The Rich Meals That Keep Wild Animals on the Menu
The biggest bird-hunting day of the year in the island nation of Samoa, it turns out, is not a great day to start searching for one of the world’s rarest birds. It is the eve of White Sunday, a national holiday during which many wild birds are eaten as a favorite traditional food, and 12-gauge shotguns have been ringing out in the forests for days. Even the most common birds are in hiding.
I have joined Gianluca Serra, an Italian ecologist and conservationist who specializes in creatures at the furthest edge of extinction, on a week-long quest for a bird that probably numbers no more than 200. We begin on an airy jungle ridge above a village called Uafato, in a hut designed to conceal us in shadows. Uafato is remote by the standards of Upolu, the more heavily populated of Samoa’s two main islands, and it has turned its communal forest into a no-hunting zone. The birds don’t appear to be aware of this fact. Apart from the ocean winds, which periodically drag in a squall so heavy that it triggers instant symptoms of the common cold, the landscape is remarkably still and silent.
I would like to tell you the name of the bird we are pursuing, but even that is not easy. In Samoan, it is called either manumea (which can mean “red bird” or “precious bird”) or manuma (“shy bird”). The first scientific report on the species was published in 1845, and the bird soon became known to English speakers as the tooth-billed pigeon, because its lower bill features bizarre sawlike serrations. Early naturalists also tossed around names such as “dodo pigeon” and “dodlet,” because it resembles a miniature version of the dodo, that famously flightless bird driven extinct in the 1600s. Because genetic testing has now shown that the tooth-billed pigeon really is related to the dodo, and because it, too, may be facing extinction, some are again calling it the “little dodo.”
Let us agree, here, to call it the manumea. By any name, it is a dark blue-green and chestnut pigeon, large enough to be mistaken for a chicken, with a hooked, outsize, sunset-colored beak, as though it had ambitions of becoming a parrot. It lives only in Samoa, where it is the national bird, found on the nation’s currency and in murals throughout the capital city of Apia. Hardly any Samoans have seen the living bird.
Ironically, on those rare occasions when a manumea reveals itself, the bird has presence. Since the 19th century, observers have described it as beautiful, dignified, special. Serra has had one clear sighting and sketched his impression immediately afterward. His drawing shows an electric-blue phantasm on the wing, more like an angel or a pegasus than any earthly being. He saw it from the same hiding spot we are using above Uafato.
After five and a half hours, we are still, with apologies to Samuel Beckett, waiting for dodo. “It’s a ghost species,” says Serra, whose swept-back silver hair and perpetually sunburned face give him the look of a European consul gone tropical. “How can we conserve something we can’t see?”
Giving up for the day, we descend to Uafato, whose white sand and palm trees are overseen by a tall, tumbling waterfall. Cooking for the White Sunday feast has begun, and the air smells like burning coconut husks.
“Where are the manumea?” Serra asks one giggling 10-year-old. He pats the boy’s stomach. “Are they all in Samoan bellies?”
It’s a joke, but a dark-humored one: When a species is reduced to very low numbers, hunters can easily pick off the last individuals. For decades, everyone from conservationists and economists to much of the general public has assumed that the culprits are the world’s desperate, hungry poor, for whom filling an empty stomach is a higher priority than biodiversity. But in Samoa, a more complicated story has emerged, one that doesn’t so easily let the rich world off the hook. We human beings aren’t just eating endangered species any more. We’re consuming them.
A day later, Serra and I are standing on an ancient structure in the jungle of Savai’i, the larger and wilder of Samoa’s main islands. It is a place of endings. We are just inland from the nation’s western limit, a point of black rock that seems to descend, stepwise, into the sea. In Polynesian tradition, this is O Le Fāfā, entrance to the underwater world of the dead.
The pyramidal edifice we have clambered to the top of is one of dozens in Samoa’s forests. The mound is not small: It’s wider than a basketball court and as tall as a one-story building. The jungle has nearly taken it over, but eight rounded lobes stemming off a central platform are still discernible. The mysterious structure is known as a “star mound,” and it was used, at least at times, to hunt pigeons.
