A friend once asked me, “How far do you go to save an endangered species?’
Depends on what you think the species is worth. Like all issues of conservation, this is one of economics, ecology and ethics.
Since we tend to value our money, everyone wants to know how much it will cost to save the species. The record so far is held by the California condor.
The condor population had been falling precipitously for years, in spite of all efforts to save it. In 1982 there were only 22 condors left in the wild and a controversial decision was made to trap the birds and breed them in captivity. The last of the wild birds was collected five years later.
Biologist launched an intensive breeding program. Condors lay only one egg, but removing the egg from the nest often resulted in a second and third egg. At first the chicks were fed by puppets to keep them from imprinting on humans, and the adults were trained to avoid perching on power lines and eating out of garbage cans.
In 1992 the first condors were reintroduced to their natural environment in California, and some birds were released in the Grand Canyon five years later. By 2017 the total population had risen to 463.
The initial cost of saving the condors ran over 32 million dollars, most of which came from private donations.
And so, we still have condors in spite all the biologists had to overcome. But the birds still face some of the same threats that nearly drove them to extinction. During the course of reintroduction, five condors were shot and killed by vandals.
It’s hard to place a dollar amount on any species, but a team of scientists and economists once put the total value of services provided by the living environment at $33 billion a year. In 1997 that was more than twice the gross national product of all the countries in the world.
Those services include everything that supports our existence, from the regulation of the atmosphere to the formation of soil, the purification of water, the pollination of crops and the production of food.
Aside from its economic value, every species is also important ecologically. Each one has a role to play in the ecosystem, but not all are created equal. The big players are called keystone species, and losing them can send a ripple though the whole community.
Extinction is a normal part of evolution, what is not normal is the sudden increase in the rate of extinction. According to one estimate, 5,000 species are being lost in the tropical rain forest every year. Amphibians are disappearing up to 45,000 times faster than the background rate and the extinction rate of other groups is not lagging far behind.
Scientists call this event “the sixth extinction,” because the current extinction rate is similar to that of the five mass extinctions in the past. Only this time humans are causing the great die-off, namely through population growth, pollution, climate change, loss of habitat and over-harvesting of animals.
There are just over two million known species, with an estimated eight million more that remain to be discovered. That means many species are going extinct before we can even put a name on them.
All these species, known and unknown, contain a vast resource which we have mined to the benefit of our health and well-being. Plants have already given us a whole pharmacopoeia of medicines, and they contain thousands of chemicals that have yet to be analyzed.
Who knows what is being lost when a single species goes extinct — what possibilities for research, what genetic improvements in crops, what new antibiotics, what future cures for cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s?
The biosphere is the earth’s life-support system. It is made of a complex network of parts, each one with a job to do. But the parts are disappearing. The question is, how many parts can we lose before the whole system collapses? And how will that affect our own chance of survival?
Saving endangered species is important to us in many ways, but it is about more than money, medicine and the ecosystem. It’s about building little monuments of hope on the rubble of a calamity we created. It’s about saving our dignity and shaping a vision for the future.
When we lose that, says E. O. Wilson, we lose “part of what it means to be a human being.”
A few years ago, we stopped by the Grand Canyon on a trip through the Southwest. We had been there before but this was the first time we saw the condors. They were soaring along the south rim, swooping right down to the crowd of sight-seers, their black wings spanning a full 9 feet and looking bigger than life.
What a joy it was to see this rare bird, rescued from the brink of extinction and flying free again in its natural habitat.
The canyon lay before me in all its impressive depth and breadth and beauty, but that day I was more impressed with the condors. I was just glad that someone thought they were worth saving.
Richard Weber is a nature
enthusiast living in Ellis County.