Conservation and Protecting Habitat

Snow Leopard at Big Cat Rescue
Snow Leopard at Big Cat Rescue

We have known this since the dawn of man, but apathy towards this great truth will be the downfall of man.  Throughout time man has conquered and destroyed islands and peninsulas and then vanished from these lands for years until the land could recover from the abuse.  Extinction has played itself out within the limits of these isolated areas and is a revelation of the future.

History always repeats itself and we must learn from the mistakes of our ancestors.   The Greek philosopher wrote of Atlantis in two of his dialogues, “Timaeus” and “Critias,” around 370 B.C. Plato explained that this story, which he claimed to be true, came from then-200-year-old records of the Greek ruler Solon, who heard of Atlantis from an Egyptian priest. Plato said that the continent lay in the Atlantic Ocean near the Straits of Gibraltar until its destruction 10,000 years previous.

In “Timaeus,” Plato described Atlantis as a prosperous nation out to expand its domain: “Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent,” he wrote, “and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.”

Interestingly, Plato tells a more metaphysical version of the Atlantis story in “Critias.” There he describes the lost continent as the kingdom of Poseidon, the god of the sea. This Atlantis was a noble, sophisticated society that reigned in peace for centuries, until its people became complacent and greedy. Angered by their fall from grace, Zeus chose to punish them by destroying Atlantis.

In more recent years, the psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) became the U.S.’s most prominent advocate of a factual Atlantis. Widely known as “The Sleeping Prophet,” Cayce claimed the ability to see the future and to communicate with long-dead spirits from the past. He identified hundreds of people — including himself — as reincarnated Atlanteans.

Cayce said that Atlantis had been situated near the Bermuda island of Bimini. He believed that Atlanteans possessed remarkable technologies, including supremely powerful “fire-crystals” which they harnessed for energy. A disaster in which the fire-crystals went out of control was responsible for Atlantis’s sinking, he said, in what sounds very much like a cautionary fable on the dangers of nuclear power.

Remaining active beneath the ocean waves, damaged fire-crystals send out energy fields that interfere with passing ships and aircraft — which is how Cayce accounted for the Bermuda Triangle. Regardless of which story you read, there is a common thread of truth in that the demise of the island was as a direct result of man’s unwillingness to take care of the land that sustained him.  Man took and took and took without any thought to the ultimate consequence and paid the price with his own extinction from the island.

This has been the same in virtually every place on earth where man has vanished in tim

es past. Archeological and historical studies provide examples of resource over-exploitation leading to the collapse of civilization, and contemporary ecological studies of islands show very clearly the kinds of threats faced by both island and continental ecosystems.

A large fraction of documented extinctions have involved species living on islands. This is for several reasons, but their vulnerability to introduced species is one of the most important ones. Islands, especially isolated oceanic islands, have evolved in isolation for many years, and their animals and plants have had to compete with only a limited range of species. For this reason they provide a ready home for many species of exotic animals and plants, and their flora and fauna is especially vulnerable to extinction after the arrival of man and the exotic animals and plants that always accompany him to those islands.

In New Zealand the nocturnal flightless parrot, the kakapo, is extremely vulnerable because it nests on the ground and the female leaves the nest unattended at night for long periods of feeding. It was originally distributed throughout the main islands of New Zealand, but was severely depleted by Polynesians because of direct hunting as well as predation on eggs and chicks by introduced rats. Europeans added 2 more species of rat, pigs, dogs, goats, weasels and ferrets. At present the only remaining breeding population consists of less than 40 individuals on Stewart Island where its survival is threatened by  3 species of rat.

Just like in New Zealand, in the Hawaiian Islands a wave of extinction occurred between the time the Polynesians arrived (in this case, about 300 A.D.) and the time of the first European contact in 1778. The extinctions included four species of large flightless ducks, two or more flightless ibises, nine flightless rails, owls, an eagle-hawk, a petrel and many other small birds. A total of 50 species, which is 51% of the total number (98) of native land birds, went extinct.The reasons for the prehistoric extinctions are similar to those in New Zealand. Not only were the flightless birds probably easy prey for humans, but the dense human population also cleared large areas of forest and introduced pigs, chickens and dogs. The chickens may have introduced avian diseases to the native birds. The Polynesians also accidentally introduced rats, which may have fed on the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds.

The European explorers added cats, two new species of rats, the barn owl, the Indian mongoose and several avian diseases. In the next two centuries, habitat degradation, disease and predation caused the loss of 17 more endemic bird species, so in total 69% of the land birds have become extinct because of human causes. With more endangered and threatened species per square kilometer than anywhere else on earth, Hawaii is aptly called the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.”

A 1997 study released by the World Wildlife Fund states that even though 97 percent of the Galapagos Islands’ land area has National Park status, human population growth, introduced species, and commercial fishing threaten to destroy the fragile ecological balance there. The population of the Galapagos islands has more than doubled in the last 10 years, mainly due to emigration from the Ecuadorian mainland. Tourism is the main economic activity and 68 percent of the islands’ active working population is involved in this sector. No guidelines have been set for maximum numbers of tourists, however. The number of tourists is increasing and adds to the human impact on the island ecology. Along with human migration to the islands comes the inevitable introduction of exotic (or introduced) species.

The number of foreign plant and animal species has grown from about 77 in 1971 to more than 260 today. Wild goats and pigs that threaten the food supply of the magnificent Galapagos tortoises, and rats that eat the eggs of birds and reptiles that have evolved without natural predators. The Galapagos Islands are also suffering from the introduction of 21 species of vertebrates including goats, pigs, rats and cats, and 219 species of invertebrates including beetles and cockroaches. The population of giant land tortoises has declined from about 250,000 several decades ago to only 15,000.

