The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons (25 page)

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C
ARMEN HAD ARRANGED
a 9 a.m. meeting with José Antonio Torres Esquivias, but until she told a colleague about the meeting, she hadn’t realized just how important a man he really was. Esquivias was a high-ranking government official to start with, but when it came to White-headed Ducks in Spain, this guy was
it.
We took the elevator to the seventh floor of the building that was home to the Delegacion Prov. de Mesion Andalucia for Córdoba and were seated outside Esquivias’ office by a secretary.

Esquivias was dressed in a navy blue sweater over his dress shirt and tie, and it was easier to imagine him safe in his office than in the field getting his feet wet. But first impressions are only that. In preparation for our visit, Esquivias had lined up a comprehensive
set of supportive documents, including books and brochures about the difficulties facing White-headed Ducks. The package included newspaper stories, newsletters given to supporters, certificates given to donors, data printouts, scholarly articles, and even window stickers.

Carmen translated his story. Thirty years earlier, Esquivias had been working on a Ph.D. in Córdoba on habitat selection in songbirds. Whenever he went to a conference, everyone wanted to speak to him about White-headed Ducks because Córdoba was the only place with significant numbers of that species. Initially, he was dismayed that people didn’t want to hear about his songbird work but then recognized a niche that he might occupy.

At that time, there were only twenty-two White-headed Ducks in the region, and hunting was still permitted. Esquivias would sometimes show up at a wetland to complete a duck census only to find people trying to shoot them. Many believed that it was impossible to save a species just by protecting its habitat. However, Esquivias and others insisted that the key to survival of the White-headed Duck was prevention of habitat destruction and elimination of hunting. In 1985, Esquivias and his group purchased the land around Zoñar Lake in order to protect it. It was the first purchase of this sort by a non-governmental organization in Spain. This caused the government to feel guilty that it had not done more to protect the White-headed Duck, and hunting was finally brought to an end in the region. As a result of their efforts, by 2000 the population had grown to about 4,500 individuals, and with the increase, the White-headed Duck expanded its range. With range expansion came further hunting bans.

In the early days, the public had no appreciation for the plight of White-headed Ducks. The association devoted to saving the species made its environmental campaign a very high priority, and at its peak had 2,000 members, including many from abroad. Responsibility for the White-headed Duck moved from the Ministry of the Environment to regional authorities, and association members became members of regional administrative efforts.

But just as the White-headed Duck started to make a recovery, Ruddy Ducks appeared, creating a new threat. Esquivias gave me a graph showing the climbing numbers of Ruddy Ducks and hybrids over time. At first, the decision to kill Ruddy Ducks and hybrids was a regional one, but as the problem increased, the need for a national response team was recognized. These efforts are aided by birdwatchers who notify the team about Ruddy Ducks. The team is a private company, paid for by the government, and Esquivias explained that it is an expensive proposition.

Esquivias said that if nothing were to be done about Ruddy Ducks outside of Spain he would be pessimistic about the future of White-headed Ducks. Most of the Ruddy Ducks are arriving from Britain, but now they are coming from Morocco too; one of these had recently shown up at Cadiz. If Ruddy Ducks and hybrids are not controlled in Morocco, he said, it is one more front of attack.

When I asked about British opposition to the Ruddy Duck cull, Esquivias said he believes that the problem is more a matter of appearance than of actually taking the extreme measures necessary to kill them all. One of the difficulties is that some people in the UK consider the Ruddy Duck to be a British species, introduced but naturalized, and legitimate in some way, so they are reluctant to take necessary extreme measures. Esquivias had visited Britain at the invitation of authorities to speak to activists and explain the problem for White-headed Ducks in Spain. He found it very difficult to exchange ideas with these people in a meaningful way.

Even in Spain, there are activists who are opposed to the shooting of Ruddy Ducks and feel that there should be some better way to control them, such as capture and release. Esquivias thinks that the issue must be dealt with from a scientific perspective. Not that an emotional response is irrelevant. He once went to the shooting of a Ruddy Duck and was so upset by the experience that he never went again. Even so, he understands the situation and fully supports the cull of Ruddy Ducks.

