The Houston Zoo’s Conservation Department is involved in a number of efforts internationally as well as here in Texas. It had dawned on me that some of the species we focus on in the wild, may disappear completely in my lifetime and how disappointing a thought that may be. A shame really given the number of species in trouble so few people have ever heard of here at home that are declining faster than we can get a handle on. Houston Toad, Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, the Ocelot subspecies in Texas, Elliot’s Shrew, Black Lace Cactus, Texas Blind Cave Salamander; these names mean little to most people but we may just lose them, one species at a time.
The January 2009 National Geographic Magazine had an article called Last One. A piece about species whose numbers are so low, someday very soon, an individual will be the Last One and the first photo in the spread is an Ocelot of which less than 100 individuals of the Texas subspecies are left. There are no other Ocelots in North America; the Texas population is the Last One.
Wildlife and plants in Texas are not the only ones in trouble. Across North America, small relatively innocuous species of animals and plants are slipping away. Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit – went extinct in the wild in October 2008; Vancouver Island Marmot is Canada’s most endangered mammal – less than 100 individuals; Peninsular Pronghorn, Baja, Mexico – less than 250 individuals; Whooping Cranes, California Condors, Louisiana Pine Snakes – all at critically low numbers
Internationally, the numbers are staggering, even considering how familiar we may be with certain species. The common domestic pet chinchilla can be found in people’s homes across the world; in their native Chile and Argentina – less than 3,000 survive. The Bactrian Camel you may see on a TV wildlife special; less than 800 survive in China and Mongolia; Tigers, Rhinos, Asian Elephants – losing ground fast. Leopards are an animal we have all heard of – the Amur Leopard of Russia’s Far East – 30 individuals left in the wild. Just 30!
Does it really matter if a species goes extinct? Every piece lost somehow affects their habitat and ecosystem, so, yes; it does, even for the animals we have never even heard of. Losing species simply means a breakdown in that ecosystem – a breakdown in the food chain. Thomas Jefferson once wrote “for if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal”. That quote is over 200 years old and today plants and animals are beginning to vanish in unprecedented numbers.
So what do we do? It is time to put the effort into keeping the common species common and developing programs to keep those species in decline, from becoming the Last One.
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