By Werner Fornos
Thousands of visitors to the nation's capital this spring and summer will queue up at the National Zoo to delight in the antics of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, those furry, roly-poly, black and white, recent arrivals from China. But few of the joyous, admiring spectators may realize that these two young giant pandas are among the rarest animals in the world.
Though these fabled, playful, bamboo-chomping creatures have, as one might readily surmise, few natural enemies (the leopard being a notable exception), it is estimated that less than one thousand giant pandas remain in existence.
Found only at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet in dense bamboo and coniferous forests in the> mountains of central China, the giant panda is a prized target of poachers. The lush fur of this popular mammal brings exorbitant prices in the illicit markets of the Far East. Giant panda poachers convicted by the Chinese government face life imprisonment.
But the most ominous threats to these enormously charismatic, thoroughly captivating, though nearly extinct, mammals are habitat encroachment and destruction, resulting mainly from the land and natural resource demands of China's more than one billion inhabitants.
In an effort to protect this rapidly vanishing breed, the Chinese government has designated 11 areas, where bamboo is plentiful and these celebrated animals are known to live, as nature preserves. The plight of the giant panda, however, is only a small part of a considerably larger concern: extinctions of wildlife species today have been compared with the disappearance of the dinosaur some 65 million years ago. Unlike the passing of the great reptiles of the Mesozoic Era, the human species is both a witness to and responsible for the contemporaneous mass extinctions.
Severe penalties for poachers and perpetrators of habitat loss cannot be construed as the solution to maintaining and restoring the world's biological health. While obviously needed, these measures are tantamount to treating the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of a disease.
The underlying causes of the modern mass extinctions can be summed up as follows: rapid population growth in developing countries and over-consumption in the more affluent regions. Ecologists blame recent species losses on the degradation of wildlife habitat by pollution, dredging, felling of trees and other vegetation, over-grazing, plowing under or paving over—all repercussions of rapid population growth. Extinctions are running anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate.
Twenty-seven thousand species are lost each year, according to conservative estimates by the National Wildlife Federation.
Previous mass extinctions of species, such as during the Permian period—some 250 million years ago when 90 percent of the Earth's animal species disappeared—were attributed to their inability to adapt to a changing environment.
Recent species losses are caused by changes resulting from human growth that disrupt the many relationships that link wildlife into ecosystems. Throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa, wildlife are displaced from their natural habitats by urban growth and industrialization. As people in the developing world struggle to earn a livelihood, they directly degrade the environment. Each new child born in an industrialized country has an even greater impact on wildlife population worldwide—the result of natural habitat destruction to make way for expanded suburban housing, highways and shopping malls, and through greater human consumption of oil, minerals, timber and energy sources.
Approximately one in four vertebrate species—mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish and birds—are in serious trouble, according to the Washington, DC-based Worldwatch Institute. In contrast to most species that are unknown and unmonitored, the relatively well-studied vertebrates offer scientists convincing evidence for determining why and how species are declining.
Nearly half of the world's 233 primate species are threatened, largely because of their dependence on vast expanses of tropical forest, a habitat that is threatened throughout the world. Approximately 70 percent of primate species face extinction in regions where there has been severe tropical forest loss, such as the Atlantic rainforest of eastern Brazil, Southeast Asia and Madagascar.
Humans have driven the rhino to the brink of extinction. Only five species of rhinoceros exist today, though there were once dozens of species. All of the five remaining are threatened and most are considered to be in grave danger. In 1960, there were 10,000 black rhinos on the savannas of Africa; today there are less than 2,600. This is a relative abundance compared to what has happened to the Javan rhino. Fewer than 85 exist in the wild in Southeast Asia today, partly because of habitat destruction, but primarily to satisfy the demand for rhino horns that are used in traditional Asian medicines and as decorative dagger handles in the Middle East.
The greatest threat to all of Africa's great apes is the loss of habitat due to agriculture and logging. It is no coincidence that West Central African countries, where many of the remaining gorillas live, have one of the world's highest rates of human population growth.
From Asian and African elephants to the California yellow-legged frog, scores of animal species are threatened with extinction. Every four years, the World Conservation Union, headquartered in Switzerland, publishes a survey on the status of the Earth's plant and animal life. The results of the latest survey, released last fall and called the most comprehensive study of its kind, found more than 11,000 animal and plant species at risk of extinction due to the influence of humans on the environment. The report found 180 types of mammals were in immediate danger of disappearing.
The leading threats to animal life in the world today are no different than the leading threats to the human species: overpopulation, overconsumption, deforestation, desertification and global warming. If, through neglect and greed, Homo sapiens continue to allow one species after another to disappear from the planet, the supposedly most intelligent form of life may be paving the way for its own untimely demise.
Friends of animals everywhere should insist that international population assistance from our government continue to be a high priority so that voluntary family planning may be accessible to the 350 million women worldwide who either do not want to have another pregnancy, did not want their last, or would, at least, prefer longer intervals between pregnancies. —Werner Fornos is the president of the Population Institute, a Washington, DC nonprofit organization dedicated to a more equitable balance between the world's population, environment and resources.