Thank you for a thoughtful and worrisome overview of the peril that we all face if massive extinction in not halted. As someone who follows these issues pretty closely, you seemed to be right on target with most of your facts and observations.
The only correction I could offer is that despite zoos claiming to breed the big cats for conservation purposes, there is no release program in site and no chance that captive bred cats could be released back to the wild, even if there were a wild into which to release them. They breed very well in the wild and all they need to rebound is to have the space and prey base to survive. Captive breeding is only to generate zoo revenue and as you pointed out, very little of that actually goes back into conservation.
Captive breeding actually harms the chances for cats in the wild. If you can pay 15.00 to go to a zoo a few miles away and see a tiger, you will not focus your attention to saving them in the wild like you would if the wild were the only place tigers could be seen.
Thanks again though for an excellent article.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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A massive extinction of animals is under way. The leading culprits are
loss of habitat, overkilling and global warming, marked by the failure
of governments to act.
Lions, tigers and (polar) bears, oh my!
By Mark Sommer
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: 01/11/09 7:21 AM
Children today may see a time when the fascinating, whimsical and
ferocious animals they've grown up with in storybooks are extinct in
the wild. Think about it: Lions. Tigers. Polar bears. Rhinoceroses.
Hippopotamuses. Elephants. Mountain gorillas. Whales.
Gone. Thousands more lesser-known animals, such as the Malayan tapir,
Dama gazelle and Hainian gibbon are also approaching the end of the line.
"It's sad to see in my lifetime the loss of so many species. It's like
watching the end of the world in slow motion," said Donna Fernandes,
president of the Buffalo Zoo.
Creatures on land, sea and air are under unprecedented assault around
the world from loss of habitat, climate change, pollution, human
population increases and overhunting and overfishing, scientists and
other experts say. Saving them will require enforceable, far-ranging
plans by individual governments and the international community that
over the years have been unwilling or unable to do so, according to
those who are in the trenches.
"We are really at a crisis. So many species are in decline right now,"
said Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of the World Wildlife
Fund's species conservation program.
The WWF, based in Washington, D. C., was critical of a rule change
issued in December by the Bush administration that weakens the
Endangered Species Act in the United States. The organization also
cast doubt in a report the same month on the long-term prospects for
survival of "iconic" animal populations.
The worldwide population of the rhinoceros, which has lived on Earth
for 60 million years, is about 21,000, more than a 90 percent drop
since 1970, the WWF said. The wild population of all tigers —
including Bengal, Sumatran, Siberian and Indochinese — is believed to
be between 4,000 and 5,000.
Red List 'bleak'
Numerous wildlife studies in recent years have drawn similarly dire
conclusions, notably the annual Red List of Threatened Species report
released in October by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Swissbased organization has,
since 1963, cataloged the conservation status of the planet's
wildlife, utilizing 1,700 experts in 130 countries for its current
The Red List assessment "paints a bleak picture," the project's
leaders wrote. Among its conclusions:
* 16,928 of 44,838 species are threatened with extinction. A
threatened species is considered likely to become in danger of
extinction in the foreseeable future.
* Half of the world's 5,487 mammals are declining in population, and
nearly a quarter are clinging to survival. That number could be as
high as 36 percent, but insufficient data was available to classify
the threat level of hundreds more.
* One in eight birds, one in three amphibians and one in two reptiles
— including half of all freshwater turtles — are threatened with
* 99 percent of the threats are man-made. Those findings are in league
with ones published in May by the Living Planet Index, composed of the
World Wildlife Fund and other nature organizations. That survey found
the populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have
dropped by almost a third in the last 35 years alone.
"You;d have to go back to the extinction of the dinosaurs [65 million
years ago] to see a decline as rapid as this," said Jonathan Loh, the
Among the study's findings was that nearly 80 percent of primates —
including chimpanzees, humans' closest living relative sharing 96
percent of our DNA — face extinction in South and Southeast Asia. The
threats come from population pressures, habitat destruction and
hunting for bush meat as well as for traditional medicines desired in
The mountain gorilla now has only a tenuous hold on survival in the
wild. Its numbers are down to an estimated 700 worldwide, with 200
under siege in war-torn Republic of Congo. In the same country,
once-plentiful hippopotamuses have been slaughtered in recent years
for the ivory in their teeth, reducing their numbers by some 95
percent. The International Union cited the poaching when it added the
hippopotamus to its endangered list in 2006.
