On Endangered Species Day

Today is Endangered Species Day. Every year for a decade, people across America have spent this day recognizing the plight of endangered species and the need to do all we can to help these imperiled animals (and plants) recover.

Is it enough?

Shouldn't every day be Endangered Species Day? Shouldn't we stop to consider the terrifying risk of a world without elephants, or tigers, or lions, or whales--just once, each and every day, and do at least one thing to help?

Obviously, different people will go to different lengths to save wildlife. My colleagues and I have devoted our professional lives to this pursuit; others make donations or write letters to Congress. We all must commit to doing something!

So, what is an "endangered species?" The U.S. Endangered Species Act defines an "endangered species" as "any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines "critically endangered" as a species "facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future" and "endangered" as facing this risk in the "near future."

Part of the endangered species conundrum is that we humans like to fly as close to the sun as we can before getting burned. We don't always learn from conservation history, so we let the onslaught against wild animals persist until peril ensues... and then we act.

We wait until bald eagle populations plummet before banning DDT; we watch African lion populations drop from 78,500 in 1980 to fewer than 20,000 before halting hunting; we let African elephant carcasses litter the savannah in the 1970s and 1980s, reduced from 1.3 million animals to fewer than half that, before banning the commercial ivory trade.

And then, when species such as the wolf recover, brought back from the brink of extinction... we consider allowing hunting once again. When tigers fall below 4,000, China simply breeds them in captivity to sell their parts, fueling poaching and illegal trade.

It's yo-yo conservation; populations go down, we allow recovery to bring them back up, and then they are targeted again.

Saving cheetahs, and sturgeons, and parrots, and gorillas, and leopards, and markhor, and sea turtles, and whales, and elephants is complex business that requires solutions massive in scale, and thoughtful in their construction and implementation. However, it's a worthwhile investment.

The world is deprived with each species lost. It's deprived by the loss of genetic diversity; deprived by the loss of species that may have a vital role in the ecosystem in which they are meant to thrive; deprived by the lost aesthetic value of a robust and replete environment; and deprived of the potential revenue generated from ecotourism opportunities to see these magnificent creatures.

For the two decades that I've focused on endangered species conservation in Washington, D.C., I've often sat bewildered at the oddity of government policies that don't start with the precautionary principle. Give species the benefit of the doubt. Work to solve conflicts with decisions that benefit people and wildlife. But, letting species disappear--or come perilously close to disappearing--and then scrambling, often at great expense, to save them? It makes zero sense.

On Endangered Species Day, ask yourself one question: do I want to live in a world devoid of Asian elephants and tigers, and can I rest at night letting them disappear, knowing the risk and having the capacity to save them?

Today is Endangered Species Day. It's a good day to commit to doing all you can to save imperiled wildlife all year long. It's the time to support anti-poaching efforts on the ground and legislative policies that prohibit consumption of endangered species parts and products. No one needs turtle shell jewelry or ivory chopsticks.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,