On Conservation Of Endangered Animal And Plant Species

On Conservation Of Endangered Animal And Plant Species

by V.S. Ravi - Monday, June 27, 2022 07:06 PM IST
On Conservation Of Endangered Animal And Plant SpeciesAn elephant crossing a railway track. (Flickr)
  • The enormity of the challenge and the difficulty of the trade offs inherent in it.

"Creatures of the wild; we patronise them for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves and therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, Fellow prisoners of the splendour and Travail of the earth".

—Henry Beston [From an inscription on a plaque at the entrance of Lusaka international airport, Zambia]

Estimates regarding the rate of destruction of plant and animal species on our planet vary, but most conservationists are inclined to believe that at present mankind is destroying at least one plant or animal species every day, each day of the year and, and if this trend continues, there is a strong possibility of one million of the Earth’s estimated five million to ten million species being wiped out by the year 2030.

No scientist or poet or even layman, would like to see any plant or animal species, no matter how lowly and obscure becoming extinct. This is the sentiment that provides the motivation for all measures undertaken for the conservation of plant and animal life on the planet.

It is however ironical and perhaps even sad that the question is not how to save all these species, we just do not have the resources to save more than a tiny fraction of those that are endangered. The harsh and somewhat unethical question is rather which species are essential, and which owing to our limited resources should quietly be allowed to die off. In other words we must decide what each species is worth to us in terms of money, ecological value and relevance to human survival. There is an urgent need to assess their relative importance.

Until recently the animals that were recognised as “endangered species” have been the more conspicuous or loved creatures such as whales, tigers, whooping cranes or bald eagles. But what we cannot afford to ignore is that other types of species are far more numerous: insects, for example, number in millions compared to the 42,000 known vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals).

If we list out these myriad creatures along with the thousands of unknown plant species that exist, we would begin to realise that hundreds of thousands of species are actually being driven towards extinction, thanks to the destruction of habitats by man’s insatiable appetite for raw material, such as minerals and lumber.

Apart from this, the problem is perhaps even more critical in areas we are not familiar with.

Moist tropical forests cover less than ten per cent of the Earth’s surface but contain forty to fifty per cent of the Earth’s species. These forests are being destroyed on an alarming scale by unrestricted logging. Many of these forests are unlikely to survive in their present form, by the middle of this century if human beings do not mend their ways and introduce rigorous measures geared towards conservation.

Unlike temperate-forest species which are far less abundant, tropical-forest species tend to have specialised ecological requirements or are limited to habitats totalling just a few hundred square kilometres which would leave them extremely susceptible to extinction once their environment has been destroyed. The first wave of mass extinctions is already occurring in the rain forests of South-East Asia, a treasure house to biologists and a gold mine to industrialists (similarly, ecosystem destruction endangers other “species-rich” habitats— such as coral reefs and wetlands).

Man’s domination over creation is a totally new phenomenon, implying a total responsibility—a consideration of how evolution operates to create the diversity so beneficial to us.

One of the apparent rules of evolution is that an outburst of extinctions may lead to an explosion of “speciation”, the process whereby new species come into existence. Large numbers of “niches” or “ecological living spaces” open up, enabling new species to occupy them and with these new niches will come the stimulation for speciation.

Unfortunately, the organisms that occupy these new niches are by definition opportunistic pioneering types. Rats , sparrows, starlings, cockroaches and weedy plants, which are seen in our immediate environment are examples of these clever manipulative species. Thus, we may unwittingly plague the world with the worst kinds of creatures—a prospect all the more troublesome if we have also eliminated the predators and parasites that keep these opportunistic species in check.

One compelling reason for saving wild species is their intrinsic economic value.

One kilogram of a huge Elephant's ivory tusk fetches about US $ 2,100 in the illegal market in Hong Kong. Therefore the tusks of one huge African elephant which can carry 10 Kgs of ivory tusks, are worth US $ 21000 to a Far East trader. If we add to the value of the ivory the elephant's value as edible meat and as hide for making various items of furniture, it is worth much much more - US $50000/00

A rhino horn is worth even more. In the Far East its phallic shaped horn is regarded as an aphrodisiac which improves quality of performance as well as frequency!

Though this belief has no scientific basis it is sought after by not only playboys and lecherous Chinese business tycoons but also by oriental bridegrooms. No wonder they are willing to pay even about US $6,000 per kilogram.

In some places Rhino horns are in demand as dagger handles. The horn is thought to confer on its owner enhanced sexual powers. Such daggers, often sell at incredible prices, and are presented to youth in the Middle East at the rites celebrating their initiation into manhood.

But there is another compelling reason for keeping animals alive. A good part of Kenya’s safari tourist trade worth about 160 million dollars every year is paid by people who come from all over the world just to have a glimpse of the lions, elephants, rhinos and leopards in their natural habitat.

