Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Actions and Attitudes: Page 13

     A great blossoming in natural history information has erupted in recent years.  Internet websites, accessible to all, have been dedicated to endangered species research programs, biological studies, organizations devoted to helping animals and data compilations.  The Internet sets up communications between people around the world, in which education, advice, and even funding help for threatened species and ecosystems can be arranged.  Critical situations threatening species can be publicized immediately around the world.  On the Internet, students and the public can follow the movements of individual sea turtles, great whales and many other animals equipped with radio transmitters sending signals to satellites.  Libraries can be accessed, and websites set up by state, federal and private entities provide highly specific information on endangered species and the environment.  Experts may be consulted through these sites.  In a recent case, a man in Lebanon came upon an injured eagle with a gunshot wound; he took the bird home and logged on to the National Geographic Society's website (see Teachers’ Aids in the Appendix for lists of websites) to find Joe Blanton's "Glad You Asked" column.  Blanton put him in touch with the Wildlife Center of Virginia, whose staff at its state-of-the-art animal hospital gave him advice on care for the eagle.  The man reported that the bird recovered and was released (reported in National Geographic June 1997).  The possibilities of educating and dispensing information around the world are enormous, and with imagination, many of the problems discussed above might be solved through the free interchange of ideas of people on the Internet. 
     The Internet is only one new tool for conservationists.  Laser discs can combine films and books and be interactive in teaching about subjects such as endangered Chimpanzees.  CD-ROMs, although not yet available for many endangered species, contain--on one disc--still photos, films and printed information about a species; heretofore one might have to visit many libraries, rent or buy films by mail and spend many hours to obtain such information sources. 
     Books, television programs and films about the natural world have opened new doors to the public in the past decade.  Natural history films, in particular, are another major influence on education and even public policy.  They present views of true wilderness, natural wildlife behavior and conservation lessons. They may have had a significant influence on convincing the public of the need to pass such laws as the Endangered Species Act.  Films of the slaughter of spotted cats, American Alligator, and the plight of declining species around the world aroused many people to write their Representatives and Senators in support of legislation to prevent species from becoming extinct. 
     Films of truly wild places may have played a role in the growth in bird watching and ecotourism, and probably in the changes that have taken place in zoos, with barred cages giving way to more natural exhibits.  Having seen films of these animals in the wild, the public was no longer content to see them in such unnatural conditions, behaving so abnormally.  Situations once commonplace, such as a pacing Tiger in a barred cage, a single elephant in a dusty, small enclosure, rocking back and forth, now result in protests that have changed zoo exhibits and animal treatment for the better.
     The crucial steps that must be taken in the future involve the dissemination of knowledge and concern about endangered species to the general public, who are poorly informed about the enormity and possible effects on their lives of issues such as overpopulation and disappearing species.  Although public awareness has increased about environmental decay and the effect that humans have in causing species' extinctions and endangering them, most people still tend to act as if nature will bounce back and will continue to function normally, no matter how extreme the damage.  This is a naive point of view.  Scientists have not defined the threshold beyond which total ecological collapse will occur in any given area.  Also unknown is the number of species that can be extinguished before biological systems become dysfunctional (Leakey and Lewin 1995).
     Newspapers, television and other media should be encouraged to publicize these issues further, rather than catering to what they might consider the public's interest.  As an example, US network television and newspapers have pointedly ignored human overpopulation and loss of biodiversity, while doing numerous stories on artificial means of having children, such as test tube babies and multiple births.  On the positive side, new cable television channels in the United States, such as Animal Planet and BBC, add to the growing number of wildlife and environmental programs on PBS and the Discovery Channel. Unfortunately, these channels presently reach only a fraction of the audience of network television, preventing a better understanding by the public of the problems facing the world.  The numbers of films being made and books written on endangered species and the environment have increased exponentially in the past decade, an indication of a growing enthusiasm for the natural world.  Other indications of this trend are the rise in memberships in conservation and humane organizations, ecotourism, bird-watching, hiking and visits to national parks and preserves.  If these concerns were better translated to activism and altering lifestyles to prevent harming the environment and wildlife, impending mass extinctions might be avoided.

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