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.