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Who's Next?


Endangered species
Who's next?
Illustration by David Rolfe.

Conservation may be a cause célèbre for princes and movie stars,
Richard Swift believes we must give up more than furs to save our own hides.

I'd never thought about it really. Perhaps it's like the conceit of the young about death, just too improbable even to contemplate. Yet it is so obviously true - we human beings will inevitably become extinct!

The biologists and evolutionary thinkers might disagree about the details, but not the substance. Richard Leakey comes right to the point in his excellent reconsideration of evolution, The Sixth Extinction: 'Human beings are but a brief moment in the continuous flow of life, not its end point.'1 Our tenure on earth of 150,000-odd years has so far been a mere wink of biological time. The Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould takes it a step further, noting that even getting this far 'we are a wildly improbable evolutionary event'.2

Unless one tends towards some divine design (not my inclination), chance and chaos have obviously played a big role. At several key points in pre-history we came close to missing our evolutionary curtain call. Leakey identifies two ways in which species disappear. The first are ordinary or 'background' extinctions where those that fail to adapt are slowly replaced by more adaptable lifeforms. In the second, large numbers of species go to the wall in relatively short periods of biological time. There have been five of these, each provoked by cataclysmic evolutionary events caused by some geological eruption, climate shift or space junk slamming the earth. Survival becomes very arbitrary. So if a tiny aquatic worm-like creature called the Pikaia (the root of all vertebrates) had not survived the mass extinction that killed off 95 per cent of other marine animal species at the end of the Palaeozoic era ­ no Big Macs, no shopping malls, no Proust and no Beethoven.

Pause for thought really. But Leakey has another purpose in writing The Sixth Extinction. He marshals a growing body of evidence that another mass extinction of species is currently under way ­ and this time human fingerprints are on the trigger.

The degree of chance involved in human evolution should be cause for modesty and a semblance of respect for our fellow lifeforms. It has not been. The figures showing the rapid rate at which we are destroying the biodiversity around us are staggering. We are pushing a hundred species a day, four species an hour, into evolutionary oblivion. Some are the mega-fauna we know so well, the poster-children of endangered species ­ the elephant, the tiger, the rhino, the whooping crane. Most are plants, insects, microbes and reptiles we haven't even figured out names for.

How are we doing it? Simply by demanding more and more space for ourselves. In our assault on the ecosystems around us we have used a number of tools, from the spear and the gun to the bulldozer and the chainsaw. Certain especially rich ecosystems have proved the most vulnerable. In Hawaii more than half of the native birds are now gone ­ some 50 species. This carnage took place all across the island communities of the Pacific and Indian Oceans: the 12 species of Moa in Aotearoa/New Zealand; the Dodo of Madagas-car; the Balinese and Javan Tigers. While many were hunted to extinction, others simply succumbed to the 'introduced predators' that humans brought with them: the cat, the dog, the pig and the rat.

Today the tempo of extinction is picking up speed. Hunting is no longer the major culprit, although rare birds and animals continue to be butchered for their skin, feathers, tusks and internal organs, or taken as cage pets. Today the main threat comes from the destruction of the habitat that wild plants, animals and insects need to survive. The draining and damming of wetland and river courses threatens the aquatic food chain and our own seafood industry. Over-fishing and the destruction of fragile coral reefs destroy ocean biodiversity. Deforestation is taking a staggering toll particularly in the tropics where the most global biodiversity is at stake. The shrinking rainforest cover of the Congo and Amazon river-basins and such places as Borneo and Madagascar, has a wealth of species per hectare existing nowhere else. As those precious hectares are drowned or turned into arid pasture and cropland, such species disappear forever.

Why it matters

'The survival of the fittest' has become ideology masquerading as science. The fittest, those with wealth and power, maintain that the 'unfit' need to 'adapt' to the rigours of a global economy based on jobless growth and increasing inequality. Those expelled by the post-industrial juggernaut and left without work or even a place to live, debt-ridden Southern governments and those who depend on them, are the 'unfit' that can no longer be supported with 'wasteful' use of taxes.

This governing ethos has little sympathy, either, for the 'unfit' parts of biodiversity that do not contribute to the bottom line. Rainforest can be made fit by turning it into furniture, swamps by draining them for agriculture. Tigers and California Condors are simply not economically viable: to sustain them takes up too much space that could have more 'productive' uses. As biodiversity disappears, human options ­ for medicines, for alternative foods, for other ways of living ­ narrow. Who knows what part of the biosphere we shall need to deal with the unexpected or the as yet unknown?

