The Last of Their Kind As the War on Wildlife Continues, We're Losing Species at an Incredible Rate

The big, slow-moving Galapagos tortoise is one of the most endangered animals on Earth, confined to dwindling populations on just five islands. On one of these islands so memorably visited by Charles Darwin, a solitary male tortoise survives. Galapagos tortoises, which can grow to over 500 pounds, live to 100 and take 20 years to reach sexual maturity, are protected today, but there is a long history of calamitous contact with the human race.

Nineteenth-century whalers used to toss a clutch of live tortoises on their backs in the ships’ holds, using them as a valuable source of fresh meat and oil. These days, the tortoise’s main predators are domestic animals, introduced species like goats, dogs and pigs.

The Galapagos tortoise’s survival in the wild is in doubt, but that doesn’t mean the wealthy are denied the pleasure of keeping one as a pet. The live reptile trade has grown enormously in recent years, and more than nine million turtles and snakes were exported from the U.S. in 1996. The Captive Bred Wildlife Foundation in Arizona (its slogan is “When Turtles Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Turtles”) would be happy to sell you a young Galapagos tortoise for $3,500, and it’s perfectly legal provided you have a federal permit. What’s more, for just $20, you can get a TROVAN microchip transponder implanted in its body so you’re sure the valuable tortoise in question is your own. Jeff Gee, who runs the reptile farm, says that a species’ value is “intrinsic, based on rarity or availability of the animal. I guarantee you could take a canary, put it on the Endangered Species list, and tomorrow it would be worth $250.”

Endangered species remain global big business, despite worldwide treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as well as national protections like the Endangered Species Act, now undergoing a contentious renewal process (see sidebar). Protection on paper is no guarantee that a species will recover, however. Not only do all the laws and treaties contain loopholes, but enforcement on the ground is difficult at best. Endangered animals are slaughtered for trophies and traditional medicines, made homeless by development, caught up in wars, and eaten as “bush meat.”

Though species have a definite right to exist for their own reasons, it’s also true that they’re disappearing before we fully understand their ecological significance to the planet as a whole. That’s a tragedy when applied to rare medicinal plants, but it’s relevant for animals as well. An entirely new bird species was discovered in Tanzania in 1991. Unfortunately, the specimens were in a bird exporter’s shop, and two were already dead and the other two dying. An increasingly endangered West African chimpanzee subspecies, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, was recently revealed to harmlessly harbor an AIDS-like virus that could solve the mystery of the disease’s origins in humans—and lead to a cure.

Smuggled orangutans often end up as pets in Taipei, Taiwan, where their population outnumbers that in the wild. © 1997 Michael Turco

The numbers are as stark as ever, pointing to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls a “sixth extinction” of species comparable to the mass die-off of dinosaurs. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) calculates that one-third of all U.S. plants and animals are at risk of extinction. Since European discovery of North America, 110 irreplaceable flora and fauna have disappeared forever, and another 416 are “missing” and presumed lost. Almost 7,000 U.S. species are threatened. According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 50,000 plants and animals become extinct worldwide every year. Within 50 years, one quarter of the world’s species could be gone.

Larry Master, TNC’s chief zoologist, says the group must perform a kind of triage, devoting resources only in specific instances where it thinks intervention will provide a survival edge. TNC’s protected land, some nine million acres in the U.S. and Canada, is the only extant habitat for some severely depleted species. But for every modest success story, like the piping plover and the Peregrine falcon, there are many losses.

Compassion Fatigue

Just as “compassion fatigue” has been identified as an unfortunate syndrome, so too have warnings about imminent extinction sometimes fallen on deaf ears. “Save the Whales” is derided as a slogan from the 1960s, and as a crusade whose goals have already been achieved. Whales are more popular than ever before—as symbols of the majesty of nature, or as entertainment—but whale-watching expeditions don’t in themselves save species. One reason endangered whales aren’t bouncing back from the brink is that illegal and irresponsible hunting still occurs. According to the journal Nature, Harvard biologists recently found, through DNA testing, that whale meat for sale in Japanese markets came from a rare hybrid bluefin whale caught off the coast of Iceland, supposedly for “scientific” purposes.

Poaching parrots can be a family affair in the Amazon basin. Some rare species command prices of ,000 or more.© Gerry Ellis/ENP Images

Americans can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that endangered species are yesterday’s problem, since threatened “charismatic megafauna” (from bald eagles to cheetahs) are pervasive on television and in magazines, where their computer-manipulated images are used to sell products and create brand identities. A commercial featuring herds of rhinos and tigers thundering through Manhattan may convince viewers that the real animal is not going to disappear. Writing in DoubleTake, Bill McKibben observed that we’ve already archived so much wildlife imagery that we need never disturb the real animals again.

