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  • Ellen Bassett

Species Extinction

I teach land use and environmental law here at UVA. It is a very trying period to be upbeat about this topic (or, in fact, many topics associated with planning including fair housing, preventing climate change, participatory democracy, ethics, and so on.) The retreat from enforcement of environmental protections by the Trump Administration and his appointment of so many lobbyists (281 at last count according to ProPublica) to take over the federal agencies that police industrial practices is a completely depressing tale. (On the latter, see: https://www.propublica.org/article/we-found-a-staggering-281-lobbyists-whove-worked-in-the-trump-administration)

But I find few things more depressing than the onward march toward the annihilation of species.

In mid-September, the Audubon Society released a study showing that North American birds have declined by 25% in the last fifty years. (See: https://www.audubon.org/news/north-america-has-lost-more-1-4-birds-last-50-years-new-study-says). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring may not just be the name of a devastating book with a great wake up call—it may become reality.

The National Geographic has an incredibly depressing portrait of this globally. What are we losing? Well, adorable animals like this gray woolly monkey—which uncannily looks just like my beloved Boston Terrier, Abby, at least in terms of eyes. (There was previous research that humans relate most closely to animals that have “eyebrows” and that this helps explain our different reactions to dogs versus wolves.) (For NatGeo on extinction, see: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/09/vanishing-what-we-lose-when-an-animal-goes-extinct-feature/).

If we want to be anthropocentric (since for some folks the idea that there is an intrinsic value to nature doesn’t resonate), the economic impacts of this should scare you too. In Kenya, a place I know very, very well, approximately 8.8 percent of the country’s GDP is based upon tourism according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. International tourists spent 157 billion Kenya Shillings ($1.5 billion US) in Kenya in 2018. Tourism there is not about museums and culture—it is about wildlife and natural resources.

The prospect for African wildlife isn’t rosy, even for the charismatic mega-fauna that we all know and love. (Which then tend to get greater protections.) Giraffes are acknowledged to be in serious trouble. White rhinos don't really exist in the wild anymore. It is a situation of one rhino, one gun to keep them alive. And after the death of Sudan, the last remaining male white rhino, they look pretty doomed.

Poaching has escalated greatly in the last decade—driven in a large part by the rise of China and its demand for exotic wildlife parts like ivory. Countries that I thought were immutable to this type of pressure (Tanzania) have succumbed to the economics of it—with the country having lost 63% of its elephant population over the LAST FIVE YEARs. (WWF.org).

Elephant poaching is brutal. They literally saw off the faces of the elephants to remove tusks. Anyone who has watched elephants in the wild and witnessed their interactions knows these animals are spectacularly social. Poaching is traumatic, particularly for the young who witness it and are orphaned. There are predictions that the African elephant may become extinct in 11 years. If you had told me in the 1990s that I would see their extinction in my lifetime—after hours of watching them in places like Samburu Game Reserve or Amboseli National Park—I would have said you were crazy.

Wish that you were.

Last Updated:  14 September 2020