Though poaching continues to be a serious problem in East Afica, Kenya has shown that if sincere efforts are made, the menace can be checked. The story of Ahmed the most sought after elephant in Kenya by poachers is a case in point.

Ahmed of Marsabit was and still is the most famous elephant ever to have roamed the African continent. The territory around Mount Marsabit in Kenya has always been renowned for its extraordinary tuskers, yet Ahmed eclipses all predecessors.

Born in 1919, Ahmed came from the forests of Mount Marsabit and grew to become a truly unique giant, justifiably known by the natives and big game hunters alike, as the "King of Marsabit".

In 1970, in order to protect him from poachers, former President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, placed the elephant under his protection by presidential decree, an unparalleled occurrence in the history of the world and the only elephant to be declared a living monument. The giant was watched over day and night by two hunters against poachers. He was 55 when he died of natural causes . Today, Ahmed of Marsabit can be admired as a mounted exhibit in front of the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi.

Though such round the clock protection cannot be provided for every elephant, some degree of protection can be provided by pooling the resources of various government departments and agencies, for in the final analysis poaching affects a nation's economic situation as a whole.

People all over the world watch lions and leopards on Television. If this TV time is priced at two dollars an hour and if about a million people watch a short half hour film the cost works out to one million dollars.

Yet another kind of value depends on the extraction of drugs (valued at US $ five billions a year) from animals and plants, representing half the drugs we use. The Periwinkle, tropical plant yields two highly effective anti-cancer drugs whose world wide sales total US $ 35 million a year. A Mexican forest plant Dioscorea Yam yields the drug from which the contraceptive pill, the basis of US $ billion a year industry ,is made.

Many insects are no doubt regarded as pests. But some of them also kill off crop destroying creatures and play a useful role in modern agriculture. In Florida, in the United States, a few years ago, citrus growers imported, for US $ 35000 three species of parasitic wasps which live off pests and saved crop worth about 35 million dollars a year.

Thus animals and plants offer mankind monetary, medical and other kinds of value. Many of these survival benefits have become evident only recently.

Of all species that have been investigated for their economic value many thousands already make sizeable contributions to industry, medicine and food. Extinction of the huge uncategorised and unknown quantities of creatures precludes their making a contribution that may benefit human kind.

For example, we still do not know which of the Earth’s plant species (one third of which are edible) may make a substantial contribution to future diets. Humans have used only three thousands of these for food throughout history and fewer than 20 kinds of plants—notably, rice, corn, wheat and soya beans presently account for 90 per cent of the food consumed daily.

A survey conducted in the United States in the beginning of this century revealed that there are at least several hundred plant species that seem to offer immediate potential for us in relieving hunger and improving nutrition. The figure would obviously be much higher now.

In addition, wild species help establish agriculture. All conventional crops need to have their genetic constituents regularly topped up in order to maintain, let alone, expand their productivity. The addition of wild germ plasm, for example, is also crucial in resisting new insect pests adapting to our changing climatic conditions, and other environmental threats. Advanced countries may have to be dependent on all these wild gene reservoirs if their agriculture is imported from other parts of the world.

When a medical prescription is filled at a drug store, there is a fifty per cent chance that the medicine will be of natural origin. The commercial value of these drugs in the United States alone is estimated at over US $ 20 billions per year. Non-prescription preparations similarly derived from wild creatures are worth another $ 5 Billion

As for industry the need for raw materials is growing rapidly as the world’s population increases. The energy shortage has provided motivation for scientists in America to undertake research in plant species that produce hydrocarbons similar to oil. (One American scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in recognition of his work.)

We should realise that we are eliminating the very source of our livelihood in little more than the twinkling of an eye, geologically speaking, for this is the greatest biological tragedy since life arose on this planet 3.6 billion years ago.

Extinction is, of course, an overwhelming fact of life. Fewer than ten per cent of all the species that have ever inhabited the Earth are alive today. Yet, until now the world has never witnessed the broad scale elimination of species to match the present rate of one species per day, let alone the impending demise of thousands perhaps millions of species.

Even the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs normally characterised as “freak dyings” occurred at only a rate of roughly one species every thousand years. Dinosaur extinction caused only a small proportion of Earth’s complement of species to vacate the scene whereas nothing in Earth’s history can rival what is occurring today quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

Unless conservation measures are launched on a war footing there is no hope of survival for many potentially valuable species of plant and animal life.

But with our growing awareness of these benefits comes an unpleasant and difficult responsibility. We will have to soon carryout “risk-benefit” calculation to decide which species we shall help to survive and which we should condemn to die by withholding protection. We will not find the task easy.

