This time we talk about aliens, although a bit peculiar ones. To introduce the theme we use a passage from the popular novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, 1897.
“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthlessness and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. (…) Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? “H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.
The novel tells the dramatic story of a Martian attack to the planet Earth. The aliens are equipped with exceptional weapons and they hurl themselves against the humans reducing them almost to extinction. They also begin to disseminate a strange plant that changes the physical aspect of the Earth, making it more similar to Mars. Eventually, the human species is saved thanks to the bacteria that kill the Martians since they were not immune like us.
What consequences would bring the extinction of the human species? What impact would it have on the ecosystems and other earth species? I’m sorry for us, but the answer is: it would change little or nothing. The only species destined to extinction would be the domesticated plants and animals, which depend on man to survive. The other species would continue to live, to evolve and to adapt to the new spaces left now empty by man.
We know it is a discouraging image, but in the end we are only one species among the approximately 8.7 million that inhabit the earth.
Instead, we should ask ourselves: what would happen if tens of thousands of species would go extinct in a short time in a single region of the earth? The ecosystem would collapse, slowly but surely. Think of coral reefs, an environment rich in biodiversity in which we find thousands of different species. The coral death in the great coral reef left a large dead area in the waters off the Australian coasts.
As in the book of H.G. Wells, a single species can upset the balance of an ecosystem: from the Xilella that forced the removal of ancient olive trees in southern Italy to the downy mildew, a pathogenic fungus that caused a million deaths in Ireland by destroying the whole potato crops. In scientific terms they are called alien species. They are extremely dangerous and can be fought starting from the conservation of natural habitats and their biodiversity.
There are people who made the fight against alien species their mission. Today we interview two alien hunters who are fighting a hard battle in the forests of Sao Tome and Principe where a good giant risks extinction. Their project is called Forest Giant and is sponsored by the National Geographic, the University of Lisbon and the Italian NGO Alisei.
We introduce them briefly:
Martina Panisi: graduated in Conservation Biology at the University of Lisbon. PhD student in Biodiversity Genetics and Evolution at the University of Lisbon, Centre of Ecological Evolution and Environmental Changes.
Vasco Pissarra: graduated in Marine Ecology at the University of Lisbon and freelance photographer
Here’s what they told us.
Q: The aliens landed in Sao Tome and Principe! What is going on over there?
A: it’s true, a new species arrived on the island. It adapted very well and it is multiplying. It is expanding on the territory and we are struggling to stop its invasion of the native and unique forest of the island.
Q: Are they Martians?
A: Not really, they are just snails! But of a non-native species of the islands.
Q: Thanks God … tell us how you ended up on an African island and what your mission is.
A: When I went to live and study in Lisbon, I discovered that there was an African island where giant snails lived! I’m crazy about these animals! Unfortunately, I discovered that in a few years the number of these snails had fallen, they were disappearing and no one knew why. I started to conduct more in-depth studies and focused my scientific research on this snail called the Obȏ snail. This gave birth to the project called Forest Giant.
Q: What are the main objectives of Forest Giant?
A: The main objective is to update the conservation status of the Obȏ snail. Meaning, to assess the survival chances of this species.
The second objective is to use this species to sensitize the local population on the protection of the forest and its biodiversity. The project therefore has both scientific, educational and informative objectives. In our opinion education is the success key.
Q: Why is the Obȏ’s snail disappearing?
A: We think that several causes are contributing. The disappearance of native plants, the introduction by man of multiple alien species, both animal and vegetable, and also the reckless collection of the Obȏ snail. We still need a lot of data and to make people aware of how to safeguard the biodiversity of the island.
Q: How do you increase awareness on biodiversity protection?
A: We decided to take advantage of the huge symbolic power of this snail. It is a very clear example for the people because it is an animal that they could see everywhere and now it has become very rare. The extinction of the Obȏ snail would have a huge impact on their commercial, cultural and emotional life.
Q: Why is the Obȏ snail so important to the inhabitants?
A: It is a traditional food and medicine, but above all it is one of the symbols of the native forests of these islands. It is indigenous, just like them. It’s unique.
Q: What is the current state of conservation of the Obȏ giant snail?
A: It is currently classified as vulnerable, but according to our studies it should already be at the critical level. In order to attribute a new conservation status to a species, a lot of data must be collected on its distribution, its ecology, its genetics etc … It is a long and difficult job.
Q: Why is it so important to assign a conservation status to a species?
A: Because it is the basis of the laws for its preservation.
Q: How does it start the safeguard of a species?
A: In this case we begun to measure and compare the number of Obȏ snails with the one of an alien species. Furthermore we had to identify the ecology of the species: what it prefers to eat, how it reproduces, how it competes with other species, etc.
From the first results, we could say that the snail of Obȏ has considerably decreased and its number is much lower than that of the alien species. From there we realized that his disappearance was just one of the effects of the change of the entire ecosystem.
Q: Did the islanders noticed these changes?
A: People knew something dangerous was happening. The non-native snail was destroying the crops and pushing the Obȏ tree closer to the edge of the forest. But people do not have such a strong connection to the forest and are not so sensitive to its preservation.
D: But how can an entire population living in a forest not to think about defending it?
A: They are surrounded by trees. The forest is a source of income and therefore of survival. For them it is a something to draw from rather then something to be protected. They still don’t see the need. They don’t understand why we should stop cutting trees when they are surrounded by them! For them it is a landscape that will never change.
That’s why we are trying to increase their awareness of the fact that it is important to distinguish between native species that must be defended and alien species that can be removed.
Q: How does an alien species get into a new territory?
A: Very often through trade or through people. Just think of all the tourists who come every year, they may become the vectors of alien species.
Q: Is tourism a problem for the ecosystem of the islands?
A: Unfortunately, yes. In fact, one of our next goals will be to increase the awareness of tourists who come here. We think that the visual strength of this snail can help to convey the message of respecting these environments.
Q: Are you saying that there is a different perception of nature between the West and the African continent?
A: Yes, it is linked to the context in which we live. For the people who live in crowded and over-built cities, nature is something that must be safeguarded, cared for. It helps us relax and escape the chaos of the city. We too have a wrong perception of nature because we always see it as something essential, which can be used at will, but we can count on a better ecological education.
For the inhabitants of the African island where we operate, the problem of environmental protection does not exist, nature is part of their daily life and they need it to survive. They cannot think that this can end or change radically. As we cannot imagine that a city can disappear.
It is a problem of context more than anything else, we live in different habitats and we have different points of view.
Q: Will our giant and its forest be saved?
A: We will do our best. And the inhabitants of the island are having an extremely positive impact. We believe so!
We thank Martina and Vasco for their interesting interview.