When the ancestors of today’s Samoans arrived by boat about 3,000 years ago, the islands were home only to creatures that could swim, fly, or drift to their shores. Among these, pigeons, including the manumea, were the largest and tastiest wildlife on hand. Under Samoa’s strongly hierarchical social system, hunting them was reserved for chiefs, in the same way that deer hunting in England was once the preserve of aristocrats.
When a village hosted a pigeon hunt, invited chiefs, or matai, are thought to have been assigned to the lobes on the star mound, and would then compete to capture the most wild pigeons using long-handled nets. The hunts were a divine ritual, a spectator sport, a reason for communities to gather and feast, and they disappeared rapidly under the influence of European missionaries in the early 19th century. Or rather, they were transmuted.
In 2014, Samoa’s statistics bureau wrapped up a survey of what Samoans were eating and drinking. The nation has the third-highest prevalence of obesity in the world, and the research, carried out in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, was comprehensive. Nearly 10 percent of households turned in detailed accounts of their daily diet.
Rebecca Stirnemann, an ecologist from New Zealand who was living in Samoa, saw an opportunity to sort out who, exactly, was eating Samoan wildlife. She didn’t expect to catch people eating manumea. Hunters who specialized in manumea could still be found as late as the 1980s, but soon afterward the bird became too rare to target. Instead, Stirnemann worried that hunters pursuing the more common Pacific pigeon, or lupe (pronounced loop-ay), were killing manumea opportunistically or by accident. Interviews with Samoan hunters carried out by Stirnemann and Samoa’s environment ministry indicated that more than a quarter of them had shot multiple manumea by mistake. In later interviews with a smaller group of highly experienced hunters, Serra learned that 41 percent had shot at least one manumea.
“If you hear a pigeon-like call and shoot up in the air, you could get either of them,” Stirnemann told me. She hoped the dietary survey would reveal how many lupe Samoans were eating, as a measure of the threat that hunting posed to manumea. In keeping with prevailing wisdom, she assumed that many of the hunted pigeons were ending up in the pots of the poorest people—a consequence of the subsistence hunting that endangers wildlife worldwide.
Analyzing the results of the household survey, Stirnemann found that Samoans were collectively eating more pigeon than anyone had anticipated: at least 22,000 birds each year. That’s 22,000 chances to accidentally shoot a manumea. But the poor weren’t eating the most: Nearly 45 percent of those pigeons had been eaten in the homes of the richest 10 percent. Expand that to the wealthiest 40 percent of households, and the share climbed to a stunning 80 percent.
“We were all surprised by the results,” Stirnemann said. “People didn’t realize they were having such a big impact on the population of pigeons, let alone manumea. And they also didn’t realize who was predominantly eating them.”
As Stirnemann soon learned, her findings added to a growing body of research that is shattering assumptions about who eats threatened species, and why. In the same year as the Samoan survey, pioneering research from the Brazilian Amazon showed that people may be eating more wildlife, not less, as they escape rural poverty for the cities. Poorer households were still hunting wild animals to put food on the table, but also to sell to richer people. The wealthy were the greatest consumers of threatened and “prestige” species—including a monkey, a large rodent called the lowland paca, and a fish that can weigh as much as a German shepherd.
Because mainly poor, rural people had killed wild animals in the past for food or medicine, conservationists and development experts alike had predicted that people raised out of poverty would buy industrial food and pharmaceuticals at the store, the way most of us do in the West. Presto chango, the world’s wildlife would be saved.
