A comprehensive endangered species report is impossible in this limited space, so E chose to focus on 10 of the most seriously endangered. This isn’t a scientific selection, but a subjective appraisal of species that, we believe, can still be saved by a concerted global effort. This list has some overlap with the 25 species highlighted in the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)‘s “Keep the Wild Alive” campaign. For details on that recently launched effort, visit NWF’s website at http://www.nwf.org/wildalive.
It’s not surprising that the giant panda is the official poster animal for many an endangered species campaign, because its unparalleled cuddly helplessness is matched only by the koala bear. But the panda doesn’t just look like it needs help; its plight is quite real. Dependent on bamboo as its exclusive food source, the panda is increasingly isolated in the forests of central China. Like orangutans, pandas are slow breeders, and were never numerous. Today, there are probably less than 1,000 in the wild (and 110 in captivity, mainly in China and North Korea). Will the wild population be saved by an outpouring of international attention? Probably not, but the millions in habitat protection money pouring in from the west certainly helps, and 11 bamboo preserves have been established. Simon Habel of TRAFFIC says that panda poaching (fueled by a market for pelts) still occurs, but heavy penalties have reduced it to what he calls “a low-level activity.” Meanwhile, anything that slows the headlong rush of Chinese development, particularly in the central highlands, helps the pandas.
The Giant Panda Research Station
PO Box 551
San Diego, CA 92112
Tel. (619) 685-3291
There are eight tiger species, but that distinction may soon be irrelevant as whole populations disappear. In the early 1900s, the jungles of Asia were roamed by 100,000 of the animals whose “fearful symmetry” was so memorably sketched by poet William Blake. Today, at most 7,000 remain—the Javan, Caspian and Balinese variants are already extinct, with the Siberian and South Chinese on the brink. Tigers need cover, clean water and abundant prey, and uncontrolled logging and other development activities have taken a toll on all three. An enduring Chinese medicinal trade, which values tiger bone as a cure for rheumatism, has also been devastating. The penalty for tiger poaching in India, where the bulk of the world’s tigers survive, is only $140. Indian traffickers who invest $1.25 in a trap can make $5,500 by selling the resulting carcass.
Exxon, which uses the tiger as a corporate symbol, has bankrolled the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Save the Tiger Fund with $6 million, which is parceled out to conservation projects. Although a well-publicized habitat preservation effort by the corporation that despoiled Prince William Sound is blatantly self-serving, Exxon’s deep pockets have proven useful to many grassroots groups. As the foundation reports, “Unless extraordinary conservation measures are taken, the tiger’s continued existence in the wild is in serious jeopardy.”
Save the Tiger Fund
1120 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel. (202) 857-0166
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
The Kemp’s Ridley, once called the “Heartbreak Turtle” for its futile struggle on the decks of fishing vessels, still clings to life. The battle of the smallest and most-endangered sea turtle (all seven species are at least threatened) is still against human activity. Only the hazards have changed: from egg-collecting and direct fishing to habitat degradation and incidental catch.
Nesting Kemp’s Ridley turtles have declined from 40,000 observed on a single day in 1947 to only 580 in 1994. Many turtles fall victim to floating debris, which they either ingest or become entangled in. And before the mandatory installation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in trawling nets, the commercial shrimping fleet killed between 500 and 5,000 Kemp’s Ridleys a year. Most of the survivors nest at only one Mexican beach, the 4.9-mile Rancho Nuevo. Only partially protected by Mexican presidential decree, the beach is still threatened by development. Already, the gulf near both primary feeding grounds is an area of high-density offshore oil extraction, which experiences chronic low-level spills.
Noting that only one in 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood, Amanda Johnson, trade program associate with the National Wildlife Federation, says the group’s turtle work is focusing on illegal shrimp trawling, which victimizes those surviving adults. “If we can protect them after they become adults, it’s profoundly more effective,” she says. To help the turtles, political pressure on fishermen to actually use the mandated TEDs would do the most good.