The film Fierce Creatures satirized the growing corporate involvement in the world’s zoos, which use endangered species as calling cards. The San Diego Zoo is hardly immune from this, having set up the Giant Panda Research Station in partnership with Pacific Bell. The visiting public can get up to date on the latest news from Bai Yun and Shi Shi, who are on a 12-year loan from China, by calling the Giant Panda Hotline.

The zoo calls its arrangement with Chinese authorities a “research loan,” but that belies the pandas’ role as a major zoo attraction. San Diego’s Georgeanne Irvine admits that the pandas are “one of our most popular animals,” but she insists that the zoo is also gaining valuable insights into panda communications and breeding activity. In addition to scientific studies of panda scent markers, DNA and stress physiology, the zoo sends $1 million annually to aid China in habitat preservation efforts. Delegations from the zoo travel frequently to the Wolong Giant Panda Preserve in China to study pandas in the wild. But if casual zoo visitors can buy an encounter with such rare animals along with their modest admission price, not to mention a plush talking version in the gift shop, are they going to worry about the species’ long-term survival?

The role of zoos in endangered species protection gets more complex when one considers that, for some species, they have become the best hope for survival. In too many cases, zoos and research institutions hold the most viable breeding populations as natural habitats are devastated. That’s certainly the case with the once-plentiful black-footed ferret (see below). But can a species be truly said to have “survived” if it no longer has any wild identity?

And reintroducing captive-bred animals to the wild is a frustrating and often-heartbreaking business. Efforts to repopulate the thick-billed parrot into Arizona, for instance, have recently failed because birds raised in zoos or by breeders lack the vital herding instincts that keep them safe from predators. A plan to bring the lynx back to what had become unfamiliar territory in New York State also ended disastrously.

But scarcity in the wild is actually a plus to wildlife traders. As Jeff Gee notes, a brutal law of supply and demand is in effect when it comes to endangered species—the fewer there are, the more they’re worth. Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC North America, an arm of the World Wildlife Fund that tracks the endangered animal trade, says the business fluctuates according to “the flavor of the month.” Collectors have what Habel calls “a postage stamp mentality,” meaning they’ll pay almost anything to get a rare specimen, sometimes alive or dead. The CITES Appendix I-listed (the most endangered) Australian palm cockatoo, which is difficult to breed in captivity, sells for up to $20,000 a pair.

Some countries are tightening penalties. Chinese panda smugglers get life sentences. In the U.S., traders can now be prosecuted for even claiming that their products contain the bones of tigers or other endangered species—even if the claims prove to be untrue. “All over the world, there’s an effort to clamp down,” says Habel, who adds that TRAFFIC is helping to educate practitioners of traditional medicine in humane alternatives. “We’re finding that people who buy these products don’t realize there is a direct connection with tigers poached in the wild,” he adds.

Despite some positive enforcement steps, the illegal wildlife trade is still very profitable and, in most countries, the penalties for getting caught are not very severe. In 1996, Hector Ugalde pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges in the smuggling of Brazil’s critically endangered Hyacinth macaw, which can fetch $8,000 on the open market. His sentence: three years of probation and a $10,000 fine.

TRAFFIC produces highly-detailed—and very depressing—reports showing how wasteful the wild-caught trade can be. When a Senegalese bird dealer makes the two-day trip along rutted roads from Kedougou to Dakar, for instance, he is expected to lose a third of his 15,000 passengers. And the damage isn’t limited to the birds themselves. In Argentina, and in many other countries, the most popular way to catch valuable parrots is to cut down their nesting trees, which in Argentina alone accounted for the loss of 100,000 quebracho trees in the 1980s.

Tiger skins seized in New Delhi by the Indian police. The penalties for killing tigers remain very light in India. © 1997 Michael Turco

Although habitat destruction is probably the major factor pushing endangered species into extinction, civil unrest plays a part, too. Our unstable world has little respect for Habitat Conservation Plans. Aside from its incredible human toll, the ethnic massacres in Rwanda threatened the last bastion of the 400 surviving mountain gorillas. Sometimes the killing is officially sanctioned: The Tanzanian Army has been implicated in the killing of Ugandan elephants for “bush meat.” Other times, the damage is collateral: Jungle fighting in the Asian country of Myanmar last January scattered a herd of 97 wild elephants, sending them fleeing into neighboring Thailand. Conflict in the Congo late in 1998 may have decimated the last few Northern white rhinos in the wild.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that many of our critically endangered species are on an unstoppable downward spiral. There are occasional bright spots. President Clinton recently proposed a $100 million plan to save the rapidly dwindling population of Pacific salmon. And, in 1998, The Nature Conservancy announced that seven U.S. species thought to have disappeared entirely (the list included three snails and two freshwater mussels) had been rediscovered, still clinging to life. The TNC scientists failed to locate 72 other threatened species, so the applause should be somewhat muted.

After the heedless depredations of the 19th century, it is perhaps good news that we’re at least trying to save our endangered species. Unfortunately, we’re losing the battle on many fronts. To save our wild future, we’ll have to try harder.