As this logic picks up momentum it is creating something that is coming to be called 'planetary overload'. The basic ecosystems that sustain all life are overburdened. We can count the costs in depleted ozone, shrinking fish stocks, encroaching deserts, squandered resources and lives.

We are destroying not only other species and their habitats but our own as well. Take chemical contamination as just one example. Theo Colborn is a mild-mannered, grandmotherly woman who at first glance strikes one as an unlikely whistle-blower. But that's exactly what Colborn has been doing from her scientific perch at the office of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. She and a group of fellow scientists have pulled together widely scattered but frightening evidence that our chemical society is laying the basis for the disappearance of a number of species worldwide.

Endangerment is being caused not just in isolated habitats but almost everywhere, due to the effects of releasing agricultural and industrial chemicals into the eco-system. Colborn rattles off just some of the species she has investigated ­ the dolphin, the Florida Panther, the Beluga Whale and the Costa Rican Golden Toad. A small, isolated population of Florida Panthers clings to existence at the edge of the Everglades. Many are in poor shape, unable to reproduce. Colborn points to the chemical run-off from Florida's massive agro-industry that ends up in the fish of the Glades feasted upon by the local racoon population. These coons are the dinner-of-preference for the Florida Panther.

Other investigations have limited themselves to the search for cancers due to excessive exposure to chemicals. Colborn cites mounting evidence that much smaller trace amounts (parts-per-trillion) have an effect on both the reproductive and the immune systems of living creatures. She points to the die-offs of large numbers of sea mammals (mostly seals and dolphins) that succumb to a virus-related distemper. The prevailing winds blow agro-chemicals and airborne industrial pollution to the furthest reaches of the globe. The fragile Arctic ecosystem is far from most sources of contamination, yet high levels of chemical residues are showing up in the fat of Polar Bears and other Arctic mammals. Colborn feels that their fish-based diets, shared by local Inuits, account for increased reproductive abnormalities.

Colborn and her team make startling and controversial claims about human health and fertility. Falling sperm counts and the boom in North American fertility clinics suggest significant disruption to our thyroids and hormones. Colborn feels that exposure during pre-natal infant development is affecting sexual differentiation. The rise in diseases related to the weakening of the immune system is another potential impact of multiple chemical exposures from the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat.

The clearest evidence of harm comes from chemicals once thought safe in the industrial North but now widely accepted as dangerous ­ DDT, PCBs, Dioxins. Colborn worries about the new generations of chemicals that come on stream every day with minimal testing. Much of our edifice of prosperity is based on them. Chlorinated synthetic chemicals and the products made from them constitute 45 per cent of the world's GNP.3

So at least one, admittedly anthropocentric, reason we should not be glib about 'the survival of the fittest' is that the species we endanger today are like the canaries put down mines to warn against poisonous gases. As we destroy and reshape habitat locally and globally we will in the end be our own victims. Not only will we be creating a soulless place, devoid of birdsong with ever-expanding vistas of plastic and concrete, but the biodiversity we need to protect our bodies and sustain our spirits is the one thing that we can never replace.

What can be done

The Number Two train wends its way out of Manhattan's underground labyrinth, emerging at the once Grand Concourse into the grey light of the central Bronx. It then winds along elevated tracks over some of the worst examples of urban blight that a blight-rich US has to offer. On the mean streets of the Bronx habitat, people are the most endangered species one would expect to encounter. Yet nestled into the area is the world-famous Bronx Zoo, run by the almost century-old New York Conservation Society. The Society not only runs all of New York's zoos but is in the forefront of the struggle to preserve the beleaguered animals, birds and reptiles that are being crowded out of the world by human beings as surely as Bronx tenants are being crowded out by slumlords.

In the quiet refuge of the Conservation Society's grounds one can find such rare animals as the Asian Snow Leopard and the magnificent Golden Lion Tamarin from Brazil; birds like the Bali Mynah and the St Vincent Parrot; reptiles like the diminutive Chinese Alligator and the Radiated Tortoise.

The Conservation Society does not keep these creatures simply for the amusement of New Yorkers. Don Bruning, the Society's 'bird man', makes this pretty clear: 'I would have a hard time working at the Zoo if we were just exploiting the animals to make money... We want the few animals that we have to be ambassadors for their species and their habitat, so we can put money back into conservation.'

Many of the animals are part of elaborate and expensive captive-breeding programs involving zoos all over the world. These programs have their own specialized vocabulary with talk of International Stud Books, Species Survival Plans, Founder Populations and 'clear'versus 'corrupted' bloodlines. Several animals in the Bronx, such as the Bali Mynah and the Arabian Oryx, have been successfully re-introduced into their native habitat after their numbers in the wild fell perilously low.

