Easter Island Scenery and Ecology
“To be an ecologist is to live in a world of wounds,” observed Aldo Leopold. Easter Island is so wounded, it’s hard to find its ecological pulse. All the native trees? Gone. All the native birds? Extinct. One of the world’s largest seabird colonies? Wiped out. A couple of lizards? Forgotten. Soil? Eroded away. There never were any native mammals—this is, after all, one of the most isolated places on the planet.
Why did this ecological disaster happen? The mystery of Easter Island has haunted scholars for decades and spawned numerous and often contradictory explanations. The latest can be found in Jared Diamond’s Collapse (“not his best book” says Claudio, our archeologist guide). Whatever the ultimate causes—war, overpopulation, little ice age, runaway moai building, rats—the ecological and human disaster was complete. Then, in the ultimate ecological insult, the Chilean government allowed the island to be used as a sheep farm, which is the end stage of degraded landscapes all over the world, from Greece to the Scottish highlands.
Which is what the scenery actually reminds me of. Stark, austere, forbidding, harsh—these aren’t words that usually apply to Polynesian paradises. Yet a drive across the island or a walk along the cliffs reveals an island mostly covered with volcanic rock, grasslands, the occasional plot of Australian eucalyptus trees, and other alien species from everywhere but Easter Island. I saw just three species of birds—a small hawk and a small finch from Chile, and pigeons. I saw more rainbows than seabirds (one albatross). I did see a couple of mammal species—cows and horses, still grazing freely.
“Much of the damage inflicted on land is invisible to laymen,” added Aldo Leopold. But the damage inflicted on Easter Island is obvious to everyone, not just ecologists. Easter Island teaches us all that land can be pushed just so far. Ultimately, my visit to Easter Island is tinged with great sadness—for the people who created such wondrous monuments, and for the land and its creatures. Both are gone forever. Will we learn the lesson?