Meet the Woman Who Singlehandedly Saved Two Species

Journalist Julia Whitty had an incredible story in the May/June 2012 issue of Mother Jones, and we've just rediscovered it. It tells the tale of Enriqueta Velarde, a woman who has worked tirelessly, and often alone, to save not just one, but two species of Mexico's seabirds: the Heermann's gull and the elegant tern.

The story is compelling, and the writing is absolutely beautiful:

Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?

In 1979 another in a growing line of alien species hitched a ride on a fishing skiff from a remote village on Mexico's Baja California peninsula to land on Rasa Island, a tiny sun-blasted wafer of rock in the Gulf of California. The invader was Enriqueta Velarde, a petite 25-year-old Mexican graduate biology student who looked 18, with a comely smile and an adventuring heart. It was the launch of her Ph.D. research into one of the island's resident species, the Heermann's gull, a petite, pretty bird about which almost nothing was known. In fact, little was known of the island beyond its desolate oddities: thousands of mysterious stone cairns and pathways thought to have been made by guano miners in the 19th century, three wooden crosses marking unremembered graves, a stone hut crumbling with the region's frequent temblors.

Velarde arrived at the beginning of the three-month cacophony known as the breeding season, when Rasa's 148 desert acres become a fecund madhouse of hundreds of thousands of noisy, copulating seabirds who have for at least millennia chosen this smidgen of refuge because it's flat in a world of mountains and because it was once free of terrestrial predators that threatened their eggs and chicks. The birds arrive from coasts to the north and south, homing so faithfully to Rasa each year that at some time in the distant past they diverged from their progenitors to become their own kind: species we now call elegant terns and Heermann's gulls, virtually all of whom nest only here.

The island had been of interest to ornithologists as early as the 19th century, but though some intrepid adventurers had visited, none had stayed. Velarde's landmark arrival would prove a rarity in both the human story and the biological story: a successful invasion by one who would not go on to populate the island with her own kind, yet whose presence would transform Rasa and its larger ecosystem forever.

As an undergrad biology major, I joined Velarde for her second field season on Rasa in 1980. Last year, I returned. Some things haven't changed. Velarde still moves across the island in the slow-motion style I remember, treading between one gull nest and another, foot poised in the air as she examines where to plant it to avoid stepping on eggs and chicks that perfectly mimic the ground splattered with guano in all its wet and dry incarnations. But Heermann's gulls nest on virtually every square inch of Rasa, and even our careful footfalls violate the territorial integrity of one bird after another so that we trigger a cascade of incensed nesters who burst into the air and scream past our heads, firing globby rains of shit upon us. A few slap us with webbed feet or smack us with bills. Velarde gently redirects them with a clipboard cocked over her head.

We're headed to the tern colony in one of the largest of the island's 11 small valleys. This is where I spent most of my time in 1980, perched on uncomfortable rocks, baking in the sun, observing through binoculars the nearly incomprehensible machinations of delicate white birds—the rare elegant terns nesting alongside nearly identical, but more common, royal terns—all jammed only a bill's length from their constantly jabbing neighbors. Compared with the dull roar of a gull colony, the tern colony sounds like a jet-fueled apocalypse slipping off a million broken flywheels, so shrill and piercing it's a physical assault. Long before we can see these birds, we can hear them.

But when we try to climb the old path to the tern valley we routinely walked in 1980, we're stopped by thousands of terns nesting on the ridge, a rocky place they never utilized back then. We choose not to trespass through their colony, since nesting terns are hypersensitive to disturbance, and in fleeing us they could lose their eggs to marauding gulls. So we backtrack and try to cross in a different place, only to be stymied by more nesting terns. When we finally find a route, we come face-to-face with a sight I could never have imagined in 1980: Where once there was a small amoeba of a colony of terns, today there are multiple gargantuan superorganisms of colonies usurping nearly the entire valley.

"Does it look like a lot more terns than you remember?" Velarde shouts above the mayhem.

She estimates there are some 200,000 now. Seven times the 1980 number.

A multitude of factors have allowed these birds to buck the trend of dismally declining wildlife. Each traces its genesis to this small, now gray-haired woman before me.

Head on over to Mother Jones to read the entire, incredible story.

Header image: Heermann's gull, Octavio Telis/Wikimedia Commons