Saving Biodiversity Key To Our Survival, Too
“Bird maker, bush maker, tree maker, water maker, animal maker, people maker.” This was the response of Chris, an elementary school student, when he was asked to name 25 jobs of the future. He had chosen jobs that had more to do with survival than with professional fulfillment. His response created a grim vision that many young people today see as their world of tomorrow.
Many young people are frightened by the encroaching threats to the physical world that they see around them. They know we are losing precious plants, animals, and natural areas day by day. Their responses tend to have a kind of hopelessness about them.
But some students are activating. They are establishing environmental clubs in their high schools, and college students are focusing their energies on environmental issues in local and national elections. Just like their counterparts in the early 1970s at the first Earth Day, they are trying to raise the awareness of all Americans about environmental issues.
Do you have reason for concern? Is the natural world we depend on slipping away? Or are fears merely being fanned by sensational media attention to isolated environmental incidents?
Variety Is the Spice of Life
The variety, or biodiversity, of our world has evolved over millions of years. An intricate web of life has been woven in which species and their natural world are interdependent. Today, biologists say we must also think of biodiversity in terms of endangered habitats and ecosystems, in addition to individual endangered species.
Conservation biologist Larry Harris, author of the Fragmented Forest, notes that ther is genetic biodiversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. When we lose a species, we lose the gene pool or genetic biodiversity within the organism that allows it to evolve to meet new environmental challenges. We also lose the potential for a higher quality of life.
Many powerful medicines developed from plants have enhanced human survival. To date, only 5 percent of the world’s plant species have been investigated for their pharmaceutical applications, according to The Nature Conservancy.
We lose species diversity when we tamper with an area that holds many different forms of wildlife. On the Galapagos Islands, for example, in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of South America, the sheer number of different animals is astounding. Charles Darwin, a pioneering biologist of the 19th century who identified species evolution, found hundreds of different birds and lizard species there.
Balance of Survival
In our world, each animal had carved out a niche in the ecosystem. Predators and prey had evolved to keep the natural world of animal and plant populations in balance. Disturbing this delicate balance impacts the entire food chain.
Wolves used to roam much of the United States. They kept other animal populations in check, preying on deer and small mammals. Today, wolves have nearly disappeared, and the deer population is so overabundant that the animals trample and overbrowse nature preserves.
Other species that depend on the plants found there for food have begun to disappear. Humans have had to intervene, shooting or removing the deer to control the imbalance.
A healthy environment consists of all three types of biodiversity–genetic, species, and ecosystem–as well as the nutrient, water, and fire cycles that keep it viable.
Species Loss Mounts
Today, there are 639 threatened or endangered plants and animals in the United States alone. Endangered species are those that have become so rare they are in danger of extinction. Threatened species are plants and animals experiencing declining numbers that could soon be endangered.
California alone has 900 endangered native species within its own borders. And many states haven’t yet tallied their losses. Wildlife biologists estimate that the numbers of threatened and endangered insects and invertebrates, like mussels and crayfish, will reach the hundreds of thousands.
In the world’s tropical rain forests, a total of 50,000 species could become extinct each year with the cutting down of forests. Biologists estimate that the world is losing three species every day.
Closer to home, these well-known species are in danger:
* the peregrine falcon, an amazing bird that dives through the air at 200 miles an hour to snatch its prey
* the majestic bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States
How could this have happened? What has led to this problem?
At the turn of the century, there were millions of passenger pigeons in North America. Their flocks could darken the sky for hours. But mass hunting and forest destruction drove the species to extinction. This history is repeated as human population has grown worldwide, and the habitat for both animals and plants has dwindled in response.
In the tropics, the loss of wildlife and vegetation has happened quickly. People in underdeveloped areas are quite poor; they struggle for survival. These people believe, mistakenly, that cutting the rain forest to grow food crops will help their plight. They are unaware that the soils there lose their productivity quickly. The heavy rains (remember these are called rain forests) leach nutrients from the soil.
In many parts of the United States, forests still exist. But in many areas, only small parcels, sometimes as little as 40 acres in size, remain. These fragmented woodlands are far apart, separated by towns and fields in which wildlife cannot survive.
How to Stop This Death
Ultimately, the loss of wildlife species and the intricate web of life on which we all depend can lead to our own decline. As wildlife populations and ecosystems are impacted, they reach a critical point from which there is no turning back. Their loss then affects other parts of the system. The most important first step is to become committed to saving the planet’s biodiversity.
Young people can work with conservation groups to help identify and preserve crucial areas for wildlife. It is also important to build community support for saving wildlife. Concerned students can hold workshops, explain their ideas at town meetings, and write to newspapers and magazines. A simple way to provide wildlife habitat and impact global warming is to develop a project to plant trees.
There are many resources to help people attack the problem. Biologists at nature centers, forest preserves, and at natural resource offices in state capitals understand land preservation issues. They can help landowners change the use of their land, connecting small woodlots to provide a corridor for wildlife to reach larger areas.
On the worldwide front, a United Nations Earth Summit held in Brazil this summer brought countries together to forge agreements for protecting the Earth.
We must enact laws to help preserve large ecosystems, and we must keep existing environmental laws strong throughout the world. Next year, the United States Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization by Congress. Young people can support species and ecosystem preservation by writing to their representatives and senators.
They can also act on the international front by grouping together to buy land in a tropical rain forest to make it part of a national park.
Once people take action, the results can be astonishing. Along the midsection of the Mississippi River not too long ago, only 600 bald eagles fished the waters in winter. But concerted efforts to preserve woodlands along the river and to tell people about the eagles’ habitat needs have paid off. Today, nearly 2,000 bald eagles winter along the Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois borders.
Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and a leader in the formation of the environmental movement, has compared the loss of species to the loss of a few rivets on a jet plane. As losses increase, they threaten the entire craft and all its passengers. All parts of the ecosystem contribute to the biodiversity of life and the survival of our world. And each of us can make a difference.