Caught in the Crosshairs

Wildlife Faces the Population Challenge

tigerIn a dark, dense forest along South America’s coast, a man hides behind a large tree, watching and waiting. He has been tracking this particular jaguar for two weeks now, just itching for the right moment. Because of the jaguar’s beautiful sought-after coat, the man can make up to $10,000 in just one kill. While it is illegal to hunt the jaguar because it is listed as an endangered species, lack of enforcement allows the hunter free reign.

Alas, the jaguar’s final moment has arrived. The poacher sees the elusive animal, and pulls the trigger. The 200-pound predator, vital to this fragile ecosystem and to the survival of other species in this region, goes down. While jaguars once roamed thousands of miles of land from the Southwestern United States to Southern Argentina, their range has been reduced by more than 50 percent since 1900. The jaguar – Pantera Onca – is on the verge of extinction.

Hundreds of other animals throughout the world, in countries like India, China — and the United States — are hunted down for profit in a thriving illegal trade of endangered species that uses the animals for traditional medicine, food, ornamental objects, and exotic furs and leathers.

“Poaching is a worldwide problem and impacts wildlife, from box turtles to Siberian tigers, for their bone and everything in between,” said Stephen Sautner of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

According to the World Wildlife Fund, populations of many species, from fish to mammals, have decreased by about a third from 1970 to 2003 —mainly due to pressures driven by humans. Over the past hundreds of years and especially since industrialization, species have been disappearing at a rate unprecedented in history. Although many factors contribute to this phenomenon, human overpopulation is the major factor behind extinction. “The more people you have out there, the more demand for wildlife, food and habitat for wildlife,” Saunter said. “It’s definitely all driven by population numbers. The more people you have, the less space there is and more mouths you have to feed.”

VANISHING WILDLIFE

In the United States and its outlying territories alone, over 2,500 species are listed as endangered and threatened species. And as human population continues to grow in the U.S., reaching up to 420 million by 2050 (as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau), many more species will be added to the list. Even worse, many species already on the list will become extinct.

In other parts of the world, too, decades of poaching have taken its toll on species. Here are just a few instances of areas suffering from poaching and human population pressures:

India & China: The two population giants, comprising almost 37 percent of the world’s population, move towards extinction of one of their own great giants, the tiger. Because the two countries had done little to intervene in the rapid decline of tigers in the wild, trade of poached tigers continues to flourish and go unpunished. Conservationists estimate that the current tiger population could be as little as 2,000 to only a few hundred; if little is done to curb poaching, India will have none left in a few years.

Poached mainly for its skin, flesh, and horns, the four-horned antelope of India has also fallen prey to the endangered list. Persistent poaching caused by the demand for shawls in Europe and North America has caused the antelope population to fall from one million in 1900 to only 150,000. One expert recently announced that if poaching continues at its current rate, the antelope will be extinct within four years.

rhinoAfrica: Poaching for rhino horn remains the primary threat to the nearextinct West African Black and Northern White Rhinos in this populous continent. A recent survey by the World Conservation Union found only four Northern White Rhinos left in the wild and no signs of continued presence of the West African Black Rhino — which has been tentatively declared extinct.

In the southern tip of Africa, abalone poachers make millions of dollars a year in a growing business threatening to wipe out the species. As South African unemployment rates rise, population numbers soar, and as Far East demand for the delicacy has increased, poachers have been willing to risk the stakes to make as much as $57 a pound.

The Philippines: The country’s dense population and widespread poverty (40 percent of the population lives in poverty) has forced natives to participate in the poaching trade of endangered sea turtles. The survival of the turtles — who are poached for their eggs and for turtle soup — is threatened. Currently, about 70 percent of all turtle eggs are collected and sold on the market.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

Why does species extinction matter? Well, the extinction of one species can lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem of species. We know this is true of the tiger — hunt its prey and tigers will disappear. Even removing a large predator will have irreversible effects on a fragile, interconnected ecosystem. Take, for example, the overhunting of Alaska’s otters throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which nearly wiped out the predator of marine invertebrates like sea urchins, clams, snails, and crabs. Without otters, the prey species took over, virtually destroying kelp forests and wiping out countless ecological niches.

Since the largest, slowest breeding species are usually the first to go in these situations, experts predict that extinctions of larger species will herald the extinction of smaller species. But although it is too late for already-extinct species, it is not too late to save the many other species that are still around.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

The first step to developing longterm solutions to the poaching problem is achieving a holistic understanding of the issue including the main factor: Human population growth.

“Any form of hunting, whether legal or illegal, is directly related to human population densities,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bennett. Dr. Bennett, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Hunting and Wildlife Trade Program, well knows how destructive humans can be to animals. She is an expert on the monkeys of Borneo, including the red banded langur (Presbytis melalophos cruciger), of which a population of only 200 remains, and the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), with a population of about 8,000. Both types of monkeys are endangered due to intense logging and hunting — results of unsustainable human population growth.

Bennett has written extensively on wildlife conservation and the perils of human-animal interaction, particularly when rural populations depend on wild animals for their livelihood, resulting in animal extinction. In addition to the problems of Borneo, she pointed out that a “critical problem for India and China’s wildlife is the high human population densities. We are already seeing local extinctions of many species in heavily hunted areas, which are generally those in areas of high human population density, and high levels of market demand for poached animals.

“The detailed formula of what needs to be done varies greatly between areas, depending on who is doing the poaching, how, and why. In all cases, the answer is a combination of education and enforcement, and both are essential,” Bennett said. “If poaching is being done by poor, marginalized people who have no other sources of food or cash, then an additional element to any program has to be the provision of alternatives to meet their basic needs. We know from many case studies that alternatives alone do not prevent poaching, but have to be developed in conjunction with education and enforcement programs.”

While the causes of poaching are many, the underlying challenge is plain: Address human population growth.

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