The human effect on animal conservation


As more animals and areas of land are dedicated to conservation, Katie Hughes asks whether enough is being done to protect vulnerable species

The idea of conserving a species is a warped one. It is rarely the fault of the organism in question that threats exist to its survival; it is undeniably mainly through human influence that species come under the threat of extinction. The unfortunate aspect of wildlife conservation is that people with an alternative interest form a vicious circle, continuously compromising the efforts being put into the restoration cause by various activists and organisations.

The main pressures being put on wildlife are climate change, pollution, unsustainable use, habitat loss and the invasion of new species. Certain species fail to adapt sufficiently to these stresses, which is what causes their depletion.

This inability to adapt is particularly relevant with regard to the effect climate change has on ecosystems and their species. Areas of high latitude, i.e. the Antarctic and Arctic regions, have the highest rates of global warming, which results in the melting of sea ice. The more ice melts, the less reflective surface there is, which results in accelerated melting. This has an impact on polar bears, which are slowly losing their habitat and will be faced with changes in every part of their lives from their denning habits to starvation and malnutrition.

Large expanses of water are not only affected by higher temperatures, which increase their surface levels, or by carbon dioxide, which increases their acid levels and causes a disruption in marine animals’ ability to make a calcium carbonate skeleton, but also directly by humans.

Waste produced by everyday human activities and industry contributes greatly to marine pollution. Areas called “garbage patches” have been discovered in the middle of the Pacific, North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These consist of hundreds of kilometres of plastic and chemical debris, which take just a year to degrade. These release toxic compounds as they break down into small particles that enter the food chain after being ingested by aquatic organisms or seabirds.

A non-governmental organisation, Project Kaisei, was set up to study and determine a way to remove the garbage patch in the Pacific, which would yield low marine life loss and low energy expenditure.

This type of waste, while inexcusable, is one few people are aware of and hence feel they hold no accountability for. However, careless industrial practices are equally, if not more, crippling to the movement. Assisting the preservation of species has become increasingly difficult in recent years as large international corporations and organisations have ignored environmental and sustainable development concerns.

Seven oil spills have occurred so far in 2011. Most birds that come into contact with an oil spill will die. Their plumage becomes saturated with oil, which reduces the feathers’ insulating property. The birds themselves become poisoned once they start preening as they ingest the oil, which causes dehydration and a malfunction in liver and kidneys. The same fate awaits seals and sea otters, both of which have heavy fur. Alternatively, the oil may blind animals or impair their lungs and breathing, causing painful death. In the case of oil spills, few things can be done for the affected animals as according to a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park, Silvia Gaus, less than one per cent of cleaned oil-soaked birds actually survive.

The example of whale harpooning is one that has come to light recently through social media. While it is an example of an individual compromising the overall effort, the US Navy had for years had equally disparaging effects on the same species. They used Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) to detect and locate rival submarines with no measures in place to protect dolphins and whales who themselves use a sonar system to navigate through the water. LFAS is 235 decibels loud and is capable of incapacitating and killing these animals. It was only in 2008 that a federal court prohibited the practice unless safety measures were in place.

As well as protecting the multitudes of species already walking the planet, conservation is important as new species and new adaptations are constantly being discovered. It is only through having a knowledge base of what species are present in the environment and knowing their relations to the newly discovered species that we can begin to understand and piece together where they came from and how they are related.

Measures are taken every day to save polar bears from melting ice caps, pandas from poachers and African elephants from the ivory trade. These are, among many, examples of species whose conservation status is currently threatened. To say that awareness must be raised about these issues is a defunct statement. Awareness has been raised. People are aware that their actions are spurring on life-threatening consequences for species outside of the human race but continue to do nothing about them. We have yet to find out whether the message will finally sink in or whether we have to wait for the pandas and elephants to disappear from zoos before we decide it’s time to act and protect the future of nature.