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Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor   
May 2013

Thanks to our irresponsible ways, many of our animal species are facing extinction

EPix_GoingGreen_5-13xtinction is forever. Here in South Florida, we have our hands full with potential extinctions caused by the relentless progress of humanity. Some species are on the verge, and some have already succumbed. Think polar bears have it bad? They still exist -- and their public-relations team got their image on the side of the Coke can.

In South Florida, our most camera-ready species is already gone. Imagine the cutest little animal in the ocean, a seal pup, bobbing along in the current off South Beach. Its head pops out of the water and its big black eyes focus on something coming toward it. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a spear flying into its little gut.

The Caribbean monk seal was hunted to death. It disappeared from Florida’s waters centuries ago, but persisted in the region until about 1952, which is when it was last seen in the wild.

Children need to be taught about this calamity, just as they should be taught about the dramatic decline of sea turtles and whales as a result of hunting. We need to remember this recent history in order to avoid repeating it (over and over). Two surviving species related to the Caribbean monk seal, the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals, are among the most threatened species in the world.

What other species in Florida have gone extinct recently? The South Florida rainbow snake and the Florida fairy shrimp were declared extinct in 2011, outlasting the dusky seaside sparrow (1990) by only a couple of decades. Several other extinctions have been recorded, but the real number remains unknown.

While Florida may have experienced more extinctions than other states, this pales in comparison to the global situation. Today we are in the midst of what scientists are calling the sixth mass-extinction event in history. The last one was 65 million years ago, so they don’t happen too often. The difference this time is that humans are the primary drivers.

Historically, hunting has been the main cause, but now habitat loss leads the way. Add the escalating effects of climate change, on top of other human-induced threats, and this volatile situation, unknown in the fossil record, is our new reality.

Evidence clearly points to the burning of fossil fuels as the elevator taking us to the penthouse of extinction. It’s the gasoline, stupid -- plus all the other senseless, irresponsible things people do without thinking.

The most threatened animals today are amphibians and those adorable rainforest frogs, but coming up fast are corals and the underwater rainforests they create. Scientists predict the end of all coral reefs within a human lifetime. All gone. Kaput. If an entire ecosystem and its thousands of species can disappear in a matter of decades, what will become of Homo sapiens? We’re a species, too, you know.

Perhaps focusing on local extinctions can set the stage for the prevention of this global catastrophe.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act lists 62 animals and 54 plants in Florida. The animals in South Florida most threatened with extinction today include two butterflies, the Miami blue and the Schaus swallowtail. Other familiar animal species, the panther and manatee, have made small gains in recent years, but they remain highly vulnerable. Hundreds of manatees have died in Southwest Florida this year owing to toxic algae blooms.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tracks 60 species on Florida’s endangered and threatened species list, and this year the agency is drafting reviews that will lead to integrated, multi-species protection plans. Local species under review include the Everglades mink, the white-crowned pigeon, and the roseate spoonbill.

Endangered species are not exotic or far away. Pick your favorite outdoor spot in South Florida -- the beach, the bay, the Keys, the Everglades -- and you’ll find endangered species. They live where we live.

So what can we do? Educate ourselves and our children, because we can’t solve the problem of extinction if we don’t acknowledge it. But education is only the starting point.

At the deepest level, we need to explore the link between the extinction of nonhuman species and the survival of the human species. We are only one among millions, and there is no guarantee that our species will stay on top.

At the species level, we have proven that we can prevent extinction. Whaling was banned in increments over the past century and finally worldwide in 1988, and no whale species has gone extinct. In Florida, the ban on hunting certain birds and alligators has led to their recovery.

Preventing the sixth mass extinction would likely require going backward in time and building the industrial revolution on renewable sources instead of finite and dirty fuels.

The Caribbean monk seal died by the sword (and the club and the spear), but the next seal will likely die by the greenhouse gas.

 

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