For the past two weeks the scientific community was stirred by news that a biologist captured a male mustached kingfisher, took the first ever picture of a male from the species, then killed the bird shortly after.

Filardy holding a male mustached kingfisher for a photo – the first such footage ever. The bird was killed not long after. Image: American Museum of Natural History

Chris Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History,  was out in the Solomon Islands with other researchers surveying bird species. Eventually, Filardy heard the unmistakable call of the kingfisher, a bird so rare it’s often called ‘the ghost’. Seeing how this was the first male kingfisher reported by a scientist, Filardy reasoned that it was acceptable to dissect the animal. Other scientists disagree, and claim what Filardi did was unethical.

‘When I came upon the netted bird in the cool shadowy light of the forest I gasped aloud, “Oh my god, the kingfisher.” One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life. We now have the first photos ever taken of the bird, as well as the first definitive recordings of its unmistakable call,’ wrote Filardi in a post before eventually killing the creature.

This caused a fury online, as conservationists voiced deep concerns that this was an utterly needless crime. In the meantime, scientists were debating whether killing animals for this kind of research – a practice performed since ancient times to this day – is necessary. Amidst the controversy, Filardi wrote a long blog post motivating his act explaining how the mustached kingfisher isn’t rare or in imminent danger of extinction (it’s just listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List), and how this “reflects standard practice for field biologists”.

“Our first full day in the field, we detected the Moustached Kingfisher by its unmistakable call. Over the next several days, we assessed the population of birds across the area where we were working most intensely, recording calls of individuals as well as numerous sightings along a ~2 km ridgeline transect ascending to the high central massif of Guadalcanal Island. During this survey work, we recorded several calling individuals in an area totaling about a square kilometer, estimating three pairs and possible offspring or social groupings (in one instance we detected three birds in a small forest glade).”

“The total land area of Guadalcanal is roughly 5300 square kilometers. If, conservatively, 15 percent of this area represents suitable habitat, and if we assume densities we encountered are on the high end, this gives a population estimate of over 4000 individuals, a robust number for a large island bird. Significantly, habitat in the documented elevation range of the Moustached Kingfisher (800 m to at least 1500 m) remains largely as it has been for centuries. Though sightings and information about the bird are rare in the ornithological community, the bird itself is not. Elders of the local land-owning tribe (now living at lower elevations) relate stories of eating Mbarikuku, the local name for the bird; our local partners knew it as unremarkably common. With a remote range so difficult to access, there has been a perception of rarity because so few outside people or scientists have seen or otherwise recorded the bird. As I wrote from the field, this is a bird that is poorly known and elusive to western science—not rare or in imminent danger of extinction. ”

“With this first modern voucher of the kingfisher, the only adult male, we now have a comprehensive set of material for molecular, morphological, toxicological, and plumage studies that are unavailable from blood samples, individual feathers, or photographs.”

Eventually, the point Filardy makes is that this is standard practice. After all, the single three specimens of the mustached kingfisher reported so far (the last one was in the 1950s) were all sacrificed in a similar fashion. At the same time, wouldn’t three specimens, albeit all females, be enough to elucidate the insides of the bird? Filardy insists this was not a trophy hunt, and it was all done in the name of science. That’s because while there’s a lot you can learn from DNA, and other samples taken in a non-lethal manner, collecting a ‘voucher’ can lead to unexpected discoveries. Filardi mentions an incident in which eggs shells were found to be thinner than older ones at a British museum, thus alerting Europeans to the dangers of DDT in the 1960s. Nowadays, collecting is a lot more strict of course. Researchers need to get a myriad of permits before even going out in the field. In the case of the kingfisher, the fact that it’s very rare may be what ultimately contributed to the sacrificing of the male specimens. Most often than not, killing and preserving an animal for a museum is the best way scientists can learn more about it and the diversity of its ecosystem.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, isn’t on the same page with Filardi and this school of thought that’s older than Darwin.

“This is still the name of the game for some researchers: Find a beautiful, unique, or rare animal and then kill it in the name of something or another to justify the unnecessary slaying,” he writes in the Huffington Post.

“Killing ‘in the name of conservation’ or ‘in the name of education’ or ‘in the name of whatever’ simply needs to stop,” Bekoff said. “It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children.”

Instead, what Bekoff suggests is an alternative train of thought: compassionate conservation. The creed is  “first do no harm and individual lives matter.” In other words, if the animal needs to be badly hurt, let alone killed, to learn about it – might as well forget it. It’s not humane. One life for a textbook entry isn’t worth it. Maybe Bekoff is on to something. Maybe Filardy is right too. What do you think ?


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