The Spanish population of White-headed Ducks is increasing, but the global population is still in decline. This shows the importance of
Spanish measures for the long-term survival of the species. Spain has been involved in programs of White-headed Duck reintroduction in France and Italy, but these have failed to produce results so far.

Without the elimination of Ruddy Ducks in Europe and Africa, the chance of long-term survival for the White-headed Duck is low, according to Esquivias. The Moroccan world is very different from life in Europe, he explained. Everything is hunted in Morocco, and the problem of Ruddy Ducks in that country should be eliminated by the local predisposition to blast away at everything that moves. However, significant wetlands are owned by the Crown, and hunting is not permitted. The Spanish royal family has good relations with the Moroccan royal family and have contacted them about the Ruddy Duck problem, without positive results to date.

When the population of White-headed Ducks fell to its lowest level, a captive group was established, partly in hopes of breeding individuals for release into the wild and partly as a repository of genetic variation. That captive group is still maintained. The difficulty with captive-bred White-headed Ducks is that they have not imprinted properly, and once they are released into the wild they fail to display the natural behavioural repertoire. They don’t seem to distinguish between Ruddy and White-headed ducks, and so are particularly prone to hybridization.

Another difficulty for White-headed Ducks is that they are specialists and require conditions to be just right. Water must be the right depth. They need a supply of chironomid flies and pondweed seeds. In comparison, Ruddy Ducks are generalists and will usually win in a competitive situation.

I asked if the White-headed Duck was Esquivias’ favourite bird species. His face developed a tender look, and he said that there is shared love with this bird. Others have photographs of family members in their office; Esquivias has photos of White-headed Ducks.

Esquivias had arranged an escorted trip to Laguna de Zoñar for Carmen and me with site manager Raphael Vega. Vega negotiated the company truck out of its parking stall and through the
Gordian knot of vehicles that represents a typical Spanish parking lot. En route, I began to feel a little carsick. Vega wasn’t keen on posted speed limits, and as the truck surpassed 150 kilometres per hour, an interesting trick of harmonics meant that the vehicle started to vibrate. The front seat seemed stable enough, but riding in the back I got quite a massage, and every bit of my face jiggled. When Vega settled in at 160, the vibrations disappeared.

At Laguna de Zoñar, we were met by Manuel, a park warden. To me, he was a swarthy, dark-haired version of Homer Simpson. There was a vague threat of violence about him, but I assumed that it was a thin veneer over a softer interior.

Manuel is the man responsible for shooting Ruddy Ducks and hybrids in the area. He explained that the official policy is “If in doubt about whether an individual is a hybrid, kill it!” To date, genetic analysis of the corpses has shown that only one pure White-headed Duck has been killed.

Carmen, Vega, Manuel, and I went for a walk around the lake. It is a beautiful place where native vegetation has been planted and maintained to effect. Showing his softer side, Manuel pointed out patches of aromatic herbs. He showed us White-headed Ducks swimming in the distance, and explained that it is important to control voracious carp in the lake, since they are able to eat small ducklings.

Back in Córdoba, Vega suggested an out-of-the-way restaurant near his home. Parking spots proved to be a problem; there weren’t any. I was told that in Córdoba, drivers double-park their cars but leave the handbrake off so that the car can be pushed out of the way if needed. This did not seem feasible in our situation, so Vega created a spot by driving up on the sidewalk and parking behind a dumpster. I thought it unlikely we would ever see the truck again.

The restaurant’s owner was an ex-bullfighter, and every bit of wall space was dedicated to images of bullfighting. A television was broadcasting a bullfight. Despite my opposition to blood activities, I found the wine outstanding and the food hearty and traditional
for the region. The owner and I exchanged snippets of genial conversation in English and Spanish.

I was having difficulty believing how late in the evening Spanish people start the day’s celebrations. At 8:30 p.m., Carmen and I set off to meet Julio, a university friend. Carmen explained that she could not imagine a trip to Córdoba without seeing him. Julio had recently started a course of study toward a Ph.D. in molecular biology involving the study of diabetes. Although Julio’s English was rusty, we were able to swap expressions like “immunohistochemistry” and “polymerase chain reaction.”

