On the Brink of Extinction: A Closer Look at Endangered Species : "Extinction of INTEREST"!? (Pics) -


On the Brink of Extinction: A Closer Look at Endangered Species

Posted by Jordan Carlton Schaul of Wildlife SOS on April 5, 2013

Many naturalists and certainly most birding aficionados are well aware that the last passenger pigeon died in 1914 while in residence at the Cincinnati Zoo.  And I regretfully acknowledge that the last wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900 in my home state of Ohio. The Zoo’s passenger pigeon known as “Martha” was only presumed to be the last alive of her kind before the species was deemed to be extinct. But we haven’t seen any since.

Can you imagine looking at the last member of an entire species? In many ways Martha’s saga characterizes the fate of other wildlife species in North America and certainly overseas and in the oceans.  Fortunately, humans intervened in hopes of preventing loss of more wildlife, but we still managed to lose the following species of North American birds: the Carolina parakeet (a few years later), ivory billed woodpecker, Bachman’s warbler, the heath hen, and the dusky seaside sparrow. All are gone.

Once again, I turned to my esteemed colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins, this time to discuss regulation and protection as it pertains to endangered species.  Policy regarding imperiled wildlife is extensive and complicated, but usually founded on sound conservation science.  Here is our 7th interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins:

Jordan: Can you talk more about the Lacey Act and the provisions it offers imperiled wildlife species? Can you address subsequent laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, that dictate the management of threatened and endangered wildlife in North America?

Javan rhino (Nat Geo)
Michael: The Lacy Act, named after Congressman John F. Lacy, an Iowa Republican that introduced the bill, was passed in 1900 and signed into law by President William McKinley in May of that year. The Lacy Act halted an unregulated commercial trade in wildlife (“market hunting”)  that was threatening many U.S. species during the early part of the 20th century ( The Lacey Act protects both plants and wildlife by creating civil and criminal penalties for a wide array of violations. More specifically, it prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold.  One of the primary things it did was to prohibit the transport of wildlife across state lines for commercial purposes.  The law is still in effect, although it has been amended several times to include other relevant topics, such as the introduction of injurious wildlife.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 is the most important piece of legislation facilitating endangered species conservation in the U.S. The Act is administered by two federal agencies, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The ESA was not the first attempt by the U.S. government to protect endangered species (; however, it has been the most effective. The Act mandates a continually updated list of threatened species—those experiencing a downward population trend—as well as endangered species—those facing extinction in the near-term. Once a species is listed, the ESA mandates development of a recovery plan to increase the species’ population to a sustainable level. In addition, powerful legal tools, including penalties and civil suit provisions, are available to aid the recovery of the species and the protection of its habitat. Biologists consider habitat loss to be the single most important cause of extinction, so it is not surprising that the ESA provides that: “if a species is listed, the appropriate Secretary must designate critical habitat areas where the species is currently found or which might provide additional habitat for the species’ recovery.”  Designating critical habitat, as well as accounting for the potential impact of land use on a species, requires a complex balancing of environmental versus economic factors. Although the ESA is often considered the most successful piece of environmental legislation ever developed, it remains highly controversial, particularly on the question of balancing economic development and species survival. Indeed, critics claim that the ESA is often inflexible in mandating the protection of every species regardless of other considerations. (

Jordan: As a case study, the African elephant was listed in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 1976 and subsequently as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1978.  And in 1988, the U.S. African Elephant Conservation Act was passed. The species has been re-listed in CITES Appendices II and I and moved back to III at one point according to population recovery and declines. Using the African elephant as an example, can you tell us a bit about how these regulatory laws are implemented and if they are considered effective means for helping to manage African elephant populations?

