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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
This intriguing book looks at our fascination with lost and vanishing species, a perhaps inevitable result of this latest Age of Extinction. As Weidensaul points out, three to four species disappear each hour because of human environmental pressures. Many others dwell tenuously in a netherworld of vanishing habitat and unsubstantiated sightings. Perhaps the best-known case in the United States is that of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent bird that has essentially disappeared from swampy southern woodlands, victimized by logging of the old-growth forests it needs as habitat. Weidensaul recounts a century-long search for the bird by obsessed ornithologists, along with similar cases elsewhere in the world. He participated in several such missions himself, going to Santa Lucia in search of a plain-looking bird called Semper's warbler, last seen in 1961; and to New Zealand in quest of the Tasmanian tiger.
In particular, we tend to fixate on the potential disappearance of large species like tigers, elephants, and grizzly bears. People don't want to relinquish the hope that they persist: "an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," Weidensaul neatly summarizes. The obsessive hunts by researchers require massive expenditures of time, money, and effort -- but sometimes they lead to success. Still, "wishful thinking sometimes warps our ability to distinguish between reasonable hope and delusion." Great Britain is shaken each year by hundreds of supposed sightings of panthers that have supposedly escaped from private zoos. For Weidensaul, these doubtful claims persist because of an innate desire for mystery in a shrinking world: "People build these spectral beasts for themselves, from twilight, mist, and unspoken, unacknowledged yearning."
A long chapter recounts attempts to breed black-footed ferrets in the western United States. Watching the delicate laboratory process of inseminating the animals, Weidensaul wonders if the incredible effort of such work is fruitless. Then there are recent projects to reengineer vanished creatures, like the New Zealand moa, through the manipulation of preserved DNA. Weidensaul is suspicious of these efforts, for they plant "the comfortable but incorrect notion that there's a scientific quick fix even for something as permanent as extinction."
Some of the most poignant passages in The Ghost with Trembling Wings come when Weidensaul visits specimens of vanished birds in dusty museum collections, "looking with mingled sadness and reverence at the last earthly remains of a creature once vital and alive." But the book ends with flickers of hope, revived after he travels to Brazil in search of the cone-billed tanager. Much in the world remains unknown. The recent discoveries of new mammal species, like Myanmar's leaf deer, were major events -- reawakening our wonder at the world's treasures and reminding us of the urgent need to protect them. (Jonathan Cook)