We will be tempted constantly to make exceptions to devote precious resources to saving just one more endangered species. But then how many exceptions can we afford to make without jeopardising the future of humanity.

This moral dilemma is similar to that faced by surgeons who in the battle field, while dealing with the rows of wounded soldiers must resort to what is described as “triage” i.e., they must decide which patients are too badly injured and so too far gone to benefit from medical treatment and which patients would recover if prompt medical treatment is given. In the same manner we would have to carefully work out a scale of priorities for protecting threatened chosen species.

But we must however admit that our “risk benefit” calculations are entirely subjective and do not take into account the views of our “poor relations”. After all who has given us the right to decide that a particular species can be sacrificed in the larger interest of other species. Suppose another species more highly evolved than homo-sapiens were to decide against protecting us on similar considerations, how would we react? Such moral issues are sure to cause us many sleepless nights!

No scientist or poet or even a layman would like to see a day when the lion, the elephant and the tiger have all joined those animals which have vanished for ever from the face of the Earth.

Centuries later people must still be able to gaze at a tiger and recall Blake’s powerful lines

“Tiger Tiger burning bright

In the forests of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry”

No artificially created zoo or park can capture the primeval atmosphere of Tsao and Serengeti. This brings us to the question how unhappy we would be at the thought that someday in the not too distant future our great grandchildren may never see an elephant , the lion and the tiger, except in a picture book, just as we look at the pictures of the tyrannosaurus (the largest and most ferocious dinosaur) which roamed the earth for 165 million years.

Some scientists are of the view that dinosaurs suddenly went extinct about 65 million years ago, after having ruled the earth for about 165 million years after a massive asteroid collided with the earth.

And apart from the commercial or economic aspects, even aesthetic and humanitarian considerations would also compel us to take such steps to conserve endangered species. The beauty of our tiny planet is linked to the "infinite variety" of life on earth.

To quote David Attenborough “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

To hear a first-hand account of the life and work Peter Matthiessen, one of the greatest naturalists of all time; to learn about the research of Richard Leakey the eminent anthropologist, palaeontologist, and conservationist; to hear about the life and adventures of Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas upon "the misty mountain tops" of Rwanda, and who helped to dispel the erroneous and misleading image of the gorilla as a savage killer, mainly created by the wild and fantastic imagination of movie moghuls of Hollywood in sensational films like 'King Kong'! (Fossey, who established an emotional bond with the great apes, revealed to the world that the fierce-looking apes were, in reality, docile and, affectionate and lived in family groups. Fossey did her best to fight poachers, while living the life of a recluse with the gorillas, and met with a strange and violent death, most probably at the hands of Poachers); to have a glimpse of the splendours of the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth; to watch vast herds of wildebeests migrate across the Serengeti Plains at dawn; to witness the pink flamingoes soar upwards towards the clouds, adding a hue to the crimson skies above Lake Naivasha; to watch the bizarre spectacle of a hungry and angry, fully grown lion pounce upon a cantering zebra as it runs for dear life; to gaze with rapture upon the great elephants and bright coloured butterflies from a mountain top; to look through the window of your aircraft at the snowy top of Mount Kilimanjaro, fabled in Hemingway's fiction; to hear the mating calls of wild hippopotamuses, in the vast, wide, and restless Zambezi; to listen to the low grunts of ferocious and hungry lions, which raise their heads out of the grass to sniff the wind in order to catch the scent of potentially edible wildebeests and zebra; to stay in a lodge in the heart of Luangwa Game Park and watch a ruthless and wily crocodile glide stealthily from the banks of the Luangwa river, to catch its unsuspecting prey; to observe a herd of elephants come every evening without fail at the same time, to the main Lounge of Ngorongoro Hotel, situated on the rim of the Crater, and rip apart all the pipes, despite their having been repaired only the previous day; to look down from the Outer Rim of the Ngorongoro, into the bottom of the extinct volcano and have a glimpse of some of the world’s oldest, trees, rocks, lakes and volcanic ash; to take a sip of water from a placid pond near "The Tree where Man was Born" in the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater, cut off from evolution and the march of time --- this is not only the very stuff of adventure, and the greatest source of excitement, visual beauty and intellectual interest, but what makes life worth living.

If I were asked to choose a place for an exciting holiday from a very big list of adventurous spots on earth, with glossy pictures and catchy slogans in colourful travel brochures, I would choose to watch the crimson sunsets in the skies over Amboseli, rather than the glare of neon lamps in Las Vegas which turn night into day. I would choose to listen to the "murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" in the eerie silence of wild Kafue, rather than to the the cacophony of the "squeaky horns" of the "taxi cabs" of Paris that Dean Martin sang about. I would choose the "verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" of exotic Luangwa, rather than the giddy freeways of Los Angeles.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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