Giant panda (Nat Geo)
Michael: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES is an important international agreement that seeks to limit the impact of global trade on the world’s threatened and endangered species ( The effectiveness of such international agreements is, however, dependent on many things. First, all participating governments and their regulatory agencies must agree to participate and comply with the rules.  Second, the regulations must be successful in actually shutting down illegal trade of the wildlife in question and punish those that violate international law.  That is why CITES has met with only limited success. In the case of African elephants, there is no question that the system is failing (; A near record number of elephants, particularly forest elephants (, were killed by poachers in the past year to fuel a lucrative trade in ivory, particularly in China and South East Asia (;;;  That being said, at the most recent Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, Thailand, CITES warned several African and Asian nations that they were not doing enough to enforce regulations and threatened them with sanctions (  Some Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, have taken independent actions to try to strengthen regulatory efforts (  Unfortunately, the illegal wildlife trade is much like the illegal drug trade—when the economic incentives are greater than the perceived risk of capture and punishment, then some people will break the law. Often, despite the best efforts of regulators, there exists an underground trade in wildlife that is difficult to stop.  This is especially true in developing countries that often lack an effective regulatory infrastructure, or where corruption, or political and social chaos opens opportunities for poachers ( Similarly, U.S. laws, which govern trade in ivory, including the Endangered Species Act of 1973 ( and African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989 ( have not stopped the flow of illegal ivory into the country. A study conducted in 2004 suggested that the U.S. was still one of the major destinations for illegal ivory ( There have even been problems with the illegal sale of elephant ivory on e-bay and Google (;

So, what is the answer given the urgency of the situation? The ultimate solution would be twofold: (1) to totally stop poaching in elephant range countries; and (2) to greatly increase the penalties for violation of national and international laws governing the trade in elephant ivory. Some African nations are taking this threat to their natural heritage very seriously, engaging their militaries to chase down poachers and either capture or, if necessary, kill them (;;;   New technologies are also aiding in the fight against poachers including smart phone applications (, DNA sequencing of elephant ivory to determine its origin (, and even aerial surveillance drones ( Developed countries need to assist in these efforts and the United States, among others, has pledged financial and diplomatic support for anti-poaching efforts (

Wildlife tourism can also play a role. Having tourists and guides in African national parks and equivalent reserves makes it difficult for poachers to operate without detection. Tourism also provides a huge economic incentive for African governments to take conservation seriously ( and this is precisely why many are now having their militaries intervene in anti-poaching efforts. On the other hand, too many tourists can be a problem too. Low cost, high volume tourism has been recognized as a possible threat to African wildlife and their habitats (

Atlantic halibut (Nat Geo)
Lowering the real or perceived economic value of elephant ivory, which the Chinese call “white gold”, may prove to be difficult.  In Asia, art objects made out of elephant ivory are a cultural tradition.  Confiscation of illegal ivory may increase the cost of obtaining it, but may also make the commodity even rarer, thus increasing rather than lowering its value.  The best disincentive for ivory consumers would be to be caught and end up in jail and/or to be levied a significant fine (  If the personal costs of dealing in ivory or being an ivory consumer were higher, then it might tip the balance and make the commercial trade in ivory a perceived liability, rather than a benefit (e.g.,; This means that participating CITES nations must get serious about enforcement.  Unfortunately, many Asian countries have serious problems with corruption, thus making it difficult to gain compliance (  In 2011, China even allowed travelers to Zimbabwe to carry up to 22 pounds of carved ivory products home as “souvenirs” in their luggage, a policy that sends a very mixed message to consumers.

Jordan: Zoos have emerged as conservation breeding centers and as the former Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums you developed and advanced many of the breeding programs for endangered species in US zoos, programs that have been replicated around the world. Can you talk about how these programs help save wildlife species of concern?

