You Can Be the Solution for Endangered Species

Ten years ago, the United States Congress declared the first observance of Endangered Species Day -- an opportunity to turn our national attention to the wildlife and wild places that need our help the most. Today, we ponder what our planet might look like if America's most threatened flora and fauna disappeared forever, and take time to consider our responsibility in the fight for wildlife conservation.

While Endangered Species Day celebrates the victories of some of our nation's most treasured wildlife -- such as the American bald eagle, or the grizzly bear -- our efforts to protect animals should not stop short of our borders. Our earth's ecosystems are vastly complex and interconnected, far beyond anything you or I could imagine. What happens to one of us affects all of us.

I work to save the lemurs of Madagascar, the world's most critically threatened mammals, if not its most endangered species. Though Madagascar may seem like a world away, we're literally family as lemurs are humanity's oldest living relatives. Unfortunately, their numbers are too low and our fight continues to protect against their forest habitat being slashed and burned for farming, or destroyed for luxury timber like rosewood.

As I was finishing up my doctorate in primatology in the '80s, I knew I wanted to study the playful and mysterious lemurs. I envisioned myself deep in the forest, recording observations in a notebook, a dutiful scientist. But when I finally got to Madagascar, I saw a very different reality.

I saw lots of poverty, and lots of suffering. I saw people cutting down the forest and hunting the lemurs not out of spite or cruelty, but because they needed to make a living or feed their family. It was then that I realized I couldn't just be a scientist, I needed to be a conservationist. I needed to not only observe animals, but I needed to advocate for them. And I needed to help others be the solution for lemurs.

In Madagascar, that meant providing people with basic access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. It meant garnering a greater public awareness about the plight of lemurs, and the consequences if they became extinct. It meant making the conservation a more valuable pursuit than destruction. Our campaign to change hearts and minds continues, but we are seeing positive changes. In fact, we've seen a 50 percent decrease in deforestation in Ranomafana -- the country's first and largest national park -- in just five years.

This past fall, Madagascar celebrated the first-ever World Lemur Festival, bringing international attention to these magnificent creatures, which can only be found on this African island country. The celebration was particularly significant, as more and more Malagasy recognize that lemurs -- and the ecotourism industry flourishing in their habitat -- are a major economic asset. Much of the progress can be attributed to simple public awareness. In just one year, lemurs were featured in the IMAX film Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, they closed the New York Stock Exchange, and they joined me as I was honored as the winner of the Indianapolis Prize, which recognizes successful, sustainable conservation models.

It's been a very good year for lemurs, but more can be done for them and for other endangered species. Regardless of where you live - whether it's Madagascar or Manhattan - you can be the person who inspires powerful change. With energy, enthusiasm and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, you can make your community -- and our world -- a better place to live.

Your involvement could take the form of supporting a conservation organization financially or through volunteering, advocating for smart conservation policies at the state, federal and international level or encouraging young people to pursue careers in the field. Taking any of those actions would make you a hero for a threatened species, among the ranks of the professional conservationists that are protecting animals around the globe.

We need your talent, your passion and -- most importantly -- your hope for endangered species, starting today. More heroes are needed for our animals, for our planet and for our human legacy. Can we count you on our team?