Today (May 18) is Endangered Species Day. Just another of those days, you might say. However, can we stop and think about this for one moment? Why is a day like this even needed? Twenty years ago, we never thought much about endangered species: mammals, birds, marine life, insects, even plants, and trees.
But then, we should have been thinking about this twenty years ago, shouldn’t we? Or even a century ago. Let us try to digest these statistics:
- Land-dwelling wildlife species have declined by 40% since 1970.
- Marine animal populations have fallen by 40% overall.
- Birds populations have been reduced by about 20-25%.
- Freshwater animal populations have plummeted by 75% since 1970.
- Insect populations have also declined dramatically. In Germany alone, insects have declined by 75% in the last 30 years.
- Almost fifty percent of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years.
We know that the large, iconic animals that are struggling for survival. As a child, I grew up with lions and tigers and bears (to quote The Wizard of Oz) and other fantastic and delightful animals populating the books I read – Kipling’s Jungle Book, for example. There was also Babar the Elephant, whose nemesis was Now, I heard recently that even giraffes are on the endangered list.
The threats of illegal poaching, wildlife trafficking, hunting, pollution (including plastic), habitat loss and climate change multiply. Who is responsible for all of those activities? And we now learn that one individual human is bent on weakening legislation created to protect our biodiversity. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 came into being at a time when humans were beginning to realize that they were actually threatening the existence of other forms of life on Earth. The evil that is Trump is now, for reasons of greed and cronyism that I cannot fully fathom, seeking not only to weaken this legislation. He is also working on countless other pieces of law that have sought to guard against the further degradation of our environment by our own deliberate actions. By the way, I make no apologies for using the word “evil” to describe this person.
Today, on the larger animals, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tweeted the following:
We don’t remember anyone voting to kill elephants, bears, and whales in the 2016 election, but that’s become part of Trump’s agenda. These iconic species shouldn’t die in the name of big-game hunters and corporate interests.
If we think the potential dismantling of U.S. environmental protections will not affect other countries – why yes, it will, and that includes the Caribbean. We will soon see.
I should also mention the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (celebrating its centenary this year!), which has been recently tampered with by Trump & Co. It has saved millions, nay billions of birds. We should know that many bird species travel across the Americas, back and forth twice a year – our beloved “Butterfly Bird,” the American Redstart, is but one. What if, one year as the seasons changed, we looked for them in vain?
Let us consider also the small creatures – some so small we might hardly notice them – which make up the tightly woven fabric of life on earth. Many are in imminent danger of dying out. Some live in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica, and nowhere else in the world. For example, the village of Auchtembeddie, on the southern edge of the Cockpit Country, alone hosts 87 species of land snails, of which 69 (79%) are endemic (that is, they only live in Jamaica) – one of the highest densities of endemic land snails in the world. There is a tiny land crab (Metopaulias depressus), which has evolved in and adapted to the Cockpit Country’s unique conditions, and which produces and cares for its very tiny young in the water contained in bromeliads. It lives nowhere else in the world. I learned this on cockpitcountry.com.
You may think insects don’t matter very much, either, so we are not going to be at all troubled if some species go missing. Think again! A new study has suggested that insect populations have decreased by more than 75% worldwide over the last 28 years. 80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination, and 60% of bird species rely on insects for food. We are all connected, and if insects die out – why, it won’t be long before we do. There is a reason why we should be worried about declining bee populations. That is, in two words, food security.
Today, the Earth Island Journal, which is truly worth subscribing to, published some excerpts from a book entitled Brief Eulogies for the Animals We Have Lost: An Extinction Reader. It includes a Jamaican moth, which said goodbye to this world back in the 19th century. However poetically written, though, there is nothing romantic about extinction. It simply means death; perhaps, if the species is lucky, a life after death pinned to a cloth inside a frame, inside a drawer; or stuffed, staring at museum visitors with glassy eyes. These creatures, large and small, are not only dead but largely forgotten. They are relics, only of real interest to nerdy scientists. At least the California Grizzly – the bear that you see on the state flag – is immortalized there, blowing in the breeze, although it has been extinct since the 1920s.
And yet, before we become overwhelmed with guilt and helplessness, there are success stories. Even here on this island. The Jamaican Iguana is one, thanks to tremendous international collaboration and the efforts of dedicated conservationists. It is the largest native land animal on the island and between around 1948 and 1990 was actually considered extinct – until it was rediscovered in the Hellshire Hills by a man and his dog. The Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group was formed, and now these splendid creatures are making a tentative comeback. It is something to be proud of. The number of manatees in Florida is increasing. New species are being discovered globally, almost on a weekly basis; although many of them are immediately added to the lengthened list of the endangered ones.
We must have hope. We must try harder to protect our species and the places where they live; even if only in our backyard.
Because…whether we want to believe it or not, our human lives are inextricably bound together with those of these “creatures great and small.” We need to understand this basic fact when we talk about the threat of extinction to species other than ourselves. You may find lizards creepy and land snails slimy, but they have just as much right to live on this planet as we do. And they have purpose, function, and meaning, as we do.
And extinction is forever, as they say. That goes for humans, too. We won’t be far behind.