Michael: Although the ability of captive breeding programs to contribute to endangered species conservation is limited, there have been some important successes. What are the limitations? As you have noted, there are thousands of species at risk of extinction and zoos have limited space in which to house them and, in many cases, limited knowledge of their husbandry and care (Hutchins, M., Wiese, R., and Willis, K. 1995. Strategic collection planning: Theory and practice. Zoo Biology 14(1): 5-25).   In addition, the survival of endangered species is dependent on there being sufficient habitat to support them. That being said, some species have been brought back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding and reintroduction. In the U.S., the first successful captive breeding and reintroduction program was for the American bison ( Survival of the highly endangered black-footed ferret, a unique member of the weasel family, was entirely dependent on a captive breeding program, cooperatively managed and implemented by accredited zoos, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various state wildlife agencies (  Similarly, neither the highly endangered California condor nor whooping crane would not have survived if it were not for scientifically-managed captive breeding and reintroduction programs (;  Internationally, some examples of species that still exist due to captive breeding and reintroduction programs include Przewalski’s  horse (, the Kihansi spray toad ( ) and Arabian oryx (

African elephant (Nat Geo)
Should captive breeding for reintroduction be the primary means of addressing extinction risk? No, because of its limitations, cost and other factors, captive breeding is typically a last resort option for endangered species recovery. That being said, it certainly has its place and despite having its critics, has been successful in bringing selected species back from the brink. It is critical, however, that careful thought be given to which species might profit from captive breeding and reintroduction and which might not. Habitat conservation is still the most critical factor in determining the fate of threatened and endangered species.

Jordan: The World Conservation Union (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) publishes a peer reviewed Red List, which classifies species as to their risk of extinction. Today there are over 3,050 endangered wildlife species on the Red List, about 900 more than were listed in 1998.  Can you tell us more about the World Conservation Union and its role in global species conservation?

Kirtland’s warbler (USFWS)
Michael: Founded in 1948, IUCN-The World Conservation Union is the world’s largest consortium of governmental and non-governmental organizations focused on nature conservation ( It represents a network of over 1,200 organizations and 11,000 professionals working on various aspects of nature conservation. One of the organization’s key roles has been to assess the status of the globe’s endangered fauna and flora known as the “Red List.” Criteria for listing have changed over time. In the past, listings were based on trends in global trade or loss of habitat and a number of other factors. They were basically educated guesses. Today’s criteria are considerably more quantitatively based (

Another way that IUCN contributes to wildlife conservation in through its Species Survival Commission (SSC).(  SSC members are deployed in more than 120 Specialist Groups, Red List Authorities and Task Forces. Some groups address conservation issues related to particular groups of plants, fungi or animals while others focus on topical issues, such as reintroduction of species into former habitats or wildlife health.  Group members include topical experts, field conservationists, government agency personnel and others.  I have served on two of these groups:  Invasive Species and Captive Breeding.  Specialist groups engage in cooperative planning for conservation and its members and their organizations undertake on-the-ground conservation actions. Technical guidelines produced by the SSC provide guidance concerning a wide variety of conservation-related activities, such as reintroducing animals into their former ranges, handling confiscated wildlife, and halting the spread of invasive species.

Jordan: We talk about biological hot spots—essentially areas rich in faunal diversity. Can you tell us about these interesting and important zoogeographic regions of the world in terms of past, present, and future distributions of wildlife populations, with particular emphasis on currently endangered species?

Delacour lemur (Nat Geo)
Michael: Yes, there are certain geographic areas of the world that are especially high in biological diversity and endemism. Conservationists have argued that we should focus our attention on these areas if we want to preserve some semblance of nature in a world dominated by human influences. Since resources for conservation are limited, this strategy is seen as a way to conserve as much biodiversity as possible. The original concept of hotspots was proposed by conservation biologist Norman Myers in 1988.   At that time, he identified 10 tropical forest “hotspots” based on exceptional levels of plant endemism and significant levels of habitat loss. In 1990, Myers added eight additional hotspots, including four Mediterranean-type ecotypes.  To qualify as a hotspot, Myers stated that the region in question must meet two strict criteria: (1) it had to contain at least 1,500 species of endemic vascular plants (> 0.5% of the world’s total), and (2) it had to have lost at least 70% of its original habitat. The idea was revisited by Conservation International in 1999 (; That analysis identified 34 key regions globally, which hold at least 150,000 plant species as endemics, (50% of the world’s total). The total number of terrestrial vertebrates endemic to the hotspots is 11,980 (42% of all terrestrial vertebrate species.  Overall, it was found that 22,022 terrestrial vertebrate species call the hotspots home (77% of the world’s total). In assessing the value of the hotspots concept, Conservation International has stated that, “…hotspots provide us with the real measure of the conservation challenge. Unless we succeed in conserving this small fraction of the planet’s land area, we will lose more than half of our natural heritage.”

