Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Biodiversity Preservation

     Preventing loss of diversity through the growing number and rate of extinctions is extremely important for the ecological stability of the planet.  Unfortunately, it is not recognized as a key issue by the majority of people, nor by world leaders.  The extraordinary wealth of plants and animals that are in the process of disappearing may represent between 5 and 30 million species, of which only about 1.3 million have been named (Wilson 1993).  Insects alone may number more than 5 million species, with the majority of species living in tropical rainforests (Wilson 1993).  These animals are key to the Earth's ecosystems, pollinating, fertilizing and aerating soil, and providing food for thousands of animals.  Some 751,000 animal species have been identified, far more than the 248,428 plant species, yet these represent only about 15 percent of all living species, in the view of Dr. Edward O. Wilson in his classic 1993 book, Biodiversity.  Each year, thousands of new species of insects and other invertebrates, hundreds of frogs and, surprisingly, primates, antelope and birds are discovered by science, often in disappearing habitats.
     Worldwide, biological inventories, essential to the process of protecting biologically rich areas, receive inadequate funding.  Wilson has estimated that more money is spent in New York City's bars in two weeks than studying biodiversity around the world each year (Farnsworth 1994).  Some $57 billion is spent on drugs by Americans annually, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, while less than $1 billion are spent on inventories and biological studies, by some estimates.  The lack of funding for biological surveys means that entire ecosystems are vanishing before they are even studied. 
     Just as many species are disappearing from neglect or uncaring development, scientists are finding and naming hundreds of new life forms, primarily through research programs of private universities and organizations.  Ecosystems thought sterile, such as deep ocean environments, are now known to contain significant species diversity.  Each descent of a submersible vehicle into these environments brings new discoveries, from beautiful, bioluminescent jellyfish many feet long to bizarre creatures that seem to have emerged from science fiction tales.  Many of these newly described species represent previously unknown families, classes, and even phyla of animals. 
     Some deep sea creatures inhabit the boiling hot water emitted from cracks in the ocean floor, managing to survive what would be toxic to 99 percent of the world's animals.  This environment may be similar to the one in which life itself was formed billions of years ago.  These areas should be given high priority for government research funding.  Studies about Earth’s diversity should not be sacrificed in US federal spending projects such as NASA probes into the possible presence of microbial life on Mars.  The discovery of the Mars “fossil” was given enormous publicity, and in early 1998, chemical studies proved that these supposed evidences of life were actually terrestrial contamination (Wilford 1998).  This has not stopped the NASA program from searching for evidence of life on Mars.  Tropical forests also represent frontiers to biologists in urgent need of research funding, with millions of species of birds, mammals, insects and other life forms yet undiscovered.  They are proof of the importance and urgency of preventing extinctions and degradation of natural ecosystems.
     Diversity is threatened by economic concerns that affect every country.  Economists tend to consider revenue important--but not such intangibles as biological diversity.  Yet history shows that cultures that protect their environment endure far longer than those that do not.  Clive Ponting (1991), in A Green History of the Earth, makes this point clearly, citing the great civilizations of the past which died out after abusing the land by disrupting water supplies through deforestation, and causing imbalances in ecosystems that resulted in their decline. 
     Common sense about environment protection and a concern for future generations have inspired many countries and cultures to preserve biodiversity.  Those cultures which have a strong bond with nature, especially a spiritual one, are the most likely to protect their environments and wildlife, even when they are impoverished and would profit from exploiting it.  With such people, economic arguments to protect nature are unnecessary, but for the vast majority of people today, short-term profits from nature are justifiable if an urgent economic need exists.  In general, harm to the environment and biodiversity may be increasingly unacceptable, however.  Polls taken in 2001 in the United States found strong support for environmental protection, with 58 percent of respondents believing that protecting plants and animals should take priority over preserving personal property rights, and nine in 10 saying that it is important for wilderness and open spaces to be preserved (Barabak 2001).  Even when government leaders fail to act decisively to protect nature, these actions do not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. 
