• What evidence in the article supports the claim that this is a severe problem?
• We often think of scientists as being objective. Do you think scientists have an ethical obligation to speak out when a problem seems so severe?
2. Paul R. Ehrlich, one of the study’s authors, states: “There is only one overall solution, and that is to reduce the scale of the human enterprise. Population growth and increasing consumption among the rich is driving it.”
• What do you think it would look like to “reduce the scale of the human enterprise”? What would this involve?
• What other evidence in the article supports the claim that humans are the ones driving this “global epidemic” of declines in animal populations?
Evaluating and Designing Solutions
Below is a selection of texts from The New York Times, all of which discuss different approaches people are taking to protect endangered species. You could assign a different text to small groups.
“Weaning Itself from Elephant Ivory, China Turns to Mammoths”
“Stitching Together Forests Can Help Save Species, Study Finds”
“Only Captivity Will Save the Vaquita, Experts Say”
“High Above, Drones Keep Watchful Eyes on Wildlife in Africa”
“Chickens Can Help Save Wildlife”
“A Forgotten Step in Saving African Wildlife: Protecting the Rangers”
After reading their article, students can discuss the following questions — first in their small groups, and then as a class:
• What problem is being addressed in the article? Which species is affected? Where in the world? What human activity is threatening this, or these, species?
• What is the solution that the article discusses?
• Based on the article, what are reasons this solution might be effective? What are reasons it might be problematic?
• What are your thoughts?
As a class, you can discuss: Which of these possible solutions seems the most promising? If you were running a wildlife conservation organization, in which possible solutions would you invest your money and resources? Why?
Designing a Solution
If you have more time, students can select one endangered species or one threat (such as habitat loss) to investigate further, and then propose their own solution. Focusing on a specific species or local region will help students create a more targeted solution. In conducting their research, individually or in pairs, students can address the following in more detail:
• First, define the problem: What is the problem you are trying to address through your solution? What data or evidence can you provide to underscore the importance of this issue? How can you prove that changing human activity could have a positive impact?
• Next, design the solution: You have read steps that people are taking to address the crisis facing particular endangered species. Based on what you have read and discussed, and with an eye to the individual species or threat you are focusing on, what could a possible solution to the problem be?
• Then, evaluate the solution: How would you know if it is working? What are the environmental, social and economic concerns with implementing this solution?
• Refine the solution: Suggest some ways to address these concerns. What else might be needed?
Students can turn their findings into a problem-solution research paper, or they can use another medium (such as a slide presentation or a documentary film) to communicate what they learned.
Finally, students could be asked to present their research to a panel made up of other students, or even teachers or community members. Panel members can take on the roles of relevant stakeholders, such as residents in the area where the species lives, conservationists or members of the business community. As students present the problem and proposed solution, the panel should take notes, ask questions and make recommendations.
At the end of the presentations, ask students to engage in some process writing:
• What was this process like for you?
• What are you now thinking about your proposed solution, having learned about it, presented it and received feedback?
• What are you now thinking about the question of how to help endangered species?
• What questions do you still have?
• What could be your next steps?
After students have had a chance to reflect on the panel’s feedback, they can refine their solution further.
1. Some of the articles above discuss the challenges to arriving at accurate population counts for endangered species. These numbers can be very important for swaying public opinion and affecting public policy. To get a sense of how scientists do this work, students can conduct their own species tallies in their backyard or nearby park, document their findings with photographs and video, and construct maps and photo galleries that summarize the results. Our lesson plan “Backyard Science: Tallying Local Species to Learn About Diversity” provides details on how to complete a species tally activity.
2. Students may feel removed from the issue of endangered species because they cannot always point to a direct and personal experience they have had with this issue. Maybe they’ve seen members of an endangered species only in a book or in a zoo, or maybe they don’t realize that the problem of endangered species extends far beyond the big mammals — such as pandas, elephants or wolves — that are frequently in the news. But they have, with or without their knowledge, participated in some of the processes (such as pollution, the exploitation of natural resources, or habitat destruction for agriculture) that lead to species being endangered.