But worrying studies kept trickling in. In Peru’s rain-forest cities, some of the heaviest consumers of wild meat proved to be visiting military personnel, industry executives, and tourists. In Vietnam, rhinoceros horn is still used as medicine, but the illness might best be described as affluenza: Almost half of users were treating hangovers, and another third were attempting to detoxify their body, in some cases mixing the powdered horn directly into wine to make a cocktail described in news articles as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires.” The story is much the same in China, where officials suspect that the coronavirus first passed to humans through an as-yet-unidentified wild animal. If you picture impoverished Chinese people eating any living thing they can get their hands on, think again. In today’s China, wild meat is frequently a delicacy and other animal products, like fur and traditional medicine, are luxuries; the trade has sharply increased, rather than decreased, with the nation’s rising wealth. (In February, China banned the sale of wild meat, with a loophole for medicinal products, but a lot of the trade was already underground.) Even in a country as impoverished as Zimbabwe, researchers found that hunters ate only a quarter of the meat they harvested, selling the rest to “people with cash incomes” who were “generally older and wealthier.”
CITES, the treaty body that governs international trade in wild plants and animals, first picked up on the trend in 2014. “We are seeing a disturbing shift in demand for some species from health to wealth,” John Scanlon, the secretary-general of the organization at the time, said. Wild meat, which had long been a dietary staple for many of the world’s poorer people, was morphing into a modern consumer luxury—a “positional good” that, like a Louis Vuitton handbag or Cartier watch, is used far less for its functional purpose than to signal identity, social belonging, and status. Threatened species were being eaten as a flash of conspicuous consumption by businessmen bonding on drunken sprees, by wealthy families showing respect to visitors, by urbanites hoping to reconnect with their rural roots.
Part of the reason Western conservationists expect countries with rising incomes to go easier on threatened species is that they believe their own countries did so in the past. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial “market hunters” were still supplying mainly upper-class Americans with wild delicacies such as diamondback terrapin and canvasback duck even as—especially as—those species’ populations were being decimated. The trade slowed only with the advent of strictly enforced conservation laws. Rosaleen Duffy, a political ecologist at the University of Sheffield, argues that, again, the consumption of wildlife didn’t stop; it was transmuted. The United States and the United Kingdom are major importers of wildlife products; a study of eBay purchases found that the U.S. is the end destination for more than two-thirds of the traffic in protected species.
Even legal wild foods reflect a shift from strictly caloric to “elite” consumption. A 2018 study by an international team of fishery scientists looked at where fish caught in the world’s high seas—outside any nation’s jurisdiction—were going to market. Conservationists are concerned that the high seas are being overfished; fishery defenders reply that their fishing helps feed the hungry. In the end, the researchers found that the catch ranged from big-game species like tuna and swordfish (some of which have been reduced to 10 percent or less of their historical abundance) to an assortment of smaller fish, squid, and other sea creatures. The majority was feeding upscale consumers in places such as the United States, the European Union, and Japan. Several species were used almost entirely as feed for fish farms or pets (again, mainly in rich nations), while others were turned into nutraceuticals aimed not at combatting hunger or disease, but at optimizing the performance of already healthy people—to make us, as we say today, “better than well.”
“All of us are consumers of wildlife in one way or another,” Duffy says. “We eat wildlife, we wear it as clothing and accessories, we consume it as medicine, and we buy ornaments made from it.”
The reasons for the manumea’s disappearance in Samoa are less rapacious: The bird is no longer deliberately hunted, but killed unintentionally. Yet it, too, is entangled in matters of prestige and identity. And the little dodo is on the verge—the very brink of the cusp—of extinction.
“Let me paint a picture of why it is so hard for people to say no to pigeon dishes,” Jesse Lee, a young chef with an interest in Samoan foodways, told me. “It’s a memory food; it’s the peak of all dishes. It’s the ultimate chicken soup.”
We were seated in his restaurant, Mi Amor, a farm-to-table joint in Apia that smells of lime leaves, coconut, tuna, and fresh lemongrass. Lee has eaten pigeon only a few times. In every case, it has been because his parents—his father is a matai—have received them as gifts. “It’s a mark of respect.”
