By Donella Meadows
–December 8, 1994–
“Birdlife International Presents: THE CHOCÓ VIREO. An invitation for your name to be remembered for eternity.”
The small bird on the cover of the brochure is light gold and olive, blending with yellowed leaves halfway up a rainforest tree. The brochure says: “In August 1991, deep in the forests of the Rio Nambi in south-west Colombia, a student ornithological expedition … discovered a bird that is distinct from all previously known species. In 1992 the species was found at a second location in Colombia. It probably lives only in primary forest on the Pacific foothill slopes of the Colombian Andes — the Chocó.”
Here’s the deal. The bird belongs to the genus Vireo; it is a cousin of the red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus) and the Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus). It needs a species name. The discoverer traditionally has the privilege of choosing that name. In this case the discoverers have allowed BirdLife International to sell the privilege to the highest bidder. If I had the financial resources, I could name this little bird for a loved one or for myself. Vireo meadowsi. The Meadows Vireo.
You might think the world’s worst way to immortalize someone would be to attach his or her name to a rare species in a vanishing tropical forest. But the money will be used to endow nature reserves in the two places where the vireo has been found. About 8000 acres have already been purchased in the name of a nearby town. “This area is now owned by the people of Altaquer and has been set up as the first Nature Reserve in South America to be owned and managed by the local community. Additional funding … has allowed research and accommodation facilities to be constructed on the site and reserve wardens to be employed.”
Money from the sale of the vireo’s name will endow these facilities. The Foundation for Higher Education in Colombia has agreed to match 50 percent of the sale value. The starting point for bidding is $100,000.
If that’s too steep, I have a bargain for you. For only $50,000 you can name a fish.
Dr. Les Kaufman of Boston University’s Marine Program is the world’s expert on the bright, varied, threatened cichlid fishes of the lakes of East Africa. He has the right to name about 50 of them. He’s willing to sell that right, if you can help him save the fish. The money will go to captive breeding and restocking programs and to training Africans in fish taxonomy, ecology, and management.
What do these fish looks like? “They’re gorgeous,” Kaufman says. “They’re three to six inches long, shaped like slightly elongated sunfish. The females are drab, but the males are brilliant — carmine red, bright green with blue highlights, often with dark bars or stripes. Their colors show best when they’re passionate. Which is most of the time.”
I know several people who would be thrilled to have their names attached to fish like that.
Africans use cichlids for bait, and they sun-dry them to make a soup that they swear cures measles and malaria. (The East African equivalent of chicken soup, says Kaufman.) Aquarium suppliers also catch them; cichlids are the latest rage among European fish-fanciers. But the main threats are not native fishing or aquarists but pollution and the introduction of foreign species, primarily Nile perch, which feed on cichlids. Cichlid populations are most intact in Africa’s small lakes, cut-off arms of the big ones, where aquatic communities of astounding variety still thrive. Kaufman calls them lost worlds. These are the main places he’s trying to find, study, and preserve.
There’s nothing new about naming species after wealthy benefactors, especially benefactors that fund expeditions. There’s a bird called rockefelleri, at least eight birds named rothschildi (each with a different “first” or genus name), and a Hawaiian bird called dolei after the Dole pineapple family. The National Geographic Society has a dinosaur named after it — Leaellynasaura amicageographica. Its genus name honors Lea Ellyn, daughter of the dinosaur’s discoverers, Thomas and Patricia Rich. Its species name means “friend of the Geographic.”
Then there’s the rabbit named for Hugh Hefner. It’s a subspecies of marsh rabbit found only on the Florida Keys. In exchange for funds that went to ecological research Hefner named it Sylvilagus palustris hefneri. Several bunnies of the human sort showed up with Hefner at the naming ceremony.
The fate of that rabbit illustrates the crucial difference between that naming process and the ones offered by Kaufman and Birdlife International. Development on the Keys has crowded out Sylvilagus palustris hefneri. It is now on the endangered species list. Hefner bought its name, but not its habitat.
Left to its own devices, before Homo sapiens got so pushy, the average species of life existed on earth for about five million years. That’s closer to eternity than anything else you can buy into, and you get to put your name on a unique, living creature instead of cold stone. But the larger opportunity these days for private donors, institutional donors, or society as a whole, is not to immortalize ourselves, but to immortalize the creatures, by ensuring them a home and someone to watch over them.
(Inquiries about the Chocó Vireo can be addressed to Martin Kelfey, BirdLife International, Wellbrook Court, Girton Road, Cambridge CB3 0NA, U.K., phone 44-223-277318. Inquiries about cichlid fishes should be directed to Les.Kaufman, Boston University Marine Program, Department of Biology, 5 Cummington St., Boston University, Boston MA 02215, phone 617-353-5560.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994