Ask students to engage in some citizen scientist research and to investigate ways in which their own community may be contributing to the problem. Students can identify one possible cause of species endangerment and track it in their community through surveys or photos. For example, students living near a waterway may note the presence of litter that could wind up in the ocean. They could then prepare a public service announcement in the form of a video, poster or pamphlet to distribute in their community to help educate people and, hopefully, change their behavior.Continue reading the main story
By John Pickrell
Life on Earth is in the throes of a new wave of mass extinction, unlike anything since the demise of the dinosaurs. In the last 500 years, 844 species – like the passenger pigeon, auk, thylacine, and quagga – are known to have died out, and up to 16,000 others are now known to be threatened. Two thirds of turtles could be gone by the 2025, great apes have recently declined by over 50% in parts of Africa, half of marsupials and one in three amphibians are in jeopardy, and a staggering 40% of Asia’s plants and animals could soon be lost.
But this may only be a fraction of the true number facing extinction. Though only 1.5 million species have been described, there could be between 5 to 30 million in total. Of these, some experts predict that one could be falling extinct every 20 minutes – or 27,000 a year.
Conservationists argue that humans have an ethical obligation to protect other species, that diversity and natural beauty are highly prized by mankind, and that biodiversity is a vital resource: we rely on ecosystems to provide food, oxygen and natural resources, recycle wastes and fertilise soils for agriculture. The total value of services provided to man by nature has been estimated at $33 trillion annually.
Plants and animals are also an essential source of new foods and medicines – up to 20,000 plants are used in medicines worldwide. Preserving species could help protect us from disease.
Natural disasters and processes were behind the five major mass extinctions in geological history, but the current “sixth extinction” is caused by success of one species – humans. The six billion (and counting) people crowding the Earth, are driving out biodiversity in a variety of ways.
Species form and die out naturally as a part of evolution. However, many experts argue the current extinction rate is as much as 100 or 1000 times higher than the “background” rate. Bird extinctions were the first to hint at this, but in 2004, studies of declining butterflies and plants confirmed it.
Humans began to destroy ecosystems in a major way about 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. But within the last 100,000 years, the hunting and burning practices of Palaeolithic people, along with climate change, drove many large mammals and birds to extinction. North- and South America and Australia lost up to 86% of large mammals soon after humans arrived – species such as giant wombats, killer ducks, ground sloths, mammoths, sabre-tooth cats and moas.
The most common reason for extinction is habitat loss. Ecosystems from wetlands to prairies and cloud forests to coral reefs are being cleared or degraded for crops, cattle, roads and development. Even fragmenting habitats with roads or dams can make species more vulnerable. Fragmentation reduces population size and increases inbreeding, increases disease and opens access for poachers.
The Amazonian rainforest is today being cleared at rate of 24,000 km2 per year – equivalent to New York City’s Central Park being destroyed every hour. Worldwide, 90,000 km2 of forest is cleared annually.
In East Africa deforestation is destroying game parks, Singapore has lost 95% of its tropical forests, South East Asia may lose 74% by 2100. More than quarter of Earth’s land is under cultivation and in 54 countries 90% of forests have been felled.
Some endangered species also have to contend with exotic invaders – the second biggest threat to rare species. Introduced species prey on them, eat their food, infect them or otherwise disrupt them. Human seafarers have spread cats, dogs, rats, foxes, rabbits and weasels to new places, contributing to the McDonaldisation of Earth’s biota.
In Australia, rabbits and foxes are driving native marsupials to extinction; In New Zealand, weasels have been pushing the flightless Kakapo parrot to its doom; In North America, tiny European zebra mussels arrived in the 1980s with shipping, and clog waterways; In the US, once-ubiquitous chestnuts were decimated by an introduced blight. In Kenya’s Lake Victoria, the Nile perch has miraculously managed to eat its way through 200 cichlid fish species since 1959.And in Maryland, US, the voracious south-east Asian snakehead fish has been chomping its way through native fish and waterfowl since 2002.