In one glimmer of hope, the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in
New York's Bronx Zoo and Congo, reported this summer that 125,000
western lowland gorillas, which are not classified as endangered, were
living in Congo's forests, far more than previously thought.
Not so lucky is the orangutan. The Red List saw the Sumatran
Orangutan's status changed to critically endangered this year, and the
Bornean Orangutan's status downgraded to endangered. Both are
threatened by habitat loss due to legal and illegal logging, including
forest clearance for palm oil plantations.
The World Wildlife Fund warns that, at the current rate of
deforestation, orangutans will be extinct in the wild in 10 years.
The majority of threatened and endangered animal species are in the
tropical continents of Central and South America, in Africa south of
the Sahara, and Southern and Southeast Asia. They are also home to the
majority of the world's forests, and those are vanishing at alarming
and unsustainable rates.
A 2007 study by the U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization found
enormous tracts continue to disappear, especially where the highest
rates of poverty and civil conflict occur. Africa, which accounts for
16 percent of the world's forests, lost more than 9 percent of its
trees alone between 1990 and 2005. Latin America saw about 7 percent
of its trees cut down over the same period.
Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive director of the U. N. Convention on
Biological Diversity, warned in May that the world was losing forest
cover at the rate of 36 football fields a minute. Nearly 100 countries
no longer have forests, he said.
Djoghlaf blamed unregulated slash-and-burn farming practices,
uncontrolled forest fires, illegal lumber trade and large-scale mining
for the dramatic decline.
A report by the United Nations in 2001 painted a gloomy picture of the
rain forest's long-term prospects.
"Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and
governments, the Earth's remaining closed-canopy forests and
associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming
decades," the report's forward said.
Klenzendorf of the World Wildlife Fund said paying third-world
countries to protect their forests — and the creatures that live in
them — may hold the key to reversing the decline.
That idea is being developed for the next revision to the Kyoto
Protocol, the U. N. agreement signed by 183 countries, though not the
United States, aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.
Forests absorb and hold immense amounts of carbon dioxide, which would
otherwise contribute to global warming. When they are cut down, the
trees — and often the soil under them — release that carbon into the
atmosphere, fueling climate change even faster.
"We are telling [governments] that this is a sustainable mechanism
because you get paid every year. By allowing the forest to be cut
down, you get paid only once," Klenzendorf said.
"It allows forests to be preserved, global warming to be ameliorated
and poor countries to gain a direct financial benefit for forest
preservation," said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for
Global warming dangers
Man-made global warming change presents yet another challenge to survival.
"The two biggest factors, far and away, driving species toward
extinction today are habitat loss or degradation, and that's been
going on for a better part of a century and has accelerated since
World War II, and global warming," Snape said.
"Unfortunately, the two are acting synergistically."
In what could become another daunting problem, atmospheric changes may
in the future force animals that migrate for food and water,
reproduction and warmer temperatures to move beyond the borders of
reserves set up as a last resort from civilization.
Marine biologists are already recording how climate change is
affecting migratory patterns, ocean levels and acidity in the seas,
putting numerous species in harm's way. Warming seas are also having a
devastating impact on coral reefs, with even small but prolonged rises
in sea temperature forcing a condition known as bleaching, in which
food-producing algae are expelled.
Even without global warming, endangered fish and sea mammals — and the
ecosystems they inhabit — are at risk from pollution, including toxic
waste, and overfishing, including the use of mile-wide fishing nets
from trawlers that scoop up everything in their path as they bulldoze
the ocean floor.
Polar bears, which have become a symbol of global warming's harmful
effects, are drowning and dying of starvation because of shrinking ice
cover in the Arctic Circle. That prompted them to be designated as a
threatened species last May by the U. S. Department of the Interior
under the nation's Endangered Species Act.
However, the Bush administration rushed a rules change into effect in
December that weakened the act. It came after Interior officials pored
through 200,000 comments — of which reportedly just 1 percent were in
support of the change — in 32 hours to meet a deadline.
The change eliminated an independent scientific review by either the
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration on federal projects that could impact
protected species. It also denies allowing the Endangered Species Act
to regulate global climate change.
