Endangered Species Day: Millions of species share the Earth with humans, and they need our help – Earth.com


Endangered Species are any type of organism that is threatened with extinction across all or a significant portion of its range. This status of endangerment is primarily due to habitat loss, poaching, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and overexploitation. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List, also known as IUCN Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species.

Definition

The term “Endangered Species” was formally defined in the 1973 Endangered Species Act of the United States, which outlined legal protections for these species. According to the Act, an endangered species is one that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” 

In contrast, a “Threatened Species” is one likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Globally, the IUCN’s Red List categorizes species into nine groups based on criteria such as rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation.

Causes of Endangerment

Endangerment of species, which pushes them towards extinction, is often the result of a combination of multiple threats and stressors. Here, we elaborate further on the primary causes of endangerment.

Habitat Loss and Degradation 

This is widely recognized as the leading cause of species endangerment worldwide. Habitats can be lost or altered by a number of human activities including agriculture, urbanization, deforestation, mining, and infrastructure development. 

When habitats are destroyed or fragmented, species lose the resources they need to survive such as food, shelter, and mates. This loss can also lead to decreased genetic diversity as populations become isolated and smaller, making them more susceptible to other threats.

Overexploitation 

Overexploitation refers to the unsustainable use of species either for consumption or trade. Examples of overexploitation include overfishing, overhunting, overharvesting for medicinal use, and the pet trade. 

This excessive pressure can lead to drastic reductions in species populations and can push species to the brink of extinction. For example, the passenger pigeon, once abundant in North America, was hunted to extinction in the wild by the early 20th century.

Invasive Species 

When species are introduced to new environments, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they can outcompete native species for resources, change habitats, spread diseases, and even prey on native species. Invasive species can be particularly damaging on islands, where native species have often evolved in the absence of certain predators or competitors.

Pollution

Various forms of pollution can have detrimental impacts on species and their habitats. This includes water pollution from industrial waste or agricultural runoff, air pollution from burning fossil fuels, soil pollution from heavy metals, and even light and noise pollution in urban areas. 

Pollution can harm species directly or can damage the habitats and food sources they rely on. For example, pesticide use has been linked to declines in bee populations worldwide, affecting not only the bees themselves but also the plants they pollinate.

Climate Change

Climate change, driven by human activities, is an increasingly significant threat to species worldwide. As temperatures rise, many species must move towards the poles or to higher elevations to stay within their preferred climate range. However, not all species are able to move quickly enough or may find suitable habitats unavailable. 

In addition, climate change can lead to more extreme weather events, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and changes in precipitation patterns, all of which can have impacts on species and their habitats. For instance, warming ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching events, threatening the survival of coral reefs and the myriad species that rely on them.

Disease 

While disease is a natural part of ecosystems, changes in the environment can trigger more frequent or severe disease outbreaks. Human activities can also introduce new diseases into an environment or make species more susceptible to existing diseases. For example, the chytrid fungus, likely spread by international trade and climate change, has caused drastic declines in amphibian populations around the world.

These causes often interact in complex ways, and their impacts can be cumulative or synergistic. For example, a small, isolated population resulting from habitat loss may be less able to recover from overexploitation, disease, or an extreme weather event triggered by climate change. Therefore, effective conservation efforts often need to address multiple threats simultaneously.

Protection and Conservation 

Protection and conservation efforts are critical to halt and reverse the decline of endangered species. These efforts require a multi-faceted approach and often involve collaboration among governments, conservation organizations, scientists, and local communities. Here, we delve deeper into strategies and tactics aimed at protecting and conserving endangered species:

Many countries have enacted laws to protect endangered species and their habitats. The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 is a prime example, providing critical protections for listed species, including the prohibition of their “taking” (harming, harassing, or killing), and mandating the development of recovery plans. 

Other countries have similar laws, and there are also international agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulate international trade in species threatened by exploitation.

Protected Areas

One of the most effective strategies for conserving biodiversity is the establishment of protected areas. These areas, including national parks, nature reserves, and marine protected areas, are set aside to conserve wildlife, habitats, and ecosystem processes. Management strategies can vary, with some areas allowing sustainable use of resources and others strictly prohibiting any extraction or disturbance.

Captive Breeding and Reintroduction Programs

Captive breeding programs are a type of ex-situ conservation, where species are bred in controlled environments, such as zoos or breeding centers, to increase their numbers. Once a captive population is stable, individuals can be reintroduced into the wild, often into restored or protected habitats. 

While reintroduction has its challenges, including ensuring animals can survive and reproduce in the wild, it has helped save several species from extinction, such as the California Condor and the Arabian Oryx.

Conservation Genetics 

Modern genetic techniques can aid conservation in multiple ways. By analyzing genetic diversity within a species, conservationists can identify distinct populations and prioritize them for protection. Genetics can also help manage captive breeding programs to avoid inbreeding and maintain genetic diversity.

Habitat Restoration

Restoring habitats that have been degraded or destroyed can help recover endangered species populations. This can involve a variety of activities, such as replanting native vegetation, removing invasive species, restoring natural fire regimes, and rehabilitating polluted waters.

There is a growing recognition of the importance of engaging local communities in conservation efforts. Community-based conservation programs aim to involve locals in decision-making processes and benefit-sharing schemes, often contributing to the sustainable use of resources and improved livelihoods. 

Such programs can be particularly effective in regions where local communities rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods, such as in many developing countries.

Education and Public Awareness

Raising public awareness about endangered species and the threats they face is critical to garner support for conservation efforts. This can be achieved through environmental education programs, public service announcements, media campaigns, and citizen science programs.

