Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Endangered species

The International Union for Conservation of Nature released the newest list of globally endangered species:
According to the Swiss-based conservation group, known by its acronym IUCN, the number of species classified as being in serious danger of extinction rose [to 16,000] from about 15,500 in its previous "Red List" report, published in 2004.

The list includes one in three amphibians, a quarter of the world's mammals and coniferous trees, and one in eight birds, according to a preview of the 2006 Red List. The full report is published later this week.

The Red List classifies about 40,000 species according to their risk of extinction and provides a searchable online database of the results. The total number of species on the planet is unknown, with 15 million being the most widely accepted estimate. Up to 1.8 million are known today.

People are the main reason for most species' decline, mainly through habitat destruction, according to IUCN.
It's been a while since we discussed endangered species, and I regret that. There's a reason that these discussions always come back to habitat destruction. Most of these species are not endangered for some specific reason, they just live in the wrong place. A city is expanding, a village needs firewood or their old fields are no longer fertile. Fertilizer runs into waterways and making new fields means cutting down forest, or plowing through native prairie.

That's why I argued that we need an Endangered Ecosystems Act to supplement the Endangered Species Act and the IUCN's Red List. The Red List restricts international trade in certain species, but most of the species endangered around the world simply aren't at risk from hunting and trade. Controlling trade in ivory, mahogany, tiger skins, bear gall bladders, or rhino horns helps protect those species. But we need to find a way to allow developing nations to export rubber or corn or taro root without encouraging them to destroy their natural heritage.

That was a lesson this country took a while to learn. Yellowstone could have been turned into a great amusement park, to our nation's detriment. That was a valuable lesson we learned, and one that can be hard to learn and expensive to implement. The United States could be a great leader on this, protecting not just individual species, but habitats at risk, both at home and abroad.