Nearly every Samoan I spoke with had eaten pigeon, but a clear pattern emerged: How often and how recently they had eaten it tended to correlate with their wealth, power, and status. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is about as prestigious as a figure can be in Samoa: Besides being the deputy prime minister and minister of natural resources and environment, Fiame holds a high matai title and is the daughter of the man whose hands literally lowered the flag of colonial rule to launch Samoa’s independence. (Note that in Samoa, matai titles are used in place of individuals’ surnames.) Fiame is also a spokesperson for a new campaign to save the manumea led by the Samoa Conservation Society and her ministry; in the campaign’s strategy document, she publicly applauds “all Samoans who have made the voluntary decision to forego the purchase, gifting, or eating of all pigeon until we can ensure that our Manumea is out of danger.” Yet when I asked where and when she had last eaten pigeon, she replied with candor. “Probably in cabinet. Probably last month,” she said. “The minister who usually brings it, he has a restaurant, so usually it arrives cooked.” The minister in question is Sala Fata Pinati, the minister of tourism.
Similarly, Seumaloisalafai Afele Faiilagi, who oversees manumea conservation at the environment ministry, acknowledges that he used to receive “a lot of lupe” because his father is the high matai of Uafato—the village where Serra and I first searched for manumea. “Because it is rare, people recognize that it is for the high chief,” Seumaloisalafai said. In Samoa, that can add up to a lot of pigeons: The country has 18,000 matai. Church leaders, too, often receive pigeon as gifts, or even request it as a favorite food. As Stirnemann put it, the well-to-do consumers in Samoa are typically a far cry from the global elite. “It’s not like wealthy-with-swimming-pools wealthy. It would just be your richer people in the average population.”
By comparison, Tu Alauni, a young woman raised in Apia, said that the only time she had tasted pigeon was when her mother, very ill, had arranged to buy a single bird, hoping it might improve her health. “It was the most important food in their times,” Alauni told me. She expected that the small piece of pigeon her mother shared with her would be a “once in a lifetime” experience—all the more so now that Alauni has actually seen a live manumea. In 2017, one perched alongside the terrace of her workplace, the Forest Cafe, which overlooks a jungle ravine in the mountains above the city. Alauni now feels personally invested in the fate of the manumea, and the café’s owners, who also saw the bird, are reforesting the area with native trees. Still, hunting takes place so close to the property that bird shot once fell out of the sky onto the café’s roof.
Poor people in Samoa have practical reasons for eating less pigeon. A single bird costs 15 Samoan tālā—enough money to buy a week’s worth of meals for a family. A box of shotgun shells costs 65 tālā, which could otherwise purchase four dress shirts, three backpacks for schoolchildren, or 13 whole chickens. Hunters I spoke with said that even their shells are now often paid for by wealthy buyers.
To be clear, hunting pigeons has been against the law in Samoa for more than 25 years. The law has not been enforced, however, and most Samoans consider it inoperative to the point that hunting and eating pigeon are spoken of freely. I encountered secrecy only once: After a professor told me he had dined on lupe the previous week at a resort, the hotel’s staff insisted they had never served the bird.
Wild pigeon is food in Samoa, but no one needs to eat pigeon. Sitting at Mi Amor, its doors and windows open in the evening heat, Lee said the perception of wild pigeon as something consumed, not merely eaten, could one day be the manumea’s salvation. “The next generation is not as interested in food, actually. They’re more interested in the next iPhone or the next Samsung—whatever the new technology is going to be,” Lee said. “If the next generation will prefer to get a gift of an iPhone instead, or some shoes, the pigeons probably won’t be too bothered.”
Of course, the manumea has to survive that long—which is anything but a sure bet.
Serra tells me that searching for the rarest of rare creatures takes not only perseverance, but faith. After days of fruitless trekking through Samoa’s wildest forests, I understand what he means. The idea that a manumea might appear just around the next corner begins to seem ridiculous, as though we were watching for shooting stars in the tiny clear patch of a night sky otherwise obscured by clouds. Every second seems essential—you can’t step off the trail to relieve yourself without keeping your eyes peeled—but at the same time hopeless. Carrying on, then, takes faith, or obsession. Serra’s favorite book, he tells me, is Moby-Dick.