      A new activism on the part of the public and native peoples is resulting in many protections for wildlife and the environment.  It is also resulting in new alignments of organizations and groups of people.  Environmentalists and labor groups have united in opposing the anti-environmental aspects of the World Trade Organization, which caused member countries to reexamine their automatic endorsement of all trade to the exclusion of the environment, wildlife and job protection.  Native tribes in British Columbia and conservation organizations united to publicize the impending destruction of thousand-year-old forests along the coast, home to the white "spirit bear." This coalition succeeded in 2001 in stopping logging and achieving permanent protection for some 1.5 million acres (NRDC 2001).  
     One proposed means of preserving wild animals and plants and their environments is the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by more than 150 countries after it was presented at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It went into effect in December 1993, after the 30th country, Mongolia, ratified it.  It had been signed by 161 nations.  Its purpose is to prevent extinctions and biological impoverishment, and it commits nations that ratify it to take actions to preserve species and ecosystems in the process of development. 
     The Convention requires nations to integrate conservation into economic and social policy to:  promote the protection of entire ecosystems, set up protected areas, undertake biological inventories, preserve species throughout the country and restore degraded ecosystems.  Many of the wealthy industrialized nations that do not support the Convention succeeded in having weakening clauses written into it, such as "as far as possible" and "as appropriate" (Stevens 1992).  It states that nations have the "sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies.” Even with its weaknesses, it remains the only international convention to have ever addressed the importance of preserving biological diversity, and as such, it sets a major precedent.
     The success of the Convention on Biological Diversity will depend on how strictly it is interpreted.  One clause places economic and social development, and the eradication of poverty, as the first priorities of developing countries.  This could become an excuse to allow extinctions for the sake of "progress."  For example, dam construction or forest clearance could be projects to alleviate poverty, but they would probably cause extinctions.  The treaty also states that conservation efforts on the part of developing nations will depend on the flow of money from rich nations, although it recommends that the rich countries benefiting economically from exploitation of resources, such as pharmaceuticals, in poorer countries, should share these profits with the latter (Stevens 1992).  It is this latter clause that many members of the US Congress opposed because US pharmaceutical companies did not wish to pay nations harboring medicinal plants.  This is a major reason why the United States has not ratified the Convention. 
     To fund the programs of the Convention on Biological Diversity in developing countries, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) has been set up, administered jointly by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Bank.  GEF raised some $2 billion from wealthy countries, and its administration has been criticized by both donor nations, which want it run in a similar manner to the World Bank, and many developing countries and environmentalists, who accuse it of "green washing" destructive environmental programs endorsed by the World Bank (Lewis 1994).  The World Bank has been a major proponent of commercial logging in the last tropical rainforests of Central and West Africa, with disastrous consequences for both wildlife and native peoples. 
     This Convention is heavily influenced by rich donor countries, such as Japan, Canada, Norway and other European nations.  Without strong opposition to the traditional approach of the World Bank in funding large dams, logging and other such projects, the Convention will not fulfill its more positive potentials to conserve the Earth's biological heritage.  Its success will depend on the strong participation of those truly interested in the preservation of nature and willing to encourage countries in this task.
     At the end of the 20th century, a poll of biologists was taken, asking them what they considered the greatest threat facing the Earth today.  By a wide margin, they chose the loss of biodiversity.  The greatest challenge in the 21st century will be to inspire people to want to protect biological diversity, as some nations are doing.  Costa Rica, for example, is engaged in a biodiversity program that will catalog virtually every resident animal and plant over the next decades and protect critical habitat areas.  The United States, through the Natural Heritage Programs and hundreds of biologists whose work is compiled by the Association for Biodiversity Information, is making progress in its appraisal of the nation's biodiversity and conservation needs (Stein et al. 2000).  Thousands of individuals are also playing a role by preserving or reintroducing native species into their local areas.  In spite of great pressure to exploit the last rainforests and other fragile environments throughout the world, successes in preserving the immense treasure-trove of species that exists on Earth may be turning the tide.
