/ 15 February 2024

The End of Eden: A new book explores the effects of climate change on wild species

Red Knot1
The Afro-Siberian Red Knot is an unlikely poster child for highlighting the devastating impacts of climate change on the ultra-thin biosphere that supports all life on Earth.

At first glance, the little Afro-Siberian Red Knot is an unlikely poster child for highlighting the devastating impacts of climate change on the ultra-thin biosphere that supports all life on Earth. 

Described in guidebooks as a short-legged, dumpy and rather plain wader (it’s a bit more showy when in chestnut-coloured breeding plumage), this bird offers very little of the emotional and headline-grabbing appeal of species like polar bears or butterflies or coral reefs — the “usual suspects” referenced in efforts to alert humanity to the danger and dire consequences of human-induced global warming that is unequivocally proven to have been heating the planet to levels unprecedented in the full span of modern humankind’s 200 000-year history.

But in the hands of a storyteller with the requisite experience, understanding and passion, the story of this Knot’s seemingly unstoppable march to extinction because of climate change unfolds both as its tragic drama and as a proxy for similar complex problems afflicting millions of other species that we share the planet with, providing a sharp, urgent wake-up call to action.

One such storyteller is Kommetjie-based naturalist Adam Welz, who describes himself as “an unfashionable, old-school naturalist — I’m interested in all wild species, everywhere”. With a wealth of experience garnered from a career as an environmental writer, photographer and filmmaker, he has just published a book called The End of Eden: Wild Nature in the Age of Climate Breakdown in which he explores and unpacks the impacts of climate change on wild species through a series of focused stories about several dozen creatures’ struggle to survive in the face of rapid changes wrought by climate change.

Welz, who prefers the term “climate breakdown” to climate change, says he decided to write the book by telling stories of individual species’ interactions to illustrate how human-derived carbon emissions are “fracturing and reshaping the entire natural world”. “This book is the result of my efforts to look into the face of the new climate behemoth without turning myself to stone,” he writes.

One of his favourite stories concerns the Red Knot, he explained in an interview.

Ornithologists have identified six sub-species of this bird, which breed annually in the tundra regions during the northern hemisphere summer and then migrate southwards to tropical or temperate sites for the non-breeding season (some to South Africa). 

These Knots have been migrating to high latitudes to breed for at least several tens of thousands of years, and probably longer. Because of the very short summer breeding season in the Arctic, the birds’ timing of their migration is crucial. 

However, this region is experiencing incredibly rapid, human-induced warming at three to four times faster than the average of the rest of the world. This causes an earlier spring snowmelt every year, and temperatures start rising correspondingly earlier than usual. Crucially, it is no longer in sync with the Knots’ ancient migration regime. 

The earlier warming has a knock-on effect on the high-protein insect populations that are the traditional food source of the chicks. Because these insects are hatching out and maturing before the chicks are fully ready to feed, they are less readily available as prey. 

Although the reduced food supply doesn’t kill the chicks, they are malnourished, and one of the physiological manifestations is restricted growth of their beaks which are now a little shorter than previously — only by about 3mm, but enough to have dire consequences.

One sub-species of the Knots migrates more than 8 000km from Siberia to the mudflats and seagrass meadows of the Banc d’Arguin National Park on the coast of Mauritania in western edge of North Africa. Here, for millennia, they have fed on tiny Loripes clams in the sand. But now, their shorter beaks are not quite long enough to reach most of those clams that lie buried slightly just deeper, and the young birds starve progressively over the next few months.

“So there’s this incredible phenomenon of just the change in timing of an insect emerging in the high Arctic causing birds to starve literally half a world away in West Africa, months and months later,” Welz says.

During the 1980s, half a million or more Afro-Siberian Red Knots regularly over-wintered in the Banc d’Arguin. In 2022, just 100 000 were counted. Now, this branch of a species that has survived thousands of climatic cycles over thousands of years is heading into extinction, possibly within our lifetimes. 

Unravelling this ecological knot (as it were) was the result of 25 years’ work, with many people spending considerable time doing some very careful analysis, Welz says. And he emphasises that such ecological destabilisations are happening on multiple scales in many different places across the globe, and are often also equally difficult to interpret and explain. 

All the stories he’s chosen for his book are interesting, intriguing, surprising and, sadly, often tragic. Why are cheetahs in northern Namibia going blind? Can the remaining handful of Puerto Rican Parrot (Iguacas) survive? What is the ghost moose of Northern Maine in the US? What impact do hurricanes have on Bottlenose Dolphins? Why are the famous Galapagos Islands apparently not yet impacted by climate breakdown, and how long can this situation last? Will the decreasing ratio of male Green Turtles on the Great Barrier Reef lead to the extinction of this species? 

The stories are told in some detail, and with accessible explanations of some of the science involved. “So that the reader can really empathise with each species and understand what it’s up against, what the issues are that it has to deal with to survive, and exactly how these things actually play out and the many different ways in which climate breakdown affects wild species,” Welz explains.

Arguably the most powerful and moving of the stories is his description of his journey to Australia to witness the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that swept the east coast during the “black summer” of late 2019 and early 2020. The media usually overhype such disaster stories, but even the massive media coverage of these fires didn’t do justice to the event, Welz says.

“I drove from Brisbane all the way down to Melbourne, several thousand kilometres along eastern Australia, and I went to try and see for myself what a real unburned Australian forest looks like and what a burned forest looks like.

“After what I saw there, I felt that [the media] didn’t even come close to getting the scale of what happened, or [to explaining] what this tells us about how the world is changing, about how ecosystems are changing and how this affects human society. 

“The scale of what I saw was absolutely stunning: you stand on a mountain range, you can see tens of kilometres in each direction, and every sodding thing is burned in that landscape. Everything! Wherever you look, it’s black and grey, it’s been burned.”

Welz also spoke to scores of people who witnessed the fires.

“They’re not shrinking violets, you know, these are tough rural firemen, farmers, ecologists… And they’re familiar with fire, it doesn’t scare them. But then they run out of words and they start crying in front of you because they can’t describe what they saw. As I say in the book, it wasn’t just some disaster… it felt like I was seeing the future, seeing something new that wasn’t just as it always was.”

Welz has been interested in environmental issues for a long time, and he’s witnessed many environmental disasters. “Awful episodes of pollution, for example”. But what shook him to the core was the immense scale and intensity of the Australian fires. 

“When you stand in a massive burned landscape and you see again not just the size of the burned area but the intensity at which it burned, you are left with no more tools of denial. It strips away your ability to rationalise or sort of think ‘Oh well, it will sort itself out or some will come back’ … Well, the answer to that is ‘No, it won’t’.”

He’s seen the same thing happening in other parts of the world too. “The rules are changing, the rules to which species have adapted are changing. It’s like the carpet has been pulled out from under them. And we don’t always appreciate how quickly these shifts happen.”

The End of Eden: Wild nature in the Age of Climate Breakdown by Adam Welz is published by Bloomsbury Sigma, 2023.

John Yeld is a journalist specialising in environmental, science writing and photojournalism.