So we ascend for hours into the clouds above the village of A’opo, on the north slope of Savai’i. The jungle is alive, teeming with birds, and in that single day we see or hear nearly all of the forest species in Samoa’s slim birdwatching guide. “All except one,” says Serra, as we finally descend in drenching, blood-warm rain. “Maybe we are documenting the extinction.”
The extinction. Most of us understand those words only in the abstract. To Serra, they’re personal. Serra, who currently lives in Florence, Italy, moved to Samoa in 2012 to run conservation projects with the United Nations’ Environment Programme and Global Environment Facility across the South Pacific. After four years, he returned to the field as a freelance manumea researcher, working for Samoa’s ministry of the environment, among others. But his immersion in critically endangered species began nearly 20 years ago with the northern bald ibis, when he traced ghostly sightings by Bedouin nomads and local hunters to a small colony in Syria. At the time, the black, cranelike bird—once widespread across North Africa, southeastern Europe, and the Middle East—was known to nest only in Morocco; there hadn’t been a verified sighting in Syria since the 1930s. Serra and his Syrian and Bedouin colleagues found seven birds. He then watched as all these remaining ibises were lost in subsequent years, mainly to hunting.
The idea that Serra may witness another disappearance—the global extinction of the manumea—weighs on him. Yet he doesn’t even know, really, where to look for the bird. Contradictory reports have been the norm since the earliest written accounts. Sometimes the manumea is described as a bird of the high cloud forests, sometimes of the coastal lowlands; the last known photograph of the species was taken in 2013, in the parking lot of a resort near the busiest town on Savai’i. Some have said the manumea prefers, like its cousin the dodo, to peck about on the ground; others, that it never leaves the treetops. “Who knows?” Serra says. “Total speculations.”
Because manumea are hard to see, estimates of how many remain have depended in part on where they’ve been heard. But when Serra tested 10 expert bird hunters, he found that even most of them could not consistently identify the bird by its recorded call. (The manumea’s only known call is a softly rising and falling sound—mmmMMMmmm—like a cow on a foggy morning; it is thought to be slightly lower in pitch and subtly different in rhythm than a similar call made by the lupe.) The idea that 200 birds remain is, Serra says, little more than a guess. The number could be higher, or much, much lower. “We may be searching for the last 10, or 15.”
If the manumea does go extinct, the last one could die something like this: On a hunt when he was 17 years old, a man named Norman Paul saw the silhouette of a pigeon in a tree, and shot at it.* He was startled to discover that what he had gunned down was not a lupe, but a bird he had never seen before. Immediately, he regretted the kill—something special had died by his hand. Today, some 45 years later, he runs a hotel on the mountainside where he shot the bird. It is called Le Manumea, in memoriam, and tourists there gather in an atmosphere of thatch and tiki, unaware of the lingering sadness captured by the resort’s name. A sign at the entrance promises happy hour all day.
On the basis of confirmed sightings, Serra now estimates that a person looking for the manumea could expect to spot one only every three to five years. “There is a Tasmanian-tiger aspect to the manumea,” he says, referring to the wolflike marsupial that probably went extinct in Tasmania in 1936, but is still regularly, if unreliably, reported to exist in the wild. “As people become aware of the manumea, they desire to see it.” A radio station once contacted the environment ministry to report that a listener had brought a manumea into the studio. It proved to be the fiaui, or white-throated pigeon, a bird often mistaken for the manumea. Serra and I have seen plenty of them.
The first campaign to save the manumea was launched in 1993. It was funded by Rare, an American organization that promotes local pride in endangered species, but otherwise took a grassroots approach—including school puppet shows and a manumea-friendly sermon for Samoa’s many, many churches—led by government environmental staff. Fourteen years passed before the next big conservation drive, followed again by a long lapse.
