Earth’s Disappearing Wildlife
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN AUSTRALIA
DO YOU not thrill to see and hear wild animals in the flesh—a tiger, a whale, or a gorilla? To nurse a koala? To feel the earth rumble under the pounding hooves of migratory herds stretched out as far as the eye can see? Sadly, however, many people may never enjoy such adventures—unless a museum, a book, or a computer screen rates as an adventure. Why is this?
Because as you read this very article, thousands of plants and animals are being driven inexorably to extinction. Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard University, estimates that 27,000 species per year, or three per hour, are becoming extinct. At this rate, up to 20 percent of earth’s species could be extinct in 30 years. But the rate of extinction is not constant; it is growing. It is expected that by early in the next century, hundreds of species will disappear each day!
Teetering near the brink is the African black rhinoceros. Poaching slashed its numbers from 65,000 to 2,500 in less than 20 years. Fewer than 5,000 orangutans remain in the shrinking jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. The blight has also struck in earth’s waters. One victim is the graceful baiji dolphin of China’s Yangtze River. Pollution and indiscriminate fishing have left a scant one hundred, and they may all be gone within a decade.
“Scientists from various disciplines disagree about many things,” says Linda Koebner in Zoo Book, “but about the urgency to save species and the biological health of the planet, they speak as one: The next fifty years are critical.”
Who Is to Blame?
A growing human population has accelerated the extinction rate, but population pressure alone cannot take all the blame. Many creatures—the passenger pigeon, the moa, the great auk, and the thylacine, to name just a few—were wiped out well before human population in itself posed a threat. Dr. J. D. Kelly, director of the Zoological Parks Board of New South Wales, Australia, says of that country’s record: “The loss of biodiversity since settlement in 1788 is a national disgrace.” This observation undoubtedly is true of many other countries. It also hints at the more sinister causes of extinction—ignorance and greed.
Because of the global extinction crisis, a new and unlikely ally has entered the fray on the side of the embattled animals—the zoos. Increasingly, these urban enclaves are the last refuge for many species. But zoos have limited space, and wild animals are both expensive and difficult to keep. There is also the ethical aspect of keeping them confined, even though humanely. Moreover, in the zoo they are totally dependent upon mankind’s financial largess and tenuous, often fickle, political and economic systems. So how secure really are these refugees from the wild?
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Is Extinction Natural?
“Isn’t extinction part of the natural order of things? The answer is no, at least not on the scale it has occurred in recent times. Over most of the last 300 years the rate of extinction of species was about one per year. At present the human-caused rate of species extinction is at least a thousand times as great as that. . . . The cause of this rapid acceleration in the rate of extinctions is human activity.”—The New York Public Library Desk Reference.
“I have become fascinated with numerous, extraordinary vanished creatures, and saddened, often angered, by their extinction. For in all but a few cases it has been Man through greed or cruelty, carelessness or indifference that has either directly or indirectly been the cause of these extinctions.”—David Day, The Doomsday Book of Animals.
“Human activity is causing extinction of species before they have been recorded.”—Biological Conservation.