Conservation Finance

As conservation work requires resources, various innovative financing mechanisms are being developed. These include debt-for-nature swaps, conservation trust funds, payments for ecosystem services, and impact investing.

While these efforts have resulted in successful conservation stories, the scale and complexity of the biodiversity crisis demand increased and sustained action. This will likely require more funding, greater international cooperation, stronger legislation and enforcement, and more public support for conservation initiatives.

Case Studies 

Several species have been successfully recovered from the brink of extinction through conservation efforts, providing valuable case studies:

American Bison

Once numbering in the tens of millions, the American bison was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. However, thanks to conservation efforts including the establishment of protected ranges and the initiation of captive breeding programs, the population has rebounded to several hundred thousand.

California Condor

The California condor, the largest North American land bird, was down to just 27 individuals in 1987 due to lead poisoning, habitat loss, and poaching. A controversial captive breeding program was initiated, and the bird has now been reintroduced into parts of its former range in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. As of 2020, the wild population is over 300 individuals.

Arabian Oryx 

This antelope species was hunted to extinction in the wild by the early 1970s. However, a captive breeding and reintroduction program initiated by the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society of London has successfully restored populations in Oman and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Père David’s Deer 

Native to China, this deer species was declared extinct in the wild by the late 19th century due to overhunting and habitat loss. Fortunately, a few individuals remained in European zoos, allowing for a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program. Today, several thousand Père David’s deer live in a reserve near the species’ original habitat.

The Bald Eagle 

The national bird of the United States, the bald eagle, was on the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states in the early 20th century due to hunting, habitat loss, and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened their eggshells. With the banning of DDT in 1972, protection of nesting sites, and reintroduction programs, the bald eagle populations began to recover. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the U.S. federal list of endangered species.

The Iberian Lynx 

Once widespread across Spain, Portugal, and Southern France, the Iberian lynx was nearly extinct in the early 2000s, due to habitat loss, poaching, and a decline in their main food source, rabbits, due to disease. An intensive conservation program was initiated, including captive breeding and reintroduction, habitat restoration, rabbit population management, and education programs. This has led to a significant recovery of the Iberian lynx population, though it remains critically endangered.

The Whooping Crane 

In the 1940s, there were only about 16 whooping cranes left in the wild due to habitat loss and overhunting. Extensive conservation efforts have been undertaken, including captive breeding, protection of breeding grounds, and the establishment of new populations by teaching young cranes to migrate using ultralight aircraft as ‘surrogate parents.’ The wild population of whooping cranes is now over 500 individuals.

The Mauritius Kestrel

This bird of prey was once considered the world’s rarest bird, with only four known individuals in the wild in 1974. The primary causes of its decline were habitat loss, use of pesticides, and the introduction of predators. A successful captive breeding program was established, along with habitat restoration efforts and the control of predators. The population has since rebounded to a few hundred birds.

Once thought to be extinct, a small population of black-footed ferrets was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. This species was particularly vulnerable due to its dependence on prairie dogs, both for food and as a source of burrows for shelter, and the prairie dog populations were being decimated by disease and poisoning. A captive breeding and reintroduction program was initiated, coupled with efforts to restore prairie dog populations. While still endangered, the black-footed ferret population is now in the hundreds and continues to grow.

Current Challenges 

While strides have been made in the conservation of endangered species, several challenges persist that complicate these efforts. These obstacles span a range of issues, including resource allocation, political and social considerations, scientific understanding, and the wider threat of climate change.

Funding Constraints

Conservation efforts can be expensive, requiring substantial resources for habitat protection and restoration, enforcement of protections, scientific research, and public education campaigns. However, the funds available for such efforts are often limited and fall far short of what is needed.

Competing Land and Resource Use 

Protecting habitats often means limiting the exploitation of land and resources, which can conflict with other interests such as agriculture, logging, mining, fishing, and urban development. Striking a balance between conservation and these interests can be politically and socially challenging.

Limited Political Will and Enforcement 

Even with laws and regulations in place, the protection of endangered species often requires significant political will and effective enforcement. Corruption, lack of political will, and lack of effective enforcement mechanisms can all hinder the successful implementation of conservation measures.

Ecological Complexity and Uncertainty

Conservation efforts can be complicated by incomplete or uncertain scientific understanding. Ecosystems are complex and our understanding of them and the species within them is constantly evolving. Unexpected consequences can occur, and what works in one context may not work in another.

Climate Change 

Climate change is causing shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns, increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and raising sea levels, among other impacts. These changes can threaten habitats and disrupt ecological relationships, and species may not be able to adapt or migrate quickly enough to keep pace with the rapidly changing conditions.

Public Awareness and Engagement 

Widespread public support is critical for successful conservation, but many people are not fully aware of the threats to biodiversity and the importance of conservation. This highlights the need for effective education and engagement strategies.

Invasive Species 

Dealing with invasive species is a significant challenge in conservation. Invasive species can outcompete, prey on, or spread diseases to native species, and once established, they can be extremely difficult and costly to control or eradicate.

Disease

Disease can have major impacts on wildlife, and can be particularly devastating for small, endangered populations. Preventing and managing wildlife disease can be difficult, especially when diseases can spill over from domestic animals or are exacerbated by climate change, habitat loss, or other stressors.

Genetic Issues 

Small, isolated populations can suffer from inbreeding depression, a loss of fitness due to the expression of harmful genetic variations. They can also lose genetic diversity more quickly due to genetic drift, reducing their ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Given the scale and complexity of these challenges, saving endangered species will require a coordinated, comprehensive approach. It will require not just biological knowledge, but also political will, economic resources, and societal engagement. It will also require dealing with wider environmental issues, including climate change and habitat loss.

—–

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.




Leave a Comment