The plight of the Condors: the ghost of DDT past!

Ah, the sad saga of the California Condors. The poor ugly bastards just can’t catch a break, can they? Driven extinct in the wild, brought back up in numbers in captivity, released back into the wild – only to catch lead bullets again, and also it seems, DDT! Again!! The more things change, the more they stay the same? Or do they actually just get worse?

But, wait a minute, didn’t they ban DDT use decades ago in the US, after the alarm raised by “Silent Spring” (which I just referred to in my previous post) back in the ’60s? Egg-shell thinning due to DDT was discovered then as a cause of declines in many a raptor population. As a result, yes, they did ban DDT here (although it continues to be used elsewhere in the world). So how come the eggshells of Condors re-wilded in the Big Sur area are thin again? It seems they’re getting DDT now from the sea, via bioaccumulated deposits in the fat of sea lions whose carcasses the Condors feed on on the beaches of the central California coast! And where do the sea lions get it from? Why, the fish, of course? The fish, you protest – but we never sprayed DDT into the ocean, did we? Well… actually, we did – rather, the Montrose Chemical Corporation, then the world’s biggest manufacturer of said pesticide, apparently just flushed its untreated DDT waste straight into the ocean! Those were the glory days of the plastics and the green revolution, when they thought the oceans could absorb all of our wastes no problem. If only. Turns out, the DDT just settled down underneath the waves, on the Palos Verdes Shelf off of Los Angeles, near the breeding grounds of the sea lions. And it has been seeping into the marine food chain ever since, building up in the tissues of predators like the sea lions. Until the Condors came back to scavenge on their carcasses – only to get a fresh dose of that old familiar nemesis that pushed their parents and grandparents off the brink several decades ago. Funny how the shit we invent in our industrial/technological hubris never seems to really go away, eh?!

Read more on this sad turn of events, in the New York Times. It reminds me again of my youthful objection two decades ago to spending millions to bring this single (not-really-charismatic) species back from the brink. I remember wondering how and where they were hoping to put the Condors back into the wild if they never addressed the root causes of their decline in the first place! I never got a good answer then – just more technological hubris about the potential for captive breeding to save the species, with the blindly optimistic assumption that somehow the habitat would be found for re-release if the birds’ population could be built up again in captivity. The same desperate optimism fueling other captive breeding programs and “frozen zoo” schemes even now. As if breeding, or the inability to do so, is the main problem all these creatures suffer from in the wild.

When are we going to move away from these technological fixes, these band-aid solutions, and start addressing root causes, in our own economy and society, technology and behavior, that are pushing all these species into the extinction vortex?

2 thoughts on “The plight of the Condors: the ghost of DDT past!

  1. Vivek Tiwari

    Madhu – very poignant. But if we had never invested in captive breeding and re-release of the Condors, we would never know about the DDT in the ocean and the accumulation of it is sea-life. For me, something like the Condor project isn’t so much about the Condors but just an icon for studying the broader issues you raise and species such as these as indicators of the impact of the human footprint on all species/natural ecosystems.

  2. Madhusudan Katti

    Thank you, Vivek. I agree, of course – the Condor project is about more than that species alone. My frustration even with the conservation community, however, is that we often focus on technological fixes to specific narrow problems at the expense of the bigger picture. These projects will remain somewhat ineffective bandaids if we don’t address the larger problems in society and the economy which really drive the extinction crisis. The DDT returning to the condors is a symptom of those larger issues which we must address if we are to truly conserve biodiversity on this planet. Or we will go ourselves taking many of these species with us.

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