I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.
You could call me an “extinction tourist.”
I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”
But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?
Throughout human history, the sharing and exchange of local food between people of different cultures has cemented social bonds and sealed agreements. Feasts often brought people from far-off places and varying ways of life together.
Today, whether you’re in a friend’s home or visiting a foreign land, partaking of your host’s served meal is considered polite — or, at least, that’s what I have been taught. So, when I recently traveled to Greenland and visited an Inuit community, I happily agreed to taste the traditional foods offered, including raw whale blubber, dried cod and simmered seal stew.
Wanting to share my adventure with friends, I posted a photo of myself eating the uncooked blubber on a social media site. To my surprise, I was met with strong disapproval by an acquaintance who works at an environmental organization.
When traveling, should you indulge in the traditional foods offered, even though eating them may not be “politically correct” in your own country?
When you think of endangered species in this country, struggling to survive in their native habitats, you probably picture them on national park or U.S. Forest Service lands. But according to NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization that tracks wildlife, U.S. Defense Department properties have the highest density of threatened and endangered species of any federal land management agency. The Pentagon states that on average, military lands boast 15 threatened and endangered species per acre — nearly seven times more per acre than on U.S. Forest Service tracts.
Our nation’s military lands, however, are first and foremost dedicated to preparing for armed readiness, meaning that military exercises, such as target practice, are routine. Is this the kind of environment in which we want threatened species to play out their last-ditch efforts for survival?
The image of the woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and dodo bird stepping out of a beaker on the cover of National Geographic’s April issue says it all. Science has found a way to bring back some long-extinct species — or at least, facsimiles of them.
In truth, the goat-like bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, is the only extinct animal scientists have actually revived. In 2003, biologists managed to clone an offspring from frozen skin cells from the last survivor, which died in 2000. The clone, however, lived for only a few minutes after its birth. Since then, advances in cloning technology have made it possible to bring back any species if there is a remnant of DNA.
But with so many habitat pressures on the wild species that are already here and with so many on the brink of extinction, is bringing back those we’ve already lost a good idea?
A new species of lion has recently been discovered, announced the National Geographic Society a few weeks ago. Were the animals caught by camera trap or spotted by a tracker in the remote regions of Africa? No. They were found — in all places — in an Ethiopian zoo. It’s questionable whether any other representatives of this species are alive in the wild today.
All over the world, the struggle to keep endangered species from going extinct is often played out in zoos or in captive breeding centers. The last known Tasmanian tiger lived out its life in a zoo before it died in 1936, giant pandas are being bred in Chinese reserves and whooping cranes are being raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.
Living in zoos or in other places of captivity, however, changes wild animals — sometimes to the point where behaviorally they little resemble their wild counterparts. But is keeping an altered, threatened wild species from going extinct better than losing it altogether?
We could be on the brink of a mass extinction — the Earth’s sixth — according to a paper published last year in the journal Nature. First author Anthony Barnosky, an integrative biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says Earth has experienced five mass extinctions during the past 540 million years, and another extinction could be around the corner. During each of the five previous events, three-quarters or more of the world’s animal species died out. One of the mass extinctions — which occurred 65 million years ago — ended the dinosaurs.
Some say, however, that this isn’t much cause for alarm. Species have always come and gone over long periods of time; and given the five mass extinctions we’ve already had, it’s a natural event. But will this sixth one be a “different animal”?
Whether you’re an avid sportsman or purely a wildlife-watcher, it’s a fact that the animals, birds and fish you endeavor to see are “paid for” mostly by hunters. Those who engage in hunting, fishing and trapping are the major contributors to conservation funds in almost every state. Surprisingly, the monies animal-viewers and birdwatchers donate to conservation efforts rarely add up to even a third or a half of what hunters put into department of natural resources funds — even though watchers greatly outnumber them.
In my own state of Wisconsin, deer-hunting licenses and permits generated $22.7 million in revenue for the department of natural resources in 2010. And in most years, an excise tax on hunting equipment provides an additional $10 million to the state for wildlife management — in one case, supplying $400,000 to study and prepare for the likely arrival of a deadly bat disease. The problem is, however, that the number of hunters — along with anglers and trappers — is declining. And it promises to keep decreasing as the population ages.
So as the economy tightens, causing state and federal budgets for wildlife conservation to continue to be cut, and if younger people are not taking up hunting and fishing, where will future environmental monies come from?
About four years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released a projection report stating that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears would be gone by 2050. Their numbers would plummet, stated the report, due to shrinking summer sea ice caused by greenhouse gases. Since that time, images of polar bears have graced water bottles, T-shirts and tote bags. It’s now widely accepted that Ursus maritimus is the poster child for climate change.
We also know of other species in great peril — mostly because of media attention to them. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and last November the International Tiger Forum was held in St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation. As the world’s first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction, the event received widespread news coverage.
Because their likenesses appear on TV screens and spearhead conservation campaigns, chances are that even if you don’t live in tiger or polar bear habitats — where it would at least be possible for you to run into them during your daily life — you would miss them if they disappeared from our planet. But will you mourn the extinction of other species living today if you’ve never heard of them?
There are more tigers in captivity (such as this one) than there are left in the wild. ©John T. Andrews
There are some statistics that you hear that knock your socks off, and you just can’t quite believe them. You think they’re concocted purely to get attention and for shock value. Here’s one I recently came across that fits that category: There are more tigers in American backyards than there are left in the wild throughout the world.
How could that be?! I wondered. After all, the tiger isn’t even indigenous to the United States! It turns out that there is very little regulation on keeping wild tigers here. And because their body parts are prized in Asian black markets for traditional medicines and folk remedies — and because they are popular subjects for photographers and as college mascots — trafficking in and owning tigers becomes a means of making money.
Anyone who has ever watched a brown bear fish, or an elephant wallow in a water hole, or a curious sea lion come face to face with a snorkeler, knows that one of the highlights of eco-travel is close encounters with wildlife in natural settings.