A massive extinction of animals is under way. The leading culprits are loss of habitat, overkilling and global warming, marked by the failure of governments to act.
Lions, tigers and (polar) bears, oh my!
By Mark Sommer
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: 01/11/09 7:21 AM
Children today may see a time when the fascinating, whimsical and ferocious animals they’ve grown up with in storybooks are extinct in the wild. Think about it: Lions. Tigers. Polar bears. Rhinoceroses. Hippopotamuses. Elephants. Mountain gorillas. Whales.
Gone. Thousands more lesser-known animals, such as the Malayan tapir, Dama gazelle and Hainian gibbon are also approaching the end of the line.
“It’s sad to see in my lifetime the loss of so many species. It’s like watching the end of the world in slow motion,” said Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo.
Creatures on land, sea and air are under unprecedented assault around the world from loss of habitat, climate change, pollution, human population increases and overhunting and overfishing, scientists and other experts say. Saving them will require enforceable, far-ranging plans by individual governments and the international community that over the years have been unwilling or unable to do so, according to those who are in the trenches.
"We are really at a crisis. So many species are in decline right now," said Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s species conservation program.
The WWF, based in Washington, D. C., was critical of a rule change issued in December by the Bush administration that weakens the Endangered Species Act in the United States. The organization also cast doubt in a report the same month on the long-term prospects for survival of "iconic" animal populations.
The worldwide population of the rhinoceros, which has lived on Earth for 60 million years, is about 21,000, more than a 90 percent drop since 1970, the WWF said. The wild population of all tigers — including Bengal, Sumatran, Siberian and Indochinese — is believed to be between 4,000 and 5,000.
Red List 'bleak'
Numerous wildlife studies in recent years have drawn similarly dire conclusions, notably the annual Red List of Threatened Species report released in October by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Swissbased organization has, since 1963, cataloged the conservation status of the planet's wildlife, utilizing 1,700 experts in 130 countries for its current findings.
The Red List assessment "paints a bleak picture," the project's leaders wrote. Among its conclusions:
* 16,928 of 44,838 species are threatened with extinction. A threatened species is considered likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.
* Half of the world’s 5,487 mammals are declining in population, and nearly a quarter are clinging to survival. That number could be as high as 36 percent, but insufficient data was available to classify the threat level of hundreds more.
* One in eight birds, one in three amphibians and one in two reptiles — including half of all freshwater turtles — are threatened with extinction.
* 99 percent of the threats are man-made. Those findings are in league with ones published in May by the Living Planet Index, composed of the World Wildlife Fund and other nature organizations. That survey found the populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have dropped by almost a third in the last 35 years alone.
"You;d have to go back to the extinction of the dinosaurs [65 million years ago] to see a decline as rapid as this," said Jonathan Loh, the report’s editor.
Among the study's findings was that nearly 80 percent of primates — including chimpanzees, humans' closest living relative sharing 96 percent of our DNA — face extinction in South and Southeast Asia. The threats come from population pressures, habitat destruction and hunting for bush meat as well as for traditional medicines desired in Asian countries.
The mountain gorilla now has only a tenuous hold on survival in the wild. Its numbers are down to an estimated 700 worldwide, with 200 under siege in war-torn Republic of Congo. In the same country, once-plentiful hippopotamuses have been slaughtered in recent years for the ivory in their teeth, reducing their numbers by some 95 percent. The International Union cited the poaching when it added the hippopotamus to its endangered list in 2006.
In one glimmer of hope, the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York's Bronx Zoo and Congo, reported this summer that 125,000 western lowland gorillas, which are not classified as endangered, were living in Congo's forests, far more than previously thought.
Not so lucky is the orangutan. The Red List saw the Sumatran Orangutan's status changed to critically endangered this year, and the Bornean Orangutan’s status downgraded to endangered. Both are threatened by habitat loss due to legal and illegal logging, including forest clearance for palm oil plantations.
The World Wildlife Fund warns that, at the current rate of deforestation, orangutans will be extinct in the wild in 10 years.
The majority of threatened and endangered animal species are in the tropical continents of Central and South America, in Africa south of the Sahara, and Southern and Southeast Asia. They are also home to the majority of the world’s forests, and those are vanishing at alarming and unsustainable rates.
A 2007 study by the U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization found enormous tracts continue to disappear, especially where the highest rates of poverty and civil conflict occur. Africa, which accounts for 16 percent of the world’s forests, lost more than 9 percent of its trees alone between 1990 and 2005. Latin America saw about 7 percent of its trees cut down over the same period.
Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive director of the U. N. Convention on Biological Diversity, warned in May that the world was losing forest cover at the rate of 36 football fields a minute. Nearly 100 countries no longer have forests, he said.
Djoghlaf blamed unregulated slash-and-burn farming practices, uncontrolled forest fires, illegal lumber trade and large-scale mining for the dramatic decline.
A report by the United Nations in 2001 painted a gloomy picture of the rain forest’s long-term prospects.
"Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth's remaining closed-canopy forests and associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades," the report's forward said.
Klenzendorf of the World Wildlife Fund said paying third-world countries to protect their forests — and the creatures that live in them — may hold the key to reversing the decline.
That idea is being developed for the next revision to the Kyoto Protocol, the U. N. agreement signed by 183 countries, though not the United States, aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.
Forests absorb and hold immense amounts of carbon dioxide, which would otherwise contribute to global warming. When they are cut down, the trees — and often the soil under them — release that carbon into the atmosphere, fueling climate change even faster.
"We are telling [governments] that this is a sustainable mechanism because you get paid every year. By allowing the forest to be cut down, you get paid only once," Klenzendorf said.
"It allows forests to be preserved, global warming to be ameliorated and poor countries to gain a direct financial benefit for forest preservation," said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Global warming dangers
Man-made global warming change presents yet another challenge to survival.
"The two biggest factors, far and away, driving species toward extinction today are habitat loss or degradation, and that's been going on for a better part of a century and has accelerated since World War II, and global warming," Snape said.
“Unfortunately, the two are acting synergistically.”
In what could become another daunting problem, atmospheric changes may in the future force animals that migrate for food and water, reproduction and warmer temperatures to move beyond the borders of reserves set up as a last resort from civilization.
Marine biologists are already recording how climate change is affecting migratory patterns, ocean levels and acidity in the seas, putting numerous species in harm's way. Warming seas are also having a devastating impact on coral reefs, with even small but prolonged rises in sea temperature forcing a condition known as bleaching, in which food-producing algae are expelled.
Even without global warming, endangered fish and sea mammals — and the ecosystems they inhabit — are at risk from pollution, including toxic waste, and overfishing, including the use of mile-wide fishing nets from trawlers that scoop up everything in their path as they bulldoze the ocean floor.
Polar bears, which have become a symbol of global warming's harmful effects, are drowning and dying of starvation because of shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Circle. That prompted them to be designated as a threatened species last May by the U. S. Department of the Interior under the nation’s Endangered Species Act.
However, the Bush administration rushed a rules change into effect in December that weakened the act. It came after Interior officials pored through 200,000 comments — of which reportedly just 1 percent were in support of the change — in 32 hours to meet a deadline.
The change eliminated an independent scientific review by either the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on federal projects that could impact protected species. It also denies allowing the Endangered Species Act to regulate global climate change.
The rule change, though not unexpected, angered environmentalists and some scientists.
“It certainly made a sham of the whole process of careful public review and consideration in changing our nation’s most significant environmental law,” said Robert Davison, a senior scientist with the Defenders of Wildlife and head of its Endangered Species and Wildlife Conservation program.
Davison and other environmental and animal protection organizations are hoping the incoming Obama administration, with Congress’ help, will reverse that rule, and allow the Endangered Species Act to be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
They’re also hoping the new government will show leadership internationally in reversing the drive toward extinction.
