Excerpted from The Kingdom of Rarities, by Eric Dinerstein. © January 2013, Island Press.
“Look for an overripe, black banana moving through the grass.” Edson Endrigo, our nature guide extraordinaire, was explaining his technique for spotting giant anteaters in Serra da Canastra National Park, just one of the rarities in this area. Obediently looking up on the hillside, I spotted a two-meter-long mobile banana. We jumped out of the van and circled behind a female anteater with a baby clinging to her back. My two companions, David Wilcove and John Morrison, and I closely tracked her progress.
If the greater one-horned rhino seems odd and prehistoric, the giant anteater offers good company as one of the most peculiar-looking mammals on the planet. Both are ranked as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The tamandua-bandeira, or papa-formigas, as it is known in Brazil, cuts a comical figure, sporting an elongate, arching snout and bowlegged limbs, all ending in an immense shaggy tail. The rest of the body is shaggy, too, featuring a striking long pelage of dark bands on light. The female in front of us moved along like an animated throw rug.
An anteater walks on thickened pads on the outsides of its paws, as its digits are turned under its feet. An observer might think of this awkward creature, with its poor eyesight, bad hearing, and odd gait, as defenseless against secretive jaguars and pumas. That would be a miscalculation. With its acute sense of smell, the anteater can make up for its nearsightedness. If cornered, it will stand up on its hind legs and slash with its massive claws any human or feline predator foolish enough to tangle with it.
The mama anteater stopped and flicked her tongue in the dirt. Unlike the vast majority of mammals, the giant anteater lacks teeth. It has no real need for them because it inserts its long, narrow tongue into crevices, removes ants and termites with its sticky saliva, and swallows them whole. Crouching downwind, I inhaled deeply to catch its scent and wondered if consuming 30,000 ants a day gives this creature, or its flatulence, the odor of formic acid. I smelled nothing unusual.
Human activities sometimes bring species back from the brink of extinction. But more often they exacerbate rarity even to the point of disappearance, drive into rarity species once common, or further constrain those species that normally have narrow ranges or live at low densities. The most dramatic change happening today that is pushing already uncommon species toward even greater rarity is the conversion of rain forests and natural savannas into commodities production for industrialized agriculture. Big Ag, as it is now known, is largely mechanized, highly profitable, and controlled by multinational corporations. Some biologists and geographers describe extension of this trend as the future; increasingly, we live on a cultivated planet. The loss of natural habitats through nonagricultural use—that is, human settlements—and in nontropical areas is also high, but the conversion is greatest in the tropics and through big agriculture.
Few field biologists bother to check the daily price of soybeans or palm oil. This is an oversight because the market value of these commodities—along with that of beef, corn, sugar, and coffee—may over the coming decades define the future of rare species more profoundly than will any other driver of habitat loss. At present, nowhere is the conversion and fracturing of rain forests by industrialized agriculture in the world’s hotbeds of rarity more evident than in Southeast Asia and Brazil. In Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, expansion of oil palm and wood pulp plantations threatens the most species-rich rain forests in the world. In Brazil, vast areas of the Amazon are turning into cattle ranches and soybean farms. In addition to causing habitat loss, such rampant conversion imperils climate stability. Nearly 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions released annually from tropical forests originate from agriculture-driven forest conversion in just two places, Riau Province, Sumatra, and the state of Mato Grosso, at the edge of the Amazon in Brazil.