     Our lives depend on the proper functioning of the Earth's systems for processes such as photosynthesis, balance of oxygen and carbon, pollination of flowering plants and enrichment of the soil by organic materials.  These systems require a large variety of species to function normally, and we are only beginning to understand the role of various organisms and which species are key to each ecosystem.  It is not possible to say, therefore, that any species can become extinct without affecting vital life processes.  By choosing which species shall survive and which are dispensable, based on economic considerations, as proposed by many politicians, is sheer folly.  Irreparable damage may result from such attitudes, yet they are accepted by many governments of the world. 
     We are presently witnessing the breakdown of many ecosystems.  Marine food chains are being destroyed by overfishing and pollution, interfering with the food supply for millions of people.  Yet it seems that few of these ecological catastrophes were predicted when fishery or pollution limits were set.  Likewise, wetlands are losing wading birds, frogs and fish--all natural insect controls--resulting in increases in insect-borne diseases such as malaria.  Predator-prey relations are key to the health of forests and grasslands, preventing overgrazing by prey species that have lost their predators.  Yet most wild cats and wolves are in decline, some close to extinction, allowing imbalances to occur.  In a growing number of regions, large predators are either absent or so rare that they no longer perform their ecological role.  In Yellowstone National Park, for example, the eradication of the Gray Wolf resulted in overpopulation of Elk, which over-browsed aspen and other plants that were habitat to a number of birds and other animals, resulting in their disappearance.  Only with the reintroduction of wolves is the ecosystem returning to normal.  The overpopulation of deer in the United States and their effect on preventing natural forest regeneration and destroying wildlife habitat is directly related to the extermination of their natural predators, wolves and Mountain Lions.  In other cases, prey species, such as deer, antelope and other ungulates, are in steep decline, having been killed off by meat hunters or crowded out by livestock.  These species often play important roles in dispersing seeds, as do bats, birds and rodents.  One-fourth of all mammals, and one in 10 birds are imperiled.  Among these are pollinators, seed dispersers, insect-eaters and prey for other species.  The loss of this biodiversity is reaching such levels that it is not surprising so many ecosystems are imbalanced.  It is even more alarming to contemplate that the majority of the world's reptiles, amphibians, marine fish and most invertebrates have not even been assessed by biologists.
     Species' declines begin with local extinctions as they disappear from portions of their ranges.  At this stage, their absence may be affecting ecological communities, but they will not be listed by the IUCN or any other listing authority until the species as a whole becomes threatened.  The Gray Wolf disappeared from 90 percent of its US range before it was listed on the Endangered Species Act, by which time major ecological damage had already been done.  Species receive protection, endangered listing and conservation attention at the latter stages of declines.  The smaller the original range, the faster that species slides to extinction.  Ecological effects can occur gradually and imperceptibly in some cases and, in others, quickly and dramatically.  Most of the 34,000 plants listed by the IUCN as Threatened occupy restricted ranges and may have undergone slow declines as their pollinators and seed dispersers disappeared, or rapid declines if they were logged or their habitats destroyed.  As the concept of saving ecosystems and their myriad plants and animals gains acceptance, the importance of preserving all the strands of this complex tapestry becomes clear.  The tens of thousands of animals and plants listed by the 2000 IUCN Red List are an indication of a crisis situation, of nature going awry.
     Astronauts orbiting the Earth have been overwhelmed by the beauty and fragility of the planet and its uniqueness in the universe.  They have described environmental destruction visible from space.  Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt (1996) spoke of seeing hundreds of pinpoints of bright lights at night that turned out to be fires emanating from forests in Africa, Madagascar and Borneo.  A distant perspective enhances appreciation and desire to conserve our remarkable home.  Instead of considering ourselves as separate from the environment, biologist Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy has suggested, "We must behave as if we live within ecosystems, rather than perceiving nature as something confined to a few protected areas isolated within a degraded, human-dominated landscape" (Laurance and Bierregaard 1997). 
     Scientific study of Earth's diversity and ecology is in its early stages, and an exciting frontier awaits scientists in the ocean, tropical forests and other environments.  Yet we are treating this precious living tapestry without the respect it deserves, and the unraveling of these intricate and delicate ecosystems will threaten our very existence.

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