After Indonesians colonized Madagascar 1500 years ago all species of large animals became extinct, including the 12 largest species of lemurs, (including one of gorilla size), the pygmy hippopotamus, an aardvark, the giant flightless elephant birds (which were the largest birds that ever lived) and giant land tortoises. Europeans first visited Mauritius in the early 1500’s and released pigs and monkeys on the island. In the next 300 years, 20 species of birds and eight species of reptiles were lost. These included the most famous example of human-caused extinction on islands -the disappearance, in the 1680’s, of the Dodo a 50lb giant flightless pigeon.

Introduced predators responsible for the largest number of extinctions are the Polynesian rat Rattus exulans carried across the Pacific by Polynesians and Micronesians and two other rat species, Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, carried around the world by Europeans in the last 5 centuries. These rats often feed on eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. Introduced rats have exterminated bird species on 26 islands including catastrophic extinction waves that eliminated a large fraction of the native bird species within a few years on Hawaii, Midway Island, Lord Howe and the South Cape Island.On the Galapagos islands, black rats have reduced populations of the giant tortoise and the dark-rumped petrel by preying on eggs and have wiped out some rodent species on the islands.

When the introduced species has a similar diet to the indigenous species, food competition can be an important factor in the decline of the indigenous species. The decline of a rare forest bird in New Zealand, the kokako, is attributed at least in part to food competition since introduced herbivores, especially opossums, feed on the same parts of the same plants eaten by the kokako, for example the fruit. Competition for space is an important factor leading to decline of indigenous animals and plants.  Many exotic plants crowd out or cover native species. Consider for a moment that there is no where that you live that a rat wouldn’t  be happy to live and nothing you eat that a rat wouldn’t relish.  If we exterminate all of the predators (cougars, bobcats, lynx, coyotes etc) and upset nature’s delicate balance then we will be in direct competition with the rats who reproduce at a much faster rate than man.

An ecological catastrophe, comparable or even worse than what is happening in tropical rain forests, has long been underway on many islands. The extinction of bird species as well as the less well-documented extinctions of other vertebrates, land snails, insects and plants that must have also occurred, has been described as one of the swiftest and most profound biological catastrophes in the history of the earth.

A prime example is Easter Island,  the world’s most isolated inhabited island, in the South Pacific 2400 miles from Chile, with an area of only 64 square miles. The soil is sandy  and parched grass is the only vegetation except for a few shrubs and two species of trees. There are almost no land animals larger than insects.

Easter Island is not only the most remote, but also the most mysterious of oceanic islands. Almost the entire coastline is lined by over 200 huge stone statues, up to 65 feet tall and weighing up to 270 tons. All of them were knocked down hundreds of years ago but some of them now restored to a standing position. Archaeological evidence shows that the island was colonized by Polynesians in about 400 AD. The islanders carved and erected the stone statues, produced many other arts and crafts and developed Rongorongo, the only written language in Oceania. They harvested fish and dolphins, hunted seabirds and land birds, grew many crops and raised chickens. The population peaked at about 10,000, which appears to have been far more than the island’s ecosystem could support. Archeologists have found evidence showing that the island was densely forested and supported numerous animal and bird species when it was first colonized.

But the colonists gradually burned and cut down the forests, consumed the animals and finally turned to civil war, slavery and cannibalism.By the turn of the century Easter Island’s population had decreased to approximately 111. It was discovered by Europeans in 1722 and annexed by Chile in 1888. Thereafter, the population increased again to more than 2,000.The plight of the Easter islanders was exacerbated by the extreme isolation of the island, but what happened there could easily happen on other islands or even on continents. Other civilizations – the Khmer, Maya, Anasazi have also disappeared and resource over-exploitation is a contributor in many cases. Easter Island’s ecological disaster is a clear warning to humankind of what happens as a result of overpopulation and overexploitation of resources.To sum it all up:  What happened on these islands will happen on larger and larger continents if we don’t do something now.

Our present pattern of extinction:

About 20% of bird species in the world have become extinct in the last 2000 years, mainly after human colonization of islands.
Populations of migratory songbirds in the eastern United States have declined by 50 percent from the 1940s to the 1980s, and many species are extinct locally.
As much as 20% of freshwater fish species may have become extinct in recent times.
the turn of the century there were an estimated 100,000 tigers living in the wild, but now that number is estimated at less than 7000.  These numbers are similar for the snow leopards.
subspecies of the clouded leopard are became extinct in recent history.
are 49 species and sub species  of wild cat and 35 of those are considered threatened or on the endangered species list.

Why is the extinction rate so high?

Habitat destruction by man,  such as in the case of the tiger.
Lack of genetic diversity such as is represented in the Cheetah.
Introduction of competing  species and parasites by man. On islands, such as in Hawaii, we can get a clue as to why island species are so vulnerable to extinction by competition from non-native species.
The human species has overexploited resources.
As man encroaches on wild animal habitat he kills off the prey base that supports the predator and the animals turn to domestic livestock for food.  Killing for competition for food is far more common than poaching for medicinal trade or for furs.

What can you do about it?  All great change has been made by a handful of dedicated people determined to make a difference.  There are lots of things you can do to secure a brighter future for your children. Get involved in your government.  Find out who your governmental representatives are and what they stand for.  Support those who make environmental issues a number one priority.  Recycle.  Use organic gardening methods and read labels.  Every one of us is responsible for the poisons and hazardous wastes that we buy and dispose of.  Conserve water.  Plant a tree.  Carpool.  Refuse to buy aerosol products.  Don’t wear fur.  Don’t support companies that don’t employ an earth friendly approach in their production.

Get everyone you know involved in saving our planet.



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