Desert Island Risks

Picture it. A tropical paradise, blonde sands calmly caressed by the cool blue, a gentle ocean breeze brings salt and seaweed to the nostrils, and unseen birds bring a sweet melodious symphony to the ear. But there is trouble in paradise. Indeed, your presence in such a place is reason enough to be worried. The propensity of human beings to explore every inch of this planet, traversing back and forth with wanton abandon, has dire consequences for all other life on this planet, particularly islands.

Islands may seem distant and immaterial, but these microcosms are home to some of the most precious wildlife on Earth. There are thousands of islands, each one a world in miniature. Just because life on islands have so little room to move, does in no way mean that life on islands is any less complex, intricate, and unfathomable than life on the mainland. Even a cursory glance at some of the weird and wonderful, almost mythical creatures on islands: Komodo dragons, moas, pygmy elephants, reveals this truth. Indeed, island inhabitants face unique pressures that provide opportunities for life to experiment and evolve. Their inherent isolation is what makes each island unique, and the diversity generated inspires awe and fascination for island-life.

It is this same isolation however, that makes islands so inherently vulnerable. Islands are the geographical equivalent of immune systems that have yet to be exposed to infection. They lack the acquired defences to combat illness, and hence the fallout from exposure to novel diseases is often fatal. In the 21st century islands are sick, and we are to blame. However, human beings are not the disease in this analogy. Like mosquitoes, acting unknowingly as a vector for the real nasties, malaria, dengue, zika, we are in turn merely vectors for the real pathogens: cats and rats.

First some ‘soil-yourself’ statistics:
– Half of all known extinctions in human history have occurred on islands.
– 90% of all bird extinctions have occurred on islands.
– Rats and cats are responsible for 130 island extinctions, and threaten at least 600 more.

With so many species succumbing to rather mundane predators, it begs the question: ‘don’t these island critters know an enemy when they see one?’ And the answer is, somewhat surprisingly, ‘no’. Or more accurately perhaps, ‘at least not anymore’. Fear is an adaptive trait, useful for avoiding predators and undue risks. However fear is an extremely costly trait, and hence animals on islands with no natural predators tend to lose their fear rather quickly. Stories abound of Dodos practically walking into the cooking pots of Dutch sailors and Galapagos finches feeding from the hand of Darwin; not so much fish in a barrel as birds on an island. Lack of fear therefore, is the characteristic that makes islanders so endearing and so endangered.

Unfortunately, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. People are only becoming more numerous and more mobile. It is now possible to fly halfway round the world in less than 16 hours. It is now possible to book a package holiday to Tristan da Cunha. Nowhere is safe, nowhere too remote to avoid the ongoing pandemic. We are oversized mosquitoes, transmitting life-threatening moggies to every corner of the globe. We are orchestrating a transition from desert island to deserted island.

Picture it. A tropical paradise, blonde sands calmly caressed by the cool blue, a gentle ocean breeze brings rotting carcasses and cat shit to the nostrils, an eerie unnatural silence fills the ear. Fuck that for a laugh.