Today’s effort to save the manumea, then, is beginning almost from scratch. Samoa has dedicated conservationists (the head parks and reserves officer, Moeumu Uili, teared up as she recounted capturing the manumea on film in 2013), but money and resources are hard to come by in a nation with the same population as Yonkers, New York—and in a world replete with endangered species that need help. This time, international partners include BirdLife, the Auckland Zoo, and the New Zealand government.
Hunting is certainly not the only threat facing the bird. Most evidence points to manumea preferring lowland forests, 80 percent of which have been logged, built over, or cleared for the family farms that Samoans call plantations. Then there are invasive species such as rats and cats, which count the manumea among their prey. The first documented observations of manumea in the wild, written in gorgeously hurried cursive by the naturalist and explorer Titian Peale in the late 1840s, were also the first to predict the bird’s extinction:
"A few years since a passion arose for cats, and they were obtained by all possible means from the whale ships visiting the islands … Pussy (a name generally adopted by the Polynesians for cats), not liking yams and taro, the principal food of the islanders, preferred Manu-mea, and took to the mountains in pursuit of them. There the cats have multiplied and become wild, and live upon our Didunculus, or Little Dodo, the Manu-mea of the natives, which, it is believed, will, in a very few years, cease to be known."
The manumea has outlived expectations by more than 170 years—but barely. In 2014, its global conservation status was downgraded from endangered to critically endangered, meaning “intensive conservation actions” are needed to prevent its extinction.
The international team met in Samoa in October 2019 to decide on those actions, all of which were abruptly postponed when a deadly measles outbreak was declared a national emergency in November. The Samoan government’s top priority for the manumea’s recovery, according to Seumaloisalafai, will be to pursue Serra’s research into the bird’s call. If the manumea’s vocal imprint can be distinguished from the lupe’s through digital analysis, scientists could distribute sensors throughout the islands and collect the best data yet on where the birds are and how many remain.
Also key to the recovery plan is developing and supporting a network of manumea-friendly villages (there are already six) that commit to protecting their forests and banning hunting. The Auckland Zoo, meanwhile, is prepared to provide training and support for rat-killing programs in village forests. The zoo will also study the feasibility of a captive-breeding facility in Samoa, its first great challenge being the fact that, as one manumea researcher put it, “the difficulty throughout the present century has been to find even single representatives of the species.”
Pigeon hunting is a practice that can be addressed cheaply and immediately—at least in theory. With Samoa’s measles crisis now over, a marketing campaign starting in April will first draw attention to the manumea’s plight before calling on Samoans to ban the shooting, trading, and eating of pigeon. The goal is to reduce pigeon consumption by a quarter this year. “I don’t think the bird will be saved by the hunting issue alone,” said James Atherton, who is of British and Samoan descent and helped found the Samoa Conservation Society seven years ago, “but it’s the one thing that every Samoan can do to save the manumea.”
Still, asking Samoans to stop eating pigeon is as fraught with complexity as asking the world’s wealthy consumers to give up their favorite seafood. Seiuli Vaifou Aloalii Temese, head of the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa, pulled back the layers of meaning associated with pigeons. She told me about memories of her father hunting for lupe before White Sunday when she was a girl, and always giving one bird to the pastor before preparing the rest. They would share those meals with neighbors who had no lupe to eat, dishing out the best portions to the chiefs. Pigeon hunting has even been woven into the language. A meeting might open with a phrase like Ua malumaunu le fogatia, which translates as “The star mound is made sacred by the lupe that gather there,” or an attractive woman might be described in casual conversation as a “lupe.”
“They feel very Samoan when they eat the lupe. It is also nice to eat the lupe. They will think of those proverbs when they eat the lupe,” Seiuli Vaifou said. “This is why the lupe hunting is so important.”
I heard another story that put it more bluntly. After a workshop for the save-the-manumea campaign, one visiting conservationist, feeling buoyant about the bird’s future, went to a nearby market and told a vendor about the plan to discourage people from eating pigeon. “But,” the vendor said in disbelief, “it’s like cocaine to some people!”
