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Many animal and plant species have become extinct and many more are in critical danger. Finding ways to protect the earth's wildlife and conserve the natural world they inhabit is now more important than ever.
Extinction is a natural process. Many species had ceased to exist before humans evolved. However, in the last 400 years, the number of animals and plants becoming extinct has reached crisis point. Human population levels have risen dramatically in the same time period and man's predatory instincts combined with his ruthless consumption of natural resources are directly responsible for the situation.
The dodo is a classic example of how human behaviour can cause irreparable damage to the earth's biological diversity. The flightless dodo was native to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It lived off fruit fallen from the island's trees and lived unthreatened until humans arrived in 1505. The docile bird became a source of food for sailors and lacked the ability to protect itself from animals introduced to the island by humans such as pigs, monkeys and rats. The population of dodos rapidly decreased and the last one was killed in 1681.
In 2002, many animals remain threatened with extinction as a result of human activity. The World Wildlife Fund works tirelessly to raise awareness of the predicament facing these animals and find ways to protect them. By focusing on a number of high profile, 'charismatic icons' such as the rhino, panda, whale and tiger, the WWF aims to communicate 'critically important environmental issues'. The organization's ultimate goal is to 'stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature'.
The rhino horn is a highly prized item for practitioners of Asian medicine. This has led to the animal being relentlessly hunted in its natural habitat. Once widespread in Africa and Eurasia, most rhinos now live in protected natural parks and reserves. Their numbers have rapidly decreased in the last 50 years, over half the remaining rhinos disappeared in the 1970s, and the animals remain under constant threat from poachers.
The Giant Panda
The future of the WWF's symbol is far from certain. As few as 1,000 remain in the wild, living in small isolated groups. These groups have been cut off from each other as a result of deforestation and human expansion into their natural habitat. The Chinese government has set up 33 panda reserves to protect these beautiful animals and made poaching them punishable with 20 years in prison. However, the panda's distinct black and white patched coat fetches a high price on the black market and determined poachers still pose one of the most serious threats to the animal's continued existence.
The International Whaling Commission meets every year. The agenda covers ways to ensure the survival of the species and the complex problems arising from countries such as Japan, wishing to hunt certain whales for 'scientific' purposes. Despite the fact that one third of the world's oceans have been proclaimed whale sanctuaries, seven out of 13 whale species remain endangered. The plight of the North Atlantic Right Whale is particularly serious. Hunted for their rich supply of oil, their numbers have dwindled to just 300. Collisions with ships, toxic pollution and becoming entangled in fishing nets are other major causes of whale deaths.
The last 100 years has seen a 95% reduction in the numbers of remaining tigers to between 5,000 and 7,000 and the Bali, Javan, and Caspian tigers are already extinct. The South China tiger is precariously close to disappearing, with only 20–30 still alive. Like the rhino horn, tiger bones and organs are sought after for traditional Chinese medicines. These items are traded illegally along with tiger skins.
The WWF is actively involved in many areas of the world fighting to protect the natural habitats of endangered animals from further damage and curb the activities of poachers. They also work to influence governments and policy makers to introduce laws aimed at reducing the threat of pollution and deforestation. Our own individual efforts at home and in the workplace can also make a difference. By reducing waste and pollution, saving water, wood and energy, and reusing and recycling whenever possible, we can reduce the possibility of even more animals being lost, never to return.