalist, relate stories that are inspiring, heartbreaking, touching, infuriating.