Serra and i may have possibly, finally, caught a glimpse of the manumea. We had traveled to Tafua-tai, a brightly painted village laid out beneath the emerald saddle of a volcanic crater. As one story would have it, the entire village was won by the ancestors of its current inhabitants—in a pigeon-catching contest.
Tafua-tai offers reasons for optimism. For one, it is a manumea-friendly village. For another, the famous 2013 photo of the bird was taken nearby. Also, we are guided by Tuluiga Ulu Anoa’i, whose grandfather, as a high matai in the late 1980s, convinced the community to protect its forest from development. Ulu Anoa’i, who has a keen eye for forest wildlife, might be the person to have most recently sighted a manumea—just two months ago, at the crater’s edge. Because she had never seen one before, however, she can’t be absolutely certain.
During an extended trip to the volcano, we see wonderful things—the many-colored fruit dove is as beautiful as its name suggests—but not our little dodo. Then Ulu Anoa’i takes us to hear the remarkable claims of her uncle, Tiaalii Matauaina. He is a barrel of a man, with the dramatic, wide-eyed facial expressions of a mustachioed Rodney Dangerfield. Sitting in a yellow lavalava sarong and polo shirt in front of his home, he tells us he sees manumea in the forest frequently—sometimes even in his garden. His most recent sighting was three or four days ago. “If I kill a manumea, we can give it to you,” he says. It’s hard to tell whether he’s joking.
Tiaalii agrees to take us to the places where he sees manumea most often. First, though, we have to wait out the heat of the afternoon. “In the morning, the light here is magnificent; it is like the dawn of creation,” Serra says. “At midday, it is hostile. It is hell.” At last, with the lowering sun, the birding hour arrives: As we set out, patches of forest are trilling and cooing with pigeons and doves. Once, Tiaalii thinks he hears the manumea’s call, but he isn’t sure. At last, we turn up a narrow path through a green delirium.
“One day, here—four, five manumea,” Tiaalii says, gesturing as though his hands were birds bursting from the bush. We carry on toward a towering tree.
“Manumea!” Tiaalii cries. His powerful right hand seizes me by the scruff of my neck and directs my head to a spot in the sky. There, a pigeon-size bird hurtles overhead, a black silhouette against the blue. A moment later it’s gone.
Serra, coming up from behind, caught only the briefest glimpse. “What a difficult bird,” he says, and proceeds to ask Tiaalii for details about what he had seen.
“The color!” says Tiaalii, eyes bulging. “Blue, red, and bit of black!” With his hands he makes a large, hooked beak, opening and closing. “Psh psh psh.”
So there you have it: An experienced local with an eye for birds has found us our manumea. Also possible, though, is that he wants rather badly to be the one to help us find the bird, or that he feels our longing, and the fast approach of twilight, and wants us to go home happy. It is hard to imagine that there had been time, in the brief moment when the bird flushed from the tree and crossed overhead, for Tiaalii to see the color and detail he claimed. Even he, ultimately, seems unconvinced.
To see a manumea, or to save one, is bound up in memory and desire. “My left brain doesn’t believe him, but my right brain wants to believe him,” Serra says. He is not prepared to add this to his list of probable sightings in the field.
A few days later, our search over, we sit at the edge of Apia’s harbor with James Atherton, of the Samoa Conservation Society. Reviewing our efforts, Serra concludes they had been “quite representative” and “quite depressing.”
“This bird,” Serra says, “it’s impossible to see.”
“Well, that’s why we’re working so hard to save this very rare bird,” Atherton replies.
Serra looks out to where the waves break over the twilight reef with a dull and constant roar, like the engine of the world. “I think we’d better hurry up a little,” he says.
Cover illustration by Melanie Lambrick.
Posting of this article is courtesy of The Atlantic. The article originally appeared in Life Up Close, a project of The Atlantic supported by the HHMI Department of Science Education.
(c) 2017 The Atlantic Monthly Group LLC (This article was originally published on the website www.TheAtlantic.com and is republished here with The Atlantic's permission.)
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