Don Bruning is a fierce advocate for feathered rights. He points to the precarious fate of the Malaysian Peacock Pheasant as typical of many of the world's birds. 'Most of its natural habitat in lowland Malaysia has been logged out and converted to oil-palm and rubber plantations. We hope that we can re-introduce captive birds into some of the few wildlife refuges that remain, but the current Malaysian administration has not proved very interested. The lowland rainforest of Malaysia is some of the most valuable in the world, so the pressure is immense... We brought some of their staff over here for training on how to breed pheasants. The former head of the wildlife department struggled with very little funds just to keep the loggers out of national parks. His department has little clout compared to the forestry department. He had to post his wardens on the border of the parks just to make sure that loggers didn't 'accidentally' go a mile or two inside the parks. We have to find the individuals who care and give them the tools and the international climate of opinion to make things possible.'

One of the birds that the Conservation Society has helped bring back from the brink is the Bali Mynah. But now the poaching of these birds has dropped their wild population from 50 back to a perilous 35. Indonesian park rangers make $15 to $20 a month, while a Bali Mynah sells for $500. Bruning says: 'The economics just aren't there. What we need to ensure is that enough Bali Mynahs breed in captivity to swamp the market so it just isn't profitable to poach wild birds.' This has already been done with a number of species, including the American Alligator.

The Conservation Society undertook the protection and breeding of endangered species before these became such pressing issues. As Jim Doherty, the Zoo's general curator, points out, many of the two big herds of American Bison in South Dakota and Oklahoma had great-grandparents born in the Bronx. The Society participated with several other zoos in the re-introduction into Oman of the Arabian Oryx ­ a small antelope whose habitat is some of the toughest terrain in the world. Doherty is quick to point out that only the support of local people keeps these antelopes out of the rifle sights of wealthy hunters who once slaughtered them.

But important as captive-breeding programs are the main battle to defend species must take place on the ground. The New York Conservation Society runs some 250 projects in 50 countries, most of them in the South. It takes tact and modesty to work with some of the poorest people in the world to save habitat and endangered creatures. Jim Doherty points out that: 'they want to have what we have, and then we come along and say don't cut down your forest, don't mine all your resources, don't ruin all your land. Well, why should they believe us? We did all those things and now it appears like we just want to keep them down.'

The Society has a sophisticated sense of the mix of tactics needed to curb endangerment and the complexities of how these play out in the field. Outside the Snow Leopard's compound a board gives the views of the different 'players' in the preservation of this shy and nomadic cat. A Western conservationist focuses on the uniqueness and beauty of the Leopard. A local Himalayan herder stresses he can ill afford to lose 25 per cent of his sheep and goats. The wife of a local ranger talks about the difficulty of punishing those found with skins ­ they might be old and predate the law, they might come from a cat already dead. How was one to know?

The first task of any successful conservation policy is to get the local people on-side. Bruning is particularly enthusiastic about the Society's project to save the habitat of the Bird of Paradise and Palm Cockatoo in Papua New Guinea, one of the world's critical mega-diversity countries. 'We took 12 of the local leaders from a village in the centre of the bird's habitat and brought them down to the coast to visit two villages, one where logging rights had been sold and the area clearcut, the other where the forest had been protected.'

In the first village people told their visitors about the large amount of money they had received at the cost of their traditional forest livelihood. The money was now all gone. The other village never got the big payout but still had their forest, which they used to get a smaller but ongoing income from local eco-tourism. 'The group had never seen what a clearcut looked like and they were devastated. These 12 people came back and discussed with all the local villages, and the first rule they came up with was that the area should never be logged. They are now looking at such things as local carving and handicrafts as well as butterfly farming. It gives them a stake in the forest and that's the key.'

The conservation movement, from the World Wildlife Fund to the numerous zoos, preservation societies and action groups worldwide, now places as much emphasis on protecting habitats as it does on protecting animals. It's the right move. But saving individual places or species is only a start. Nobody should kid themselves that this can be done separately from the on-going political struggles to create green alternatives in both North and South. As long as global development priorities are set by futures traders, debt managers, mining executives, or by handcuffed politicos with their various retainers and cheerleaders, endangered places and species (and much else) will continue to go to the wall.

1 Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction, Doubleday, New York, 1995. 2 Stephen J Gould, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, McMillan, New York, 1992. 3 Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future, Random House, New York, 1995.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1997


New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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