Jordan:  What are, in your opinion, the five most significant threats to biodiversity in our contemporary world? Will the effects of climate change likely impact the classifications for many species in the near future in your opinion?

Michael: The major factors driving wildlife towards extinction vary from species to species and ecosystem to ecosystem.  In general, however, I would rank the following five factors as being the major drivers: (1) Habitat loss: Wildlife cannot survive in the absence of their natural habitats. Loss of habitat is directly due to an ever-growing human population converting land to their own uses; (2) Climate change: The production of greenhouse gases is warming our planet and altering weather patterns, habitats and wildlife phenology. Its impact on wildlife has already begun and is expected to be catastrophic. It will certainly impact the status of many species both in the near and distant future and will undoubtedly lead to extinctions (; (3) Invasive species:  Our movement of wildlife, domestic animals, and diseases around the world is highly problematic for native species (; (4) Pollution:  Our dumping of toxic substances and other refuse (e.g., plastic in our oceans), byproducts of our industrialized society, is threatening many species by interfering with their reproductive biology or causing significant mortality; and (5) Nature deficit disorder and lack of funding for conservation: As humans become more and more concentrated in urban and suburban settings, they are losing their connection to nature. This will make it more difficult to make effective science-based decisions about wildlife management and conservation ( In addition, this loss of connection, combined with other economic factors, may also make it more difficult to obtain the significant funds it will take to recover endangered species or their habitats (; Hutchins, M., Eves, H. and Mittermeier, C. 2009. Fueling the conservation engine: Where will the money come from to drive fish and wildlife management and conservation. Pp. 184-201 in Manfredo, M.J. et al. (eds.) Wildife and Society: The Science of Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: Island Press). This is especially true in an uncertain economy. There are many other factors contributing to species endangerment (over-exploitation, emerging diseases, human-wildlife conflict), but in my opinion, the ones I have listed above are the top five.

Jordan: What is involved with planning for endangered species recovery?  What kinds of considerations are particularly important?

Michael: Planning is a critical aspect of conservation and a prelude to any serious recovery effort. In the U.S., much of this planning is done by teams of experts sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such ‘recovery teams’ consist of a wide range of relevant experts, ranging from biologists, to veterinarians to sociologists. During planning, these teams consider a wide a variety of factors, some of the most important are the original reasons for why the species is in trouble. If the reasons for endangerment cannot be identified or addressed, then the species is a poor candidate for recovery. In 1995, I organized and moderated a series of three meetings in Denver, CO on black-footed ferret recovery.  The black-footed ferret is one of North America’s most endangered mammals. Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the purpose of these meetings was to review the existing ferret recovery plan and to lay out a path forward. At the time, there was much infighting among those involved in recovery and many problems that had cropped up since the first recovery plan had been developed. Participants in the meetings included all of the major players in black-footed ferret recovery, as well as scientists that had been involved in other recovery programs. The document produced (Hutchins, M. and Wiese, R. 1995. Black-footed Recovery Plan: Analysis and Action Plan. Silver Spring, MD: American Zoo and Aquarium Association) made a number of specific recommendations for moving the program forward. Most of the plan was eventually accomplished, including the development of a vaccine for plague and the addition of several new reintroduction sites. Consequently, there are now more ferrets living in nature than in captivity.  This was an excellent example of the role of cooperative planning in endangered species recovery.  Without a plan, biologists and others working towards endangered species recovery are flying blind and have no way to evaluate the success of their programs (

Jordan: What are some important species that you fear may soon become extinct with or without more intensive management or other intervention?

