Extinct is Forever

“The combination of rampant poaching…and unabated habitat loss…has intensified the threats to the survival of healthy wild populations.” The quote is from a report on saving the tiger, but it could just as easily have referred to rhinos, giant pandas, or a variety of other endangered species. These two factors have put a long list of majestic “charismatic megafauna” on the world’s endangered lists, and also threatened countless plants and animals that are not so celebrated, including numerous species of freshwater mussels.

Jerry Russell Illustration

As human population grows and pushes into our last wild places, a myriad of wild creatures are disturbed, some of them fatally. When this inexorable process is coupled with deforestation and widespread pollution of the air and water, it leads to a rate of extinction unknown on Earth since the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.

Adding to the pressure on endangered species, a thriving, little-regulated international trade caters to “collectors” of skins and living specimens, and a further toll is taken from practitioners of traditional medicine. One Mexican drug lord filled his city apartment with a highly endangered New Guinea cockatoo, a Bengal tiger, a panther, a puma and a jaguar. Mexican wildlife smugglers—like Jorge “Hank” Rhon, son of a former Agriculture Minister and a repeat offender who deals in white tigers and other exotica—face fines of only $100. Many operate on the fringes of the drug trade.

In this issue’s cover story, E focuses on 10 critically endangered animals, explains how they got that way, and outlines what can—and must—be done to save them.

Not all the news from the endangered species front is bad. Even though tiger populations plunged dramatically in the 20th century, wildlife experts say there’s hope that, particularly in India, the conservation message has gotten through. In the U.S., there is growing optimism that the Endangered Species Act, long a target for political conservatives, will finally not only be reauthorized, but strengthened.

Although it’s easy to feel powerless as species a world away from us disappear, international pressure—in the form of letters to congressmen and to foreign heads of state, donations to wildlife organizations, consumer boycotts and public demonstrations—has made a critical difference for many animals still maintaining a claw-hold on life. The public’s activism on behalf of endangered whales led to an international ban on whaling, which all but a few nations (including Norway and Japan) observe. Endangered species protection can also be a local issue, very responsive to grassroots action. In E’s home state of Connecticut, for instance, 10 resident populations are either threatened or endangered, from the Puritan tiger beetle to the bald eagle.

Some of our concern may be coming too late to save species whose numbers have dwindled almost to the vanishing point. Both the Northern right whale and the Florida panther, profiled in this issue, are on the edge, with the remnant weakened by inbreeding and geographic separation.

Part 2 of this series, in the July/August issue, will focus on the less-celebrated battle to save endangered plants, some of which are vanishing before their importance to the ecosystem is fully understood.

Jim Motavalli