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Elegy for Lonesome George, the Last Tree Snail (and what he teaches us about "the wall")

Robin Alexander

Posted on January 10, 2019 19:15

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The Secure Fence Act of 2006, begun under George W., resulted in various structures extending 654 of the 1,954-mile southern border: double and tertiary fencing, checkpoints, lighting, high-tech cameras, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. So, when you-know-who refers to the “wall” already started, he could be referring to the old fencing, some of which is actually metal. (Hmmm).

Although it goes oddly unmentioned by the media, the existing structure is a fiasco, dispelling the myth of a wall's efficacy. The fencing is routinely breached via climbing, jumping and tunneling. Ramps allow vehicles to drive over it. Small aircraft consistently fly over it. Drugs are even thrown over it.

An investigation by The Texas Tribune reveals that Homeland Security cut unfair real estate deals, secretly waived legal safeguards for property owners, and ultimately abused the government’s power to take land from private citizens. (Trump just might approve.)

Then there are environmental considerations. The barrier adversely affects wildlife, putting at risk toads, frogs, newts, turtles, and pumas due to habitat fragmentation. In short, they face extinction because they are not able to freely cross the border, irony notwithstanding. (Seems the existing fencing only deters animals).

…which brings us to the cautionary tale regarding the death of Lonesome George, who, until January 1, was the last living tree snail of its kind.

The loss of any species disrupts the local ecosystem, but it’s particularly true with these colorful creatures. When George’s ancestors arrived in Hawaii, they played a humble role, as is so often the case with new immigrants, specializing in what biologists call decomposition.

In effect, George’s forebears were tree cleaners, loyally reducing the fungi on leaves, thereby protecting their hosts from disease.

So, what happened? A tough new crowd, the rosy wolfsnail, moved into the area and they’ve been consuming George’s friends, relatives and neighbors at an alarming rate since 1955 (when, btw, the highest tax bracket was 91% and the economy was booming).

Researchers speculate that increased rainfall, higher temperatures, (and the booming economy) allowed those rosy wolfsnails to venture uptown into the tree snails’ farthest-flung neighborhoods.

George’s parents, along with a handful of others, were collected from the last known tree snail population in 1997. George was born in a laboratory at the University of Hawaii. Very few offspring were produced, and by the mid-2000s only George survived. Heroic efforts to find him a mate in the wild were unsuccessful. And so he died alone.

The current decimation of Hawaii’s native Ohia trees by a deadly fungus (their blossoms comprise traditional leis) might have been prevented had George’s kith and kin still been around to intervene.

So you can imagine the potential effect of an actual 30-foot-high cement structure on the bio-network of the southwest -- and by extension the possible adverse consequences for us.

As John Donne prophetically wrote in the 17th century:

No one is an island, entire of itself;

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the whole.

If a tree snail be

Gobbled by rogues from overseas,

America is the less,

As well as if a turtle were,

As well as if a toad, frog, newt

Or puma were.

Any snail's death diminishes me,

As I am involved in ecology.

And therefore send not to know

For whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Robin Alexander

Posted on January 10, 2019 19:15


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