Julio had a general idea about the location of his chosen restaurant, but his navigation was pretty casual. We strolled through a plaza that had once been used for bullfights. We passed through a courtyard that had been, in some way, important to the story of Don Quixote. When we got to the restaurant, we were joined by Julio’s impossibly beautiful Peruvian girlfriend, whose name flew out of my head the moment it flew in. Over bread, cold tomato soup, chickpeas, and aubergines, we laughed and teased and told travel stories. Close to midnight, we tumbled back onto the street. Walking through a plaza, we found a concert in full swing. Despite the late hour on a weeknight, young children were playing in the street. “Well, that’s Espain,” I was told. I had my first cheek-kissing experience in Spain when I said goodnight to Julio’s girlfriend; she was not to be denied. When I told her that I hoped we would meet again, she said, “Well, you never know. Life travels in circles.”

S
EVILLE
is a
NOISY, BUSY CITY
with a significant air pollution problem. It has myriad cars but very few parking spots. Audrey tried her best, and Carmen helped by calling out, “No, not yet. No, not yet. Yes, turn here. Now!” but it was still all I could do not to smack the rental into other vehicles and run down a sizable portion of Seville’s pedestrian population.

After securing the city’s last parking spot, we walked to the Estación Biológica de Doñana Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, a superior research centre. All major Spanish cities have
one or more of these. This one was particularly concerned with biological conservation. The building was alive with young people wandering the halls and exchanging ideas.

We met up with Andy Green, who suggested a nearby café for our discussion. Luckily, Carmen got a break from translating and could concentrate on getting her breakfast down. I asked how someone with the name “Andy Green” came to be working in Seville. He explained that while working at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Britain, he started considering the problems facing White-headed Ducks. He recognized a niche and slowly worked his way into a permanent position at the Estación in Seville, where he had been for the past fourteen years. He suggested that being bilingual helped him bridge the gap between England, the source of Ruddy Ducks, and Spain, their recipient. Whenever someone on either side needs information, they can come to him. Whenever a Ruddy Duck or a hybrid is shot in Spain, the corpse is delivered to him. This allows for all manner of coordinated research, including diet, genetics, and parasitism.

My understanding of the history of the plight of White-headed Ducks made a big leap forward when Green pointed out that the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust was the group responsible for harbouring Ruddy Ducks in Britain in the first place. When I asked Green if the White-headed Duck was likely to survive without the elimination of Ruddy Ducks, he referred me to the similar problem created by Mallards in New Zealand. When I asked about British opposition to the Ruddy Duck cull, Green said that millions of Mallards are shot in Britain every year, “So what’s the difference?” I asked about his work with Marbled Teal and was told that they were an “acquired taste.”

Strangely, his answers were all a bit brief. Normally, when scientists are given an opportunity to talk about their work, it is hard to shut them up. In Green’s case, I wondered if this was British reserve. Then he mentioned that he was leaving shortly for root canal surgery, which would make the most verbose person edgy.

Considering waterbird conservation, Green emphasized Spain’s
long history of hunting and the lack of good coordination between the hunting and conservation communities, which is odd given that they are often working toward the same end. Carmen interjected, explaining that there had been protests against new conservation initiatives in Spain. Green demonstrated the lack of conservation commitment by telling us that while more than one million Britons are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the equivalent Spanish organization has only 9,000 members.

We were now in the part of Spain most familiar to Carmen, so we were able to put Audrey to bed for the drive from Seville to Parque Nacional Doñana. Adjacent to the national park is an equally large
parque natural,
which allows for a broader range of activities, including the cultivation of fruit. I read that the strawberry fields here were the inspiration for John Lennon’s song of that name. I don’t know what they looked like in Lennon’s time, but they didn’t inspire me. They certainly were nothing to get hung about. Over the years, these strawberry fields have been tended by women from Poland, then Romania, and now Morocco. Automobile collisions kill at least one of these women each year as they walk by the side of the highway. The highway also isn’t much good for the Iberian lynx,
lince ibérico,
considered by the IUCN to be globally critically endangered.

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