Sea Turtle Restoration Project
PO Box 400
Forest Knolls, CA 94933
Tel. (415) 488-0370
Listed as endangered in 1967, even before the passing of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the black-footed ferret is considered by many to be the most endangered land mammal in North America today. It once ranged from Texas north across the grasslands into Alberta and Saskatchewan, but black-footed ferrets disappeared from the wild in 1987, leaving the entire species dependent on captive breeding. So far, reintroductions have occurred in four states—Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Arizona—but the mortality rate is over 50 percent.
Like any other predator, the success of the ferret is dependent on its prey, but the prairie dog is rapidly losing ground as well. According to Jonathan Proctor, prairie dog ecosystem coordinator of The Predator Project, not enough prairie dog complexes exist to take the black-footed ferret off the list, even if captive breeding programs were extremely successful. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Utah prairie dog as threatened after federal poison campaigns helped wipe prairie dogs from 98 percent of their range. But outside of Utah, it’s still open season for groups like the Varminters, “sportsmen” who shoot prairie dogs for the sheer joy of seeing them thrown in the air by .22-caliber bullets. The Predator Project and NWF have each campaigned for federal listing of the black-tailed prairie dog, which now exists on just a fraction of one percent of the Great Plains. A public clamor for prairie dog listing could provide what Proctor calls “a lot of hope for ferrets.”
PO Box 6733
Bozeman, MT 59771
Tel. (406) 587-3389
Karner Blue Butterfly
No bigger than a quarter, the Karner Blue butterfly once inhabited 14 states and Ontario, but is now confined to small, fragmented plots of land in six states—New York, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Indiana. However, while habitat protection seems the key to most species’ survival, the Karner Blue is somewhat of an anomaly. It actually needs interference—if left comple
tely alone, areas that now contain the butterfly will slowly become inhospitable to it. The only known food source for Karner larva is wild lupine, which needs open, recently disturbed spaces to grow. A combination of human fire suppression, conversion of open land to agriculture and real estate development have all contributed to the waning range of wild lupine, and the Karner Blue’s subsequent 99 percent decline.
Scientists are scrambling to properly manage what little habitat the butterfly has left, and the public could help by lobbying for protection to continue. “Because of dedicated biologists working on recovery efforts,” says Catherine Carnes, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recovery coordinator for the Karner Blue butterfly, “the species has a good chance to recover in all six states.”
US Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Endangered Species
1 Federal Drive
Fort Snelling, MN 55111
Tel. (612) 713-5360
Northern Right Whale
A fateful combination of characteristics—commercially valuable products, slow swimming speed, flotation when killed, and coastal distribution—made the Northern right whale the “right” one to kill during an extensive hunting period lasting over 800 years. Although now protected from human predation by a variety of international laws, the population has been so decimated as to earn it the title of the most endangered of all large whale species.
There are currently less than 350 Northern right whales in the North Atlantic Ocean and less than 100 in the Pacific. According to Doreen Moser, Assistant Director of Education for the Marine Mammal Center, regeneration of the population will prove a difficult task, because the whales have a relatively high mortality rate and naturally low rate of reproduction. Other on-going human impacts, including collisions with ships, account for half of all Northern right whale deaths. Some 58 percent of surviving whales show scars from entanglement in fishing gear. Last January marked the launch of a project between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the New England Aquarium using VHF-radio tags to observe whale calving behavior. Says Stephanie Dorezas, a NOAA spokesperson, scientists are “very hopeful this project will help the agency develop a plan to ensure the Northern right’s survival.” Indications are that slowing unchecked coastal development would do the most to save these whales, which are easily affected by oil spills and entanglement with fishing gear.
Marine Mammal Center
Marin Headlands, GGNRA
1065 Fort Cronkhite
Sausalito, CA 94965 Tel. (415)289-7369.
Their name means “man of the woods” in Malay, but orangutans may soon be more appropriately called “residents of the zoo.” Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands and ranging from southern China through southeast Asia, orangutans now exist in the tens of thousands and only in scattered populations in Borneo and Sumatra.
Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging and poor land management have all sliced away at suitable orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia—a decline of more than 80 percent in the last 20 years. Prolonged development and a low reproductive rate make it difficult for populations to recover from such rapid habitat destruction. Females have their first infants between 12 and 16, and then give birth only every seven to eight years.
Ironically, the orang’s resemblance to humans is contributing to its demise at the hands of man. Despite international regulations, a black market pet trade is still alive and well, with every baby that changes hands representing another three to five that died. There are more orangs per square mile in Taipei, Taiwan than in the apes’ native forests. Paul Waldeau, vice-president of the Great Ape Project, points out that although there “can be very beautiful laws on the books, enforcement is always a critical issue.”
Great Ape Project
PO Box 19492
Portland, OR 97280-0492
Tel. (617) 484-8647
An uninhabited rock off the coast of Guilford, Connecticut, Falkner Island is the summer nesting spot for 250 pairs of roseate terns, a graceful forktailed migrating seabird that’s been officially endangered since 1987.
According to Dr. Jeff Spendelow, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the population has been slowly declining, despite strenuous rescue efforts. In the summer of 1998, a drop of 10 nesting pairs was observed. The situation is perhaps unique in that human depredation is not a major cause: Spendelow blames a small colony of black-crowned night herons, which eat tern eggs. Federal managers are contemplating the use of “acute lead poisoning” to stop the heron raids, illustrating dramatically how the survival of one species can depend on the sacrifice of another.
There are about 6,000 Northeast roseate terns nesting between Long Island and Nova Scotia, a small remnant of a population decimated by the mania for hat plumes in the 19th century. Many of the birds winter in Brazil, where there has been some loss due to hunting. At Falkner Island, volunteers aid protection efforts by building tern nests from old tires and other materials. “We’re cautiously optimistic about the terns’ long-term survival,” says Spendelow, “but we need to know more about what happens to them when they’re away from their breeding grounds.”
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
11510 American Holly Drive
Laurel, MD 20708
Tel. (301) 497-5513
Is the Florida panther a separate species, or simply a group of more common cougars that adapted themselves to life in the sunshine state? The subject has filled the pages of scientific journals for years, but it may soon become irrelevant as the population dwindles to the vanishing point. There may be as few as 30 Florida panthers left, and inbreeding has left them as poor prospects for a population increase. Kris Thoemke, director of NWF’s Everglades Project Office, says the panthers’ gene pool was somewhat enriched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s import of 10 close cougar relatives from Texas two years ago. The move was controversial, but most observers say the panther would have disappeared without such intervention.
Further clouding the panthers’ picture is their location in southwest Florida, one of the hottest building markets in the country, where their most significant predator is the speeding car. Panthers roam an area of 150 square miles in search of prey, mainly white-tailed deer, and that habitat is fast disappearing. “It doesn’t take much development to disrupt them,” says Thoemke. “The panther issue goes right to the heart of efforts to control sprawl and growth. And even when there are large habitat areas, if there’s not enough food, the animals can’t intermingle through wildlife corridors.” Floridians have put the panther on their license plates, but to date have shown lit
tle inclination to stop the growth that is endangering their future.
US Fish and Wildlife Service
117 Newins-Ziegler Hall
Gainesville, FL 32611-0307
Tel. (904) 392-1861
The African black rhino has declined precipitously, from 70,000 or more in the late 19th century to only 2,408 in 1996. Rhino horn poaching is the main cause, with more than half of the world supply going to North Yemen to make handles for traditional daggers. Worldwide trade prohibitions have put a damper on the trade, but as late as 1996, a substantial amount of rhino horn was still being exported, says TRAFFIC, and Yemen is still the major market.
Steve Ososki of the World Wildlife Fund Species Conservation Program says that dehorning programs have had some short-term success at controlling rhino poachers, but had the unintended consequence of leaving the animals defenseless against some predators. “And some poachers kill dehorned rhinos just so they don’t track the same animal again the next week,” he adds. “Our challenge is to find some way to make a live rhino worth more than a dead one.” And public education campaigns could convince rhino horn end-users to find a non-lethal substitute.
World Wildlife Fund
1250 24th Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
Tel. (202) 293-4800