The last big extinction event on earth was around 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with much of the rest of life on earth. During the last few centuries, however, hundreds of species have vanished as a direct result of human activity, and the rate is accelerating. While not as messy or sudden as an asteroid, our hairy ape species seems hell-bent on creating the next big wave of extinctions.
According to one website, the total number of species known to be threatened with extinction is nearly 17,000. Since we still don’t even know how many species of plants and animals there are on this planet—it could be three million or ten million—this number likely represents only a tiny fraction of the true number.
Some animals are so critically endangered that it’s hard to see how they’re going to make it. Take rhinos, for example. According to the website “savetherhino.org,” black rhinos have plummeted from an estimated population of 65,000 in 1970 to just 5,055 today. Asian species are even worse off, with numbers only in the hundreds.
But try telling this to the millions of people who still believe that powdered rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to foot fungus, despite there being not a shred of scientific evidence that it serves any medical purpose at all. Powdered rhino horn is still an integral part of traditional Chinese pharmacy, and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Against this irrational belief the rhinoceros stands little chance.
Desperate times require desperate solutions. Merely creating new regulations or preserves won’t cut it anymore. Namibia, for example, was the first country to use “dehorning” as a means to protect their rhinos from poaching. On the face of it, it sounds pretty disgusting. What’s a rhino without its horns? But maybe it’s for their own good. Indeed, ever since Namibia began its program, no rhinos have been poached, though other countries have been less successful with this approach. Since the horns grow back over time, the rhinos have to be regularly monitored and dehorned every 12-24 months. For the Namibians, however, a rhino without horns is better than no rhino at all.
Recently a turtle conservancy in California employed a similar technique with two of its rare ploughshare tortoises, valued by exotic animal collectors for their beautiful golden domed shells. So essentially they disfigured their shells by branding them with identification markers that will make them both easier to track and less appealing to collectors, who will often pay tens of thousands of dollars for an unblemished tortoise. In all, they hope to brand all of the less than 700 specimens still alive in the world. Other rare tortoise species are likewise being uglified.
Perhaps this idea of removing the source of the problem, be it a horn or a beautiful shell, could be applied to other animals. Simply remove the tusks from elephants, for example, to keep them from being poached for ivory. They won’t like it very much, but it’s for their own good. Similarly, animals killed for their horns or antlers, such as the Saiga antelope, Asian red deer, and certain species of wild cattle, might just have to lose those appendages in order to be saved.
Unfortunately, such an approach wouldn’t work with some species, such as endangered tigers. Since each of their body parts right down to the bones are valued for traditional folk medicine, it would be difficult to know where to start. On the other hand, with musk deer, which are killed for their musk glands, surgical removal of the gland in question just might work. And animals killed and threatened for their fur, such as spotted cats, fur seals, and South American otters, could be regularly sheared, which is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds. While the prospect of a bunch of naked jaguars and otters running around is not exactly appealing, again it is for their own good.
Of course, if we wish to remove the real source of the problem, perhaps we should start with us. Our human population of over 7 billion is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. This means that an additional two and half billion people will require more land, food, water, and other resources, with less room for other living things. If you think things are bad now, just wait. Ironically, this is not only bad for other species, but for us as well. As species go extinct, we will lose a host of natural products used for real medicines, food, and building materials, along with the vital services that wild plants and animals provide, including air and water purification and pollination of our food crops. So I propose that every fertile human being on the planet undergo a little operation—a much simpler one than removing musk glands or rhino horns—to keep each of us from reproducing again. Maybe someday, when human numbers have returned to less harmful levels, we could allow a few of us to breed under carefully controlled conditions—just enough to maintain the gene pool. Some of us might not like it very much, and achieving this goal will not be easy. But it’s for our own good.
©Gene Twaronite 2014
Originally published in 5enses June 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/for-their-own-good/