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?
The ones you know
Fewer than 2,500 mature, wild giant pandas are left on Earth today. They live in central China in bamboo thickets and in coniferous forests in the high mountains. In 1961, the World Wildlife Fund® made this animal its symbol. Today, the trademark black-and-white bear with the “WWF” text is probably the most recognized universal logo for the conservation movement itself.
And if you grew up anytime before the 1980s, chances are that frogs played some part in your childhood. We heard them croak down by the rivers, saw them jump away from us on our explorations of neighboring woods, and recognized the “ribbit” that emanated from the longer grass in our lawns. Perhaps you and your elementary school classmates even kept one in a classroom terrarium. But something strange started happening three decades ago. They began to disappear all over the world.
No one knows exactly why.
The ones you don’t
But just as surely as we are losing our frogs and pandas, we’re losing our vaquitas, a small porpoise endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California. Vaquitas are the world’s tiniest and most endangered small marine cetacean. There are only about 245 individuals left in the world. Every year, 40 to 80 of these porpoises are killed in trawl and gill nets used in both hobby and commercial fishing. Added to that threat is habitat degradation caused by the damming of the Colorado River. Today, vaquitas face almost imminent extinction.
Habitat loss is also contributing to the demise of the bonobo, a chimpanzee-like ape found only in the Congo Basin rainforests of the central Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers are also taking a hit because of bush-meat hunters. Some say we’ll soon lose the last individuals of a species that could be our closest relatives. Bonobos exhibit remarkably different social behavior than chimpanzees. Unlike the combative chimps, the bonobos’ social interactions emphasize peacemaking, a trait in the animal kingdom that is rare, and one we could all learn much from.
If tomorrow you were to find out that the world’s vaquitas and bonobos were gone, would you feel their loss as much as you would the disappearance of polar bears, giant pandas or frogs? Can you miss a species you never knew about? After all, how much do you really miss the dodo bird or the passenger pigeon?
Traveling the trails,
Feature photo: Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews