The Earth is one compiled of many. Every bird, fish, tree, and frog has its place in assisting the growth of our living planet. Like rivets in the frame of the great Ark, each species of the world contributes to the survival of an ecosystem. When one falls there is no major upset in balance. The resulting strain on the remaining rivets, however, causes another to fall, then another. Soon, entire boards of the Ark fall into the tides and condemn the vessel to a watery grave. The extinction of a species is no matter to be taken lightly, but is one that must be immediately addressed. The survival of not only endangered species but of the Earth itself is at stake.
The rise and development of humankind is the primary source for the mass extinction that occurs today. From the times of Jesus until the year 1800, man contributed to the loss of one species every 55 years. This statistic could almost be considered natural, but then should be taken into account the later years. From 1800 to 1900, one species was sacrificed by and for mankind every 1.5 years. Between 1900 and 1990 that number rose to one lost species every year. The years between 1990 and 1995 contained a surge in population and use of resources and in effect killed 3 species each day. Today, the number is ever rising.
A rapid growth in human population has strained the Earth’s resources as well as its species. Around 40 to 50 years ago, the population of the world was about two billion. Today, that number is over six billion. The estimated population in the year 2030 is eight billion, which seems to be more than our planet is capable of handling under the current abusive circumstances. Most of the Earth’s resources are not able to be replenished and so will continuously deteriorate as the human population continues to escalate in its demand for them. These same resources also provide food and shelter for the animals which are or would become endangered; as the supplies of Earth are used up, the endangered species become extinct.
In addition to the problems of resource abuse, poaching, and habitat destruction, the introduction of exotic species into new habitats is one of the major factors that contributes to the loss of so many species that were native to that land. For example: in California, trout were introduced into a previously-fishless body of water to heighten the fishing industry. The effect of this decision, however, was the rapid decline in the population of frogs and other amphibians which lived in the immediate area. The best explanation reasons that the fish eat the frogs’ eggs and tadpoles, thus cutting off the lives of the amphibians before they have a chance of survival. Millions of dollars have been spent to eliminate non-native species from environments such as this to preserve the native species and ecosystems. Hopefully, the amount of money working against exotic species will discourage species displacement.
It is a proven fact that the diversity of species is the most important factor in the survival of an ecosystem. Pollinators, such as bees, help plant-life reproduce by transferring pollen from one flower to the next. These plants provide food for herbivores such as rabbits and deer. The herbivores’ numbers are kept in-check by their predators, the carnivores, which include wolves and big cats. In this way, neither the plants nor the herbivores are allowed to multiply exceedingly, and a balance is achieved. When this cycle is interrupted, however, and one species is lessened or completely removed, the results would be catastrophic to the species that are involved in even the least direct way. Half of the world’s diversity in species is contained in rainforests, which once covered 25% of the earth’s surface. Through the ravaging by mankind and through the afore-mentioned effects, however, they now cover merely 6%, and are growing thinner every day.
There are those who argue that the extinction of species is not a matter that needs immediate attention. The fact that some species that were once presumed extinct have resurfaced is very true; the cases of the black-footed ferret and Edward’s pheasant are only two in hundreds of such revivals. The problem, however, does not lie in the complete extinction of a certain species; the mere deterioration in a species’ population is enough to upset the ecological balance of a system. No one can tell for sure whether the last of any species has died; humans cannot feasibly scour the earth for a survivor. We can, however, notice when a species that was once abundant falls to a mere handful due to human intervention.
Some skeptics continue to argue that environmentalists are keeping the natural extinction processes at bay by attempting to save endangered species. The current extinction rate, however, ranges from 1000 to 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates. This number is very alarming when the health of the ecosystem is taken into consideration. If the world continues on the path it is on now, two million species of plants and animals will be extinct by the end of this century.
There is an ethical duty to endangered species that lies within mankind. Species that become rare or extinct have an effect on other species, including humans, if only in an indirect way. By destroying resources, poaching, and ultimately rearranging the ecosystems of the world, humankind is in actuality playing God. No one can argue that we are qualified to do so. Man has the power to stop the chain reaction that is happening all over the Earth, and a deep responsibility exists to correct our own mistakes.
There are efforts in place to assist in the fight against extinction. In 1973, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, which proved that the United States Congress recognized the plight of endangered species and the importance of saving them from extinction. By placing endangered animals on a protective list that made destroying these animals and their habitats illegal, these species were given the chance to multiply and regain the population they once had. In the years since the passing of this Act, nearly 1,000 endangered species of plants and animals have been placed on the list, and more than 40 percent of these are stable or improving. The Act is not perfect, however; there is a lack of enforcement of the laws it stresses, and so it is not as effective as originally intended.
Wildlife Reserve Networks are also being used to keep animals isolated from human civilizations and possible harm. These networks include three or more areas of untouched wilderness that span as wide as a population of a given species and are protected against human entry. Corridors connect these areas to allow for migration, and are also blocked off from humans. This system of zones allows humankind and endangered animals to share the land and resources without one taking advantage over the other.
Another solution, often called a last resort, is captive breeding. Endangered animals that are on the brink of extinction are captured and bred under sterile and stable conditions to ensure healthy offspring. These captive-bred animals then must be reintroduced into the wild in order to increase the population of that species. This, however, is a task that is seldom achieved to expectations. Animals that were raised in captivity are not prepared for the harsh wilderness and so have a smaller probability of surviving their first year on their own. The option of captive breeding is often the only one available; The efforts continue.
All species of plants and animals play a part in its fragile ecosystems and natural balance. No matter how small that part is, one species’ extinction could cause a chain reaction that could devastate the world as we know it. In order to help them, the Endangered Species Act must be taken as seriously as any other document of law. Punishments should be harsher and the tolerance level should remain unwavering and strict. The zones and passages in Wildlife Reserve Networks should be better protected; poachers still enter these areas and continue to destroy the endangered species that thrive within. Finally, the captive-breeding programs in zoos and other wildlife facilities should continue, and hopefully research will unveil a way to reintroduce these animals without worry of survival.
The world is a ship in treacherous waters, and the species that live on its surface are the only rivets holding the vessel together. Mankind has the power to choke the decline of populations, and there is yet more that can be done to save this ship from sinking.
Helen Cothran, ed., Opposing Viewpoints: Endangered Species (San Diego, C.A.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001)”Total Midyear Population of the World: 1950-2050,” International Programs Center, US Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/
James P. Sterba, ed., Earth Ethics: Environmental Ethics, Animal Rights, and Practical Applications (Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995)