Often exotic species, such as the cane toad, have even been introduced intentionally, to control other species with disastrous consequences. One unusual way to eradicate invaders could be for people to eat them.
Exploitation – hunting, collecting, fishing or trading – is another factor driving extinctions. American bison were hunted down from a population of 30 million before Europeans arrived, to just 750 animals in 1890. Whales were exploited so fiercely that the International Whaling Commission voted in 1986 to place a moratorium on most whaling. Blue whales, for example, were hunted down from a population of perhaps 300,000 to just a few thousand by the 1960s.
Today we continue to rape the oceans through overfishing. The UN claims that 15 of the top 17 fisheries are in decline. Exploited species include: the tuna, swordfish, red snapper, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic cod, sharks and lobsters. Now, overfishing of the smaller species that fleets have switched to may inhibit the recovery of the more-prized species that prey on them.
Canada’s Atlantic cod fishery was closed in 1992 following its collapse. Better management and stock modelling may help reverse the trend, but others argue that many fisheries are already doomed.
Other species are unintentionally killed as bycatch, by drift nets, longlines and deep-sea trawlers. Surveys reveal that 300,000 dolphins and small whales and as many as half of all remaining turtles are snared as bycatch each year. Overfishing could even put a strain on terrestrial wildlife.
Another significant challenge to conservation is the international trade in rare species. Second only to the illegal drug trade, it is thought to be worth more than illegal arms, and may net $10 billion a year. Tropical fish, birds (particularly parrots), and other animals are captured and sold as pets. Some – like turtles, whales and sharks – are prized as delicacies.
Others – such as tigers, rhinos and saiga – are killed to supply bones, gall bladders, horns and other body parts for traditional medicine. Horns, feathers, eggs and other trophies are smuggled to unscrupulous collectors. Trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1990, but despite the ban 4000 are still killed illegally each year.
The UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was set up in 1975 to stem the flow. Another body, TRAFFIC, monitors trade in rare species. One US forensics lab is dedicated to uncovering the illegal trade. Detection kits for bear tissue and different kinds of fur may help uncover illegal imports. However, some experts argue that we must allow limited trade of species in order to save them.
Pollution is another serious issue. If it does not kill animals outright, pollution can affect reproduction, mess with sexual development and trigger bizarre behaviour.
Mercury, dioxins, flame retardants, synthetic hormone, pesticides and other hydrocarbons such as DDT and PCBs are ubiquitous and carried far and wide. Carcinogenic pollutants are behind cancers in Canadian beluga whales. Sewage is ravaging Caribbean corals, while acid rain is killing fish and trees in Europe. Radioactive waste is found throughout oceans and ecosystems.
Oil spills continue to kill seabirds, marine and coastal life in regions such as Spain, Pakistan and the Galapagos islands. Between 1993 and 2002, 580,000 tonnes of oil spilt into the sea in 470 separate accidents.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) publishes the Red List – an annual index of threatened species. The IUCN, governments and conservationists try to protect these species by fencing them off and educating local people.
In 1872 Yellowstone National Park, in the US, became the world’s first modern reserve. During the last century 44,000 protected areas were designated, covering 10% of Earth’s land. Marine reserves only cover 1% of oceans, and more are needed.
The identification of biodiversity hotspots may help focus resources. Ecotourism may also be part of the solution, but could be part of the problem too. Returning the stewardship of forest reserves and other habitats to their indigenous inhabitants could help.
In Africa, 2 million km2 is designated as protected: reserves such as Aberdare, Tsavo and the Masai Mara in Kenya; Quiçama in Angola; Kruger in South Africa; Garamba and Virunga in Congo; Queen Elizabeth in Uganda and the Serengeti in Tanzania. In 2002 Brazil created the vast Tumucumaque National Park, the largest tropical forest reserve in the world, the same year that Australia created the world’s largest marine reserve.
Reintroducing species such as golden tamarin moneys, wolves and condors, has been a success. Some researchers even advocate reintroducing large animals such as lions and elephants to the US and wolves to the UK.
Failing these methods, if we collect genetic material now, we may be able to reincarnate extinct species by cloning them in the future.
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