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Scientists Kill an Endangered Bird ‘in the Name of Science’

The first-ever photos of a male moustached kingfisher just before it was killed. (Image: R.Moyle, M. Janda, S. Galokale)
The first-ever photos of a male moustached kingfisher just before it was killed. (Image: R.Moyle, M. Janda, S. Galokale)

When scientists finally photographed one of the most elusive and mysterious birds on the planet, you would think it would be a great day for researchers and the bird alike. Not in this case, as the bird died in the name of research.

A rare bird called the moustached kingfisher (Actenoides bougainvillei excelsus) was photographed in the highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. It has not been seen in the wild for decades, and never been photographed until now.

Photographs were released by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The moustached kingfisher is a beautiful bird, with its vibrant blue tone and even looks to be in good health.

In a Field Journal titled Finding Ghosts written by Chris Filardi, who is director of Pacific Programs at the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, he explains he had been seeking the moustached kingfisher for almost 20 years.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, when a single female specimen was found, that scientists realized the bird even existed, and then in the 1950s local hunters showed collectors two more females. The male has never been observed.

moustached kingfisher

This decision to not merely photograph, but kill the bird, has sparked criticism for the ‘needless taking of a rare animal’s life.’ (Image: R.Moyle, M. Janda, S. Galokale)

Filardi writes: “Our recordist Frank Lambert saw the bird first and called me over. There, in plain sight — pumping its tail, crest alert, in full colors — was the moustached kingfisher. And then, like a ghost, it was gone.”

He writes further that they had set up “fine mist nets,” hoping to capture the bird. Unfortunately, they managed to capture the male kingfisher, writing: “One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.”

(Image: R.Moyle, M. Janda, S. Galokale)

‘One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.’ (Image: R.Moyle, M. Janda, S. Galokale)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed the moustached kingfisher on their endangered list (Red List). The population of this magnificent bird is between only 250 and 1000 mature individuals, but — because of its elusive nature — there is no way of really knowing.

The Red List justifies their calcification because: “This spectacular species is judged to be endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population, which is suspected to be declining — at least in part of its range. However, further research may reveal it to be more common.”

Paul Sweet, a collection manager for the Department of Ornithology at the AMNH, told Audubon: “The bird was euthanized and the specimen collected.”

They had “assessed the state of the population and the state of the habitat, and concluded it was substantial and healthy enough that taking the specimen — the only male ever observed by science — would not affect the population’s success,” he said.

According to The Dodo: “The Dodo has confirmed with Dr. Filardi that the bird was collected as a specimen for additional study.”

This decision to not merely photograph, but to kill the bird, has sparked criticism.

Marc Bekoff, a Professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, wrote:

Killing in the name of conservation, in the name of education, or whatever simply needs to stop.

Bekoff added: “It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children. Imagine what a youngster would think if he or she heard something like: ‘I met a rare and gorgeous bird today… and I killed him.'”

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