Backed by some of the world’s most influential and pro-active conservation agencies and environmental organizations, a major battle is underway to halt the trafficking of endangered species and address the complex social, cultural and economic issues that drive it.
Jane Goodall, who has spent more than forty years of her life studying chimpanzees, has a list of rare animal species that she likes to read to audiences on her international lecture tours. The list includes animals such as the Californian condor, the whooping crane, and the black robin. The species are totally different, but they have one thing in common. They all bounced back from the brink of extinction.
“The story that I like best is the one about the black robin,” says Goodall, who now acts as a roving UN ambassador, preaching the value of conservation to people of all backgrounds, creeds, and colors. In the early 1980s, there were only two breeding pairs restricted to one island in the Pacific. Today there are forty breeding pairs and numbers are on the increase.
More than just the black robin, the whooping crane, or the chimpanzee, Goodall is fighting for all wild species when she tours the world opening people’s eyes to the environmental destruction taking place around them. It’s her conviction that individuals can and will make a difference that provides a glimmer of hope for some of Asia’s most endangered wildlife.
‘You have to be positive’, she says with a quiet resolution that belies her seventy years of age. ‘People have the power to change the world. Habitats that have been destroyed can be rescued. Culture can be changed. Everyone can contribute a little something whether by donating money or by giving up some of their time to support conservation work.’
In the battle to save Asia’s dwindling wildlife populations, raising public awareness about the plight of nature, pressuring governments to take action, and penalizing companies or countries with poor environmental records are all vital steps that must be taken. But the most critical of all is to identify and save the last remaining centers of biodiversity while they still exist. It’s something akin to guarding Noah’s Ark. Animals are finite. Once the last Javanese rhino or snow leopard is gone, it will be too late, barring unproven acts of scientific wizardry, to bring them back.
Indeed the real issues are these: how badly do we want to preserve the world’s most endangered species, and at what cost are we prepared to do so? According to the influential Washington-based Conservation International, it would cost U.S.$23 billion per year for the next ten years to create and effectively police the number of protected areas necessary to maintain current wildlife populations around the world. That may sound like a lot, but it is less than half what America spends each year on soft drinks. Or seen another way, it is around 2 percent of what governments spend annually on supporting agricultural production, energy use, road transportation and commercial fisheries.
Aaron Bruner, who works at Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, has little doubt about the long-term value of such an investment. ‘Protected areas are the cornerstone of conservation efforts worldwide’ he says. ‘Areas of irreplaceable biological importance will be lost if we do not act soon’.
Realistically, however, it’s going to take a lot more than money to solve the problems of illegal logging, deforestation, and the plunder of the wild. Billions of dollars are spent every year on the war against drugs. Yet the trafficking of cocaine or heroin remains at horrifying levels and drug addiction is present in every society. The reason is simple. Enforcement alone does not address the root causes such as poverty, social injustice, and ignorance.
Many Asian people eat wildlife because they have done so for generations and because they do not know it is wrong. But habits change and cultures evolve. Even in the most remote areas of China, Western medicine is making inroads, banishing the bizarre superstitions that spur much of the consumption of animal parts. Children are growing up with a new understanding of the value of nature thanks to programs funded by local and international conservation organizations and governments. Take the process one step further and there is a glimmer of hope. If there were no buyers of ivory, tiger skins, or rhino horns, poachers would no longer find it profitable to kill these animals.
‘Education, education, education’, says Andy Fisher, head of the wildlife division at Britain’s Metropolitan Police. ‘People must realize that if they buy an endangered animal, they are contributing to its extinction.’
Fortunately, despite Asia’s rapidly growing population and dwindling resources, there are many organizations and individuals making a difference. Vo Quay, the man fondly referred to as the ‘father of conservation’ in Vietnam, is racing against time to confront these gargantuan issues. He knows that the solution to the wildlife problem is as much a question of improving the lot of villagers, as it is direct enforcement and less corrupt government. And he is doing what he can, given the country’s limited funds, to tackle problems head on. ‘We try to educate the people at every level and to reduce the poverty of people living near the forests,’ he says. ‘But it will take at least five or ten years to achieve this goal.’
The people of Pangasinan, a small, central Philippine province, tell a simple story. In this story, each generation merely borrows the world‚Äôs forests and myriad birds and animals from its descendants. As such, it is the duty of every man and woman to pass on this precious gift to their children in the same state that they receive it.
But in a world already stripped of much of its forests and wildlife by greed and over-consumption, such ancient wisdom is insufficient to solve the deep-seated problems. ‘We need to do more than act as custodians,’ says Goodall. ‘We desperately need to save what is left of the natural world and to heal the wounds. We must do it for our children.’
And that’s the bottom line. The potential to solve the current crisis is now in our hands. There are realistic and achievable solutions, but we must act. If we don’t, future generations will inherit a world without forests and wildlife, a world subject to untold natural calamities. Time is running out.