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Will the 'Alala ever return to the wild? A bird sacred to Hawaiians and a member of the raven family, the 'Alala today survives only in captivity. How the species once flourished, how it has been driven to near-extinction, and how people struggled to save it, is the gripping story of Seeking the Sacred Raven.
For years, author Mark Jerome Walters has tracked the sacred bird's role in Hawaiian culture and the indomitable 'Alala's sad decline. Trekking through Hawaii's rain forests high on Mauna Loa, talking with biologists, landowners, and government officials, he has woven an epic tale of missed opportunities and the best intentions gone awry. A species that once numbered in the thousands is now limited to about 50 captive birds.
Seeking the Sacred Raven is as much about people and culture as it is about failed policies. From the ancient Polynesians who first settled the island, to Captain Cook in the 18th century, to would-be saviors of the 'Alala in the 1990s, individuals with conflicting passions and priorities have shaped Hawaii and the fate of this dwindling cloud-forest species.
Walters captures brilliantly the internecine politics among private landowners, scientists, environmental groups, individuals and government agencies battling over the bird's habitat and protection. It's only one species, only one bird, but Seeking the Sacred Raven illustrates vividly the many dimensions of species loss, for the human as well as non-human world.
The 'alala, a member of the raven family, is for native Hawaiians a sacred bird, revered as a guardian spirit for the soul on its way to the afterlife. These birds, indigenous to the island of Hawaii, were once plentiful, but disease, predation and loss of habitat have brought them to the brink of extinction. Walters (A Shadow and a Song) offers a devastating chronicle of what happens to attempts to save an endangered species when the interests of landowners, biologists, government agencies and conservation organizations clash: for the 'alala, everything ended in heartbreak in 2002, the last time one of these birds was observed in the wild. Now, Walters says, only 50 'alala remain, in captivity, and they may not survive if they are released, for in spite of all the hard work and sacrifice expended on saving them, little has been accomplished, especially regarding the conservation or renewal of their natural habitat. Walters's poignant book is a trenchant reminder of what can happen when politics and self-interest get in the way of preservation. Illus. not seen by PW.