<yome six months, thousands of miles, and many hours of research and contemplation have passed since I first saw the wild 'alalaa on Mauna Loa. Today, memories of the ravens drift through my mind like falling leaves. Scarcely a day passes without a thought of them, no more so than now. Donna Ball, the biologist we met on our way down the mountain back in May, has just e-mailed: "Paniolo has vanished and we've given him up for lost. Haven't found a trace. We have no cause of death, but we suspect an 'io." I am brought back to her earlier warning, "Everyone knows there will be some bad news along the way. It's heartbreaking, but we do our best not to lose heart." Only thirteen 'alala—five wild and eight captive-reared — now remain in the wild.
She soon writes again with more news: "A biologist found the carcass of Hoku partially pulled through a small entrance at the base of a large boulder, possibly a rat or mongoose den. . . . The transmitter was found nearby. The head, both wings, tail and a large portion of body feathers were recovered, but many of the ribs, along with both feet, were missing." Twelve 'alala—five wild and seven captive-reared—now live in the wild.
With each reported death, memories of that magical day in May return: a spreading fan of black feathers sweeping from branch to branch, silhouetted against a break in the sun-dappled canopy; 'alalaa playing musical branches, stepping into midair and sailing upward in a gentle arc to the next perch. Paniolo cocking his head to gaze down at us, swooping overhead, and arcing up again to land in another 'ohi'a.
And the bad news continues. Ball writes in early 1997: "Mahoa is gone. A large cat was also caught in a trap placed near the kill-site the night following the carcass recovery."
Three 'alala deaths just between late 1996 and early 1997; two — possibly all three—caused by 'io attacks. I open my notebook and sadly strike out the names of Paniolo, Hoku, and Mahoa. Now only eleven 'alala—five wild and six captive-reared—remain in the wild.
At some point—usually long before all the individuals are gone — a species becomes functionally extinct. In some cases, this is because the survivors are too old to reproduce. More often, as the remaining individuals pass away, the gene pool becomes so small that the species risks becoming inbred, with offspring lacking the vigor and genetic diversity to carry the species into the future. With each death, how much closer to that threshold has the raven moved?
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