The rule change, though not unexpected, angered environmentalists and
"It certainly made a sham of the whole process of careful public
review and consideration in changing our nation's most significant
environmental law," said Robert Davison, a senior scientist with the
Defenders of Wildlife and head of its Endangered Species and Wildlife
Davison and other environmental and animal protection organizations
are hoping the incoming Obama administration, with Congress' help,
will reverse that rule, and allow the Endangered Species Act to be
used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
They're also hoping the new government will show leadership
internationally in reversing the drive toward extinction.
Some biologists say mankind's future could depend on it, too.
A poll by the American Museum of Natural History found seven in 10
biologists believe a mass extinction of living things has begun, and
it poses a major threat to human existence.
Mike Powers, a Buffalo attorney and trophy hunter, has killed six of
what big-game hunters classify in Africa as the Dangerous Seven:
elephant, hippopotamus, lion, cape buffalo, leopard and crocodile. He
anesthetized, rather than killed, the seventh, a rhinoceros, with
Powers said the animals were thriving in the parts of Africa where he
killed them, and he felt no remorse doing so.
"Hunting has been around since the beginning of man. If done
responsibly, it is a proper wildlife management tool, and an effective
one," said Powers, vice chairman of the Erie County Republican Party
He said the meat from the animals was distributed to poor villagers.
Trophy hunting, he said, brings income to poor nations that is
reinvested locally and can be used to preserve habitat and police
"It's one of conservation's greatest success stories," Powers said.
That's a hotly debated issue. Many animal advocacy groups staunchly
oppose trophy hunting of threatened or endangered species. The World
Wildlife Fund's position on the controversial practice is less
absolute, suggesting the decision be left to local communities. But
the organization still says hunting should be a last resort.
"WWF urges that for threatened or endangered species, all other
conservation incentives and activities [should] be fully explored
before considering hunting them for trophies," a policy statement said.
Ecotourism, rather than hunting, has gained cachet in recent years.
Several studies suggest ecotourism revenues are far more profitable
and sustainable in the long run than earnings from trophy hunts.
Zoo programs help
The Buffalo Zoo participates in 28 captive breeding and resettlement
programs for threatened and endangered species, including the snow
leopard, Indian rhinoceros, Siberian tiger and Puerto Rican Crested
Toad. The international program is designed to create viable
populations with genetic diversity.
Fernandes, the zoo president, said Golden Lion Tamirinds from the
Buffalo Zoo were reintroduced to a Brazilian wilderness preserve,
after first going to a "boot camp" at the National Zoo to learn how to
forage on their own. Some 98 percent of the primate's former range has
been destroyed by logging and conversion to farmland.
Last year, a baby addax, a critically endangered desert antelope, was
born at the zoo. Less than 500 remain in the wild, but some are being
reintroduced to several protected locations in the Saharan desert.
"Zoos work hard to have a remnant population and genetic diversity so
we can rebuild some of these populations [if necessary]. It's just
whether there will be habitats there to reproduce them," Fernandes said.
The zoo has also sent a curator and two animal keepers in recent years
to work on a breeding project for endangered amphibians in Panama. A
quarter from the zoo's "Cars for Conservation" parking lot fee helps
pay the salary of a Panamanian keeper at the facility.
Still, Fernandes said the zoos' efforts are just a drop in the bucket
when looking at the magnitude of the problem.
"It just sickens me. I just can't even explain how all of us feel when
we're asked [at zoological meetings] to start breeding programs for
animals that we have no success with and no one's been able to breed
"I sometimes feel like it's building sand castles, and the next wave
comes in and tears down all your work. Everything is so close to the
edge. There are no reserve populations anymore," said Fernandes.
She still retains hope that animal species can recover if human
pressures can somehow be removed.
"I'm hoping people will realize there is hope if they take an active
role in changing their behavior, and in supporting organizations
trying to halt extinction," Fernandes said.
Time, she said, is of the essence.
Fernandes went to Venezuela before the opening of the zoo's new rain
forest exhibit, and noticed a marked decline of forested areas since
visiting 25 years earlier. She's seen the same decline in parts of Africa.
Sometimes, she confesses, the dismal state of affairs for animals and
nature makes her yearn for another time.
"I sometimes wish I could time travel back 200 years ago, and see the
world the way it was," Fernandes said.