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Endangered species

A problem for us all

Created date

November 20th, 2012

The term endangered species is hardly a new one. Some may think it a tired, played out reference to a problem that doesn t affect them. They might ask, Why should we care about a tree frog in the Amazon? or What do we need tigers for anyway? But a closer look at the issue as a whole shows a surprisingly deeper challenge facing not just animals, but humans, and the planet itself. When we talk about endangered species, what we re really looking at is biodiversity, meaning the overall variety of species and ecosystems on Earth, all of which are linked, says Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of the species conservation program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Nothing exists in a vacuum on our planet, so a decline in a population of tropical wildlife, for instance, often correlates with the destruction of rainforests. History has shown that when humans find something that they want or need, they tend to exploit it until it s gone a trend that has worsened over the years. The consensus among environmental groups such as the WWF and the Global Footprint Network is that humans are currently consuming 50% more resources than Earth has to give. In other words, we re eating into our future at a rate that is beyond unsustainable.

Species decline

According to the WWF s latest Living Planet Index, which tracks roughly 2,700 species from around the world to measure the state of global biodiversity, the world s animal population has decreased by 30% since 1970. Worse still, tropical species have declined by 60%. The tropical decline in species is much more rapid since we began monitoring in the 1970s because we re losing a lot of tropical rain forests in places like Indonesia, says Klenzendorf. This is largely due to agricultural expansion to obtain palm oils and other extracts used in lotions and cosmetics. With that comes a loss of habitat for many animals. And while tropical species underwent a sharp decline, Klenzendorf notes that conservationists are most concerned about certain flagship species that best exemplify the need for action; specifically, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. As of 2011, estimates suggest that only 3,500 tigers remain in the wild, their population threatened by habitat loss, a dwindling prey base, and poaching. In fact, poaching poses the greatest threat to elephants and rhinos as well. The last decade has seen a stagger spike in illegal wildlife trade, which, like drug trafficking, has become a big business with a global value of $10 billion per year. Poachers are willing to spend a tremendous amount of money to kill elephants for ivory and rhinos for their horns because there s so much money to be made, explains Klenzendorf. They hunt by night using helicopters and night-vision technology and then sell these products on the black market, mainly in Asia. The going price for rhino horns ounce for ounce is equivalent to that of gold, and the market for elephant tusks and tiger skins is just as lucrative.

Countries responding

Nevertheless, many African countries have ramped up efforts to protect their local wildlife. Namibia, for instance, has incorporated environmental preservation measures into its constitution and established communal conservancies that, with the help and guidance from organizations like the WWF, empower communities to manage the local wildlife. Former poachers now have prospects as gamekeepers. Similarly, countries such as Gabon in Central Africa have instituted zero-tolerance policies against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In June 2012, Gabon s president, Ali Bongo, went so far as to burn the nation s entire stockpile of ivory a total of 10,637 lbs, which corresponded to roughly 850 dead elephants. The value that people associate with various animal products definitely poses a challenge for conservationists, but countries like Namibia and Gabon demonstrate a positive shift, remarks Klenzendorf. That s why the World Wildlife Fund has been so proactive in educating the local populations of endangered regions and assisting their governments in facilitating programs that will give endangered species a second chance. Today, the WWF has five million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries, all of them working to combat a problem that threatens not just animals, but the entire world. To learn more, visit the World Wildlife Fund online at worldwildlife.org. michael.williams@erickson.com

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