Michael: There are many species that are already rare, have limited distribution, or that have rapidly declining populations, and thus could be considered at high risk of extinction.  Large carnivores, in particular, are having a very difficult time due to loss of habitat and conflict with humans. Although they are doing comparatively well in India (, there are only around 3,200 wild tigers left in the world ( . African lion populations have been decreasing steadily; Kenyan wildlife officials recently suggested that, if current trends continue, the species may only persist for another two decades (

Elephants and rhinos are other large mammals that have recently been hammered by the illegal trade in wildlife. The forest elephant has been particularly hard hit and may be headed toward extinction. It is estimated that over 60% of the extant population has been killed within the past decade (  The West African black rhino was recently declared extinct ( and rhinos throughout Africa have been experiencing heavy levels of poaching, thus placing them at greater risk (  The Javan rhino, with fewer than 50 individuals surviving—all in Ujung Kulon National Park in western Java—has been at serious risk of extinction for some time. A smaller population in Vietnam was recently declared extinct ( The Sumatran rhino is also highly threatened with less than 100 individuals estimated to exist (
There is great cause for concern for many species of bats and amphibians whose numbers are rapidly declining due to the deadly white-nose syndrome and chytrid fungus (;

Jordan: Recent advances in genomics may allow the “de-extinction” of some species, such as the passenger pigeon, Tasmanian wolf and wooly mammoth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Loggerhead sea turtle (Nat Geo)
Michael: This is currently a hot topic in the conservation world (, largely influenced by the recent announcement that Australian scientists have successfully cloned embryos of the extinct mouth-brooding frog (  This concept, of course, was made famous by the Jurassic Park movies.  In those fictional accounts, living dinosaurs were produced from DNA recovered from mosquitoes preserved in amber. Now the possibility that this fictional story could become a reality is being touted by some scientists as a means to bring back extinct species.  The idea of bringing back extinct animals is highly controversial. Proponents argue that many species are “bodily but not genetically extinct” and that they could be revived using new developments in genetic technology (  They contend that we would revive species for the same reasons that we fight to conserve currently endangered species: that is, to preserve biodiversity.  They also suggest that species resurrections would be good public relations for conservation and that we would, in some cases, develop a better understanding of why certain species went extinct in the first place.

Conversely, critics point out that for many resurrected species there would be no suitable habitat in which to place them.  In addition, they are concerned that de-extinction sets up an unrealistic expectation that biotechnology can repair the significant damage we are doing to earth’s flora, fauna and ecosystems.   ( ;–deextinction-conservation-animals-science-extinction-biodiversity-habitat-environment/).

In my opinion, scientists should give careful thought to this idea. Just because it is possible to do something, doesn’t mean that it ought to be done.  There may be some room for compromise between opponents and proponents.  I could certainly see value in resurrecting recently extinct animals, such as the mouth-brooding fog and Tasmanian wolf, if indeed it were technologically possible (which in many cases is highly questionable).  However, I question the wisdom of producing long-extinct creatures, such as mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths or cave bears. Indeed, ecology is all about context and for these long-extinct creatures, the context has changed. Is it right for us to recreate long-extinct creatures just so that we can gawk at them, especially if there is no way that they will or should be reintroduced back into nature?  Indeed, this seems like something that P.T. Barnum would have loved, but which has little utility for modern conservation.  Shouldn’t we be expending our limited time and resources trying to conserve what we have left, rather than trying to recreate past faunal assemblages?  I had the same feeling about the so-called  “rewilding” movement, which sought to recreate North America’s Pleistocene fauna by introducing animals such as elephants, lions, camels and tapirs to the landscape ( Of course, these modern species are not equivalent to their ancient cousins, causing critics of the proposal to label it as “Frankensteinian ecology” (Olivera, L.G.R., and Fernandez, F.A.S. 2010. Pleistocene rewilding: Frankenstein ecosystems and an alternative conservation agenda. Conservation Biology 24: 4-6).  It will be interesting to see where these discussions go as modern genetic technology continues to evolve.

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