Tales of love and loss: people from Oceania share their ‘extinction stories’


The first time poet Craig Santos Perez encountered a bird native to his homeland of Guam it was in a cage at San Diego zoo.

Growing up on Guam in the 1980s and 90s, Perez, a native Chamorro, had learned about the island’s lost birds at school. Children studied pictures and listened to audio recordings of their calls – but by then, the island’s forests were silent.

Of Guam’s original 12 species of forest birds, ten had been eaten to extinction by the invasive brown tree snake. Just two narrowly escaped its jaws: the Guam rail and an endemic subspecies of the Micronesian kingfisher, which the Chamorro call sihek.

In the late 1980s, the last siheks were taken off the island to be reared in captive breeding programmes at zoos on the American mainland. Though there are now plans to release some on Guam, they are still considered extinct in the wild.

That day at the zoo, Perez finally came face to face with a real-life sihek, its gold-and-turquoise feathers shining behind the bars. “It was very profound, very touching – I talked to it, and started crying,” he says.

The current population of invasive brown tree snakes on Guam is approximately 1-2 million. The snakes have caused the extinction of most of the island's native wildlife, thousands of power outages and widespread loss of domestic birds and pets.

To Perez, the bird’s fate echoed that of his people: San Diego is home to the largest diaspora of Chamorros outside of Guam. For many years, Perez was one of them. “We migrate to survive and to have better opportunities, but at the same time, we’re far from home, we’re in a new situation, and it can be very traumatic – for the sihek as well as the people.”

A poem Perez wrote about the sihek is among those featured on the Living Archive, a new multimedia web platform that provides a space for people from Oceania to tell their “extinction stories”.

Craig Santos Perez, whose poem about Guam's sihek is featured on the Living Archive.

“When a species goes extinct, so much is lost,” says Perez, who is now an associate professor of English at the University of Hawaii. “Not only from the environment and the ecosystem, but culturally as well. We lose our cultural connection to these important species, and we lose the deep meaning that they added to our lives.”

The site is the brainchild of Thom van Dooren, an Australian environmental philosopher at the University of Sydney. He hopes it will be a way of creating space for others – especially the Pacific’s indigenous peoples, but anyone is welcome to contribute – to share their tales of love and loss. A storytelling competition will be held later in the year.

As the sixth great extinction gathers pace, stories are more important than ever, van Dooren says. “Focusing on stories is about moving away from the simple listing of endangered species.

“Multiplying voices and diverse perspectives from around the world helps us to see the significance of extinction as it actually touches down in particular lives and places.”

In Indonesia’s West Papua province, it is the disappearance of the sago palm that is causing heartbreak for the indigenous Marind people. To the Marind, the plant is of central significance for both subsistence and cosmology, but Papua is the new oil palm frontier, and as plantations spread across the landscape, groves of sago are being destroyed.

Groves of sago palm (Cycas revoluta), pictured, are being destroyed in West Papua to make way for oil palms.

“Even though the communities I work with are facing all kinds of adverse social impacts from this deforestation, whenever I asked them what the worst impact was, they would invariably tell me that ‘oil palm kills the sago’,” says Sophie Chao, an anthropologist from the University of Sydney who has spent a decade living alongside the Marind.

“They would almost place the fate of this tree before their own lives … it was the threat to the sago, this nourishing, life-giving plant, that they considered to be the most dramatic rupture caused by deforestation and oil-palm expansion.”

Together with members of the Marind community, Chao co-wrote an extinction story about sago for the Living Archive. It includes a translation of a song sung to the plant by a Marind elder: “From eating sago, we grew bone; from eating sago, we knew home.”

Marind call themselves “sago people”, and the palm entwines with every aspect of their life, Chao says. Children are said to grow best in the company of sago, and particular palms are named after children that came into the world at the same time. Those babies are often carried in bags made from the fronds of their namesake palm so that, as one young mother told Chao, “sago and Marind can follow each other’s lives”.

For the Marind, humans, animals and plants all participate in making the forest a place of life and movement.

People also talk about being “good food for sago”, Chao says. Palm starch nourishes the Marind through their life; but when a person dies, they must be buried in a sago grove so that their body becomes food for the microorganisms that in turn feed the forest’s roots.

Now, conventional palm oil companies clear-cut the groves, and even “sustainable” projects can exclude local people from conservation zones, severing the Marind’s lifelong connection to their kindred sago.

Sophie Chao, who spent a decade living alongside the Marind people of West Papua.

“This plant is culturally meaningful, and it is politically meaningful too,” says Chao.

“When people are talking about this kind of localised extinction they are also speaking about what they see as their own possible extinction as West Papuan people: the cultural dilution, forced sterilisation, systemic incarceration, and all sorts of other processes that are very much part of the collective identity of West Papuans.”

And yet, the whole point of the Living Archive is to “avoid the politics of despair,” Chao says. As she tells in her extinction story, the Marind themselves have found some hope and resilience in the possibility of reaching a kind of understanding with oil palm: “So we cannot deny ourselves hope when they are finding glimmers amid the rubble!”

There is power in good stories, Chao says. “They might not be able to change the status quo or the structural processes and violence that are causing extinctions, but caring matters. Fleshy stories make us care more.”

And they’re more important now than ever, van Dooren says. Covid19 is seen by many as a product of a dysfunctional relationship between humans and animals, and the broader environment too.

“Extinction is only part of that puzzle but it’s a significant part – it’s a symptom of a broader set of problematic relationships that we’re being reminded of, not just by Covid 19, but by climate change.

“Storytelling is a big part of how we manage those relationships and how we imagine other possibilities.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


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