Nancy Huang

Aug 23rd 2021

Protecting Endangered Animals — and Earth’s Future


The archaeological record suggests that prehistoric humans contributed to the fate of many endangered animals that went on to become extinct, especially as humans moved into new territories. In recorded history, the first endangered species known to be driven to extinction by human activity was the flightless Dodo bird of the Island of Mauritius, which was last seen alive in the 1660s, according to the BBC.

As CNN explains, human patterns of resource utilization may be causing Earth’s sixth mass extinction. In order for human populations to thrive over long periods of time, they must learn to live in harmony with their environment. Achieving this balance is more important than ever.

The Conservation Movement

In the recently published book “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” acclaimed science journalist Michelle Nijhuis covers the history of the modern effort to save animals from extinction. Starting in the late 1800s, Nijhuis highlights the work of people who often “did the wrong thing for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.”

This conservation effort largely started with white Americans and Europeans, who were expanding into new territories with the help of guns and new technologies. Their treatment of the environment was substantially different from the resident indigenous people, who typically sought to preserve natural resources for future use.

The American Bison

In contrast, the peer-reviewed journal Religions describes how Americans of the 1800s embraced “manifest destiny.” This was the belief that white Americans were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, from sea to shining sea. The middle of the continent was home to an estimated 30 million bison, which provided a reliable source of protein, fur and leather for indigenous peoples. Once railroads allowed for the easy transport of goods, white Americans slaughtered these herds for fur and leather, leaving the carcasses to rot. As Nijhuis explains, this decimation of bison was encouraged, with President Grant’s interior secretary stating that it would “confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs” so they could be more easily controlled.

The bison’s unlikely hero was a taxidermist, who went to Montana in 1888 to shoot some of the few remaining bison for the Smithsonian Museum. Nijhuis writes that after seeing these massive creatures in real life, he had become a fierce advocate for the preservation of this endangered species. He shot several specimens for a museum display and also brought back live bison for public viewing. These and other efforts convinced lawmakers and the general public to save the great American bison, which is considered the first endangered species to be intentionally saved through human action.

Many organizations were established specifically to prevent extinction of other charismatic species. The Audubon Society was founded in 1905, the Nature Conservatory in 1951, and the World Wildlife Fund in 1962, as Nijhuis points out. She writes that, without the work of conservationists, “there would likely be no bison, no tigers and no elephants; there would be few if any whales, wolves or egrets.”

The Unintended Consequences of Human Activity

In the 1930s, environmentalists started to realize that conserving species meant conserving their habitat, including mating grounds, nesting areas, foraging sites and migration routes. For many species, this requires an international effort and understanding the unintended consequences of human activity. For example, the Science History Institute describes how the highly effective insecticide DDT was found in the 1960s to be harmful to many other animals, including the emblematic bald eagle.

How human activity influences plants and animals is still not fully understood. As an example, Yale Environment 360 explains that it’s not entirely clear why bee populations have declined, but our quality of life depends on these pollinators performing their function in the ecosystem. Preserved specimens in a museum or a small population at the zoo would clearly not be enough. To preserve our natural heritage, species need to thrive in their natural environment, and endangered animals must be protected.

These goals are inextricably linked to the preservation of natural habitats and a reduction in human-induced climate change. Through technology and research, it is absolutely possible to develop and apply techniques to ensure clean water, air and soil for all living creatures while providing the energy and other resources that humans need to continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

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