Some biologists say mankind’s future could depend on it, too.
A poll by the American Museum of Natural History found seven in 10 biologists believe a mass extinction of living things has begun, and it poses a major threat to human existence.
Mike Powers, a Buffalo attorney and trophy hunter, has killed six of what big-game hunters classify in Africa as the Dangerous Seven: elephant, hippopotamus, lion, cape buffalo, leopard and crocodile. He anesthetized, rather than killed, the seventh, a rhinoceros, with tranquilizing arrows.
Powers said the animals were thriving in the parts of Africa where he killed them, and he felt no remorse doing so.
“Hunting has been around since the beginning of man. If done responsibly, it is a proper wildlife management tool, and an effective one,” said Powers, vice chairman of the Erie County Republican Party in 2008.
He said the meat from the animals was distributed to poor villagers.
Trophy hunting, he said, brings income to poor nations that is reinvested locally and can be used to preserve habitat and police poachers.
“It’s one of conservation’s greatest success stories,” Powers said.
That’s a hotly debated issue. Many animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose trophy hunting of threatened or endangered species. The World Wildlife Fund’s position on the controversial practice is less absolute, suggesting the decision be left to local communities. But the organization still says hunting should be a last resort.
“WWF urges that for threatened or endangered species, all other conservation incentives and activities [should] be fully explored before considering hunting them for trophies,” a policy statement said.
Ecotourism, rather than hunting, has gained cachet in recent years. Several studies suggest ecotourism revenues are far more profitable and sustainable in the long run than earnings from trophy hunts.
Zoo programs help
The Buffalo Zoo participates in 28 captive breeding and resettlement programs for threatened and endangered species, including the snow leopard, Indian rhinoceros, Siberian tiger and Puerto Rican Crested Toad. The international program is designed to create viable populations with genetic diversity.
Fernandes, the zoo president, said Golden Lion Tamirinds from the Buffalo Zoo were reintroduced to a Brazilian wilderness preserve, after first going to a “boot camp” at the National Zoo to learn how to forage on their own. Some 98 percent of the primate’s former range has been destroyed by logging and conversion to farmland.
Last year, a baby addax, a critically endangered desert antelope, was born at the zoo. Less than 500 remain in the wild, but some are being reintroduced to several protected locations in the Saharan desert.
“Zoos work hard to have a remnant population and genetic diversity so we can rebuild some of these populations [if necessary]. It’s just whether there will be habitats there to reproduce them,” Fernandes said.
The zoo has also sent a curator and two animal keepers in recent years to work on a breeding project for endangered amphibians in Panama. A quarter from the zoo’s “Cars for Conservation” parking lot fee helps pay the salary of a Panamanian keeper at the facility.
Still, Fernandes said the zoos’ efforts are just a drop in the bucket when looking at the magnitude of the problem.
“It just sickens me. I just can’t even explain how all of us feel when we’re asked [at zoological meetings] to start breeding programs for animals that we have no success with and no one’s been able to breed in captivity.”
“I sometimes feel like it’s building sand castles, and the next wave comes in and tears down all your work. Everything is so close to the edge. There are no reserve populations anymore,” said Fernandes.
She still retains hope that animal species can recover if human pressures can somehow be removed.
“I’m hoping people will realize there is hope if they take an active role in changing their behavior, and in supporting organizations trying to halt extinction,” Fernandes said.
Time, she said, is of the essence.
Fernandes went to Venezuela before the opening of the zoo’s new rain forest exhibit, and noticed a marked decline of forested areas since visiting 25 years earlier. She’s seen the same decline in parts of Africa.
Sometimes, she confesses, the dismal state of affairs for animals and nature makes her yearn for another time.
“I sometimes wish I could time travel back 200 years ago, and see the world the way it was,” Fernandes said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org