To Save Endangered Species, Everyone Has a Role to Play

This means you, big oil.

(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Julie Fox Gorte is a Board Member at the Endangered Species Coalition and Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing at Pax World Funds.

Species of all shapes and sizes, including many large, charismatic mammals, such as tigers and elephants, are in a heap of trouble all over the globe—in most cases thanks to us. Unlike other species, people are capable of transforming the entire planet: We are living in the Anthropocene, an age in which Homo sapiens determines the fate of most of the other species on the planet. One-fourth of Earth’s species could be driven to extinction by 2050, just as a result of climate change. That’s not even counting the ones threatened by habitat eradication, toxins, and other plagues we have wrought on those with whom we share our home.

Solving these problems will take a global village. Every sector has some role to play, including the private sector, which has until recently been cast primarily as the problem, not part of the solution. We’re used to seeing news about corporate actions that damage habitats and harm the environment. About a year ago, for example, came news that giant panda reserves in China had been compromised, forcing the few remaining pandas into smaller and more fragmented habitats because of phosphate mining in a region already vulnerable to natural disasters such as mudslides, landslides, and floods, which mining can exacerbate. Yet even though tunneling in the area had already led to a collapse of one section of Banpengzi Mountain, local authorities were willing to change the boundaries of the pandas’ protected habitat so that more mines could open.

When Idaho sets aside $400,000 to exterminate wolves to protect cattle ranchers, it’s the same litany: We need jobs and commerce; there are other wolves. Last June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, a move that usually signals that a species has recovered sufficiently to survive without federal protection. Seven months later, an independent peer review conducted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis concluded that the decision to remove the wolf from the list was “not well supported by the available science.” FWS reopened its comment period on the matter but has not yet made a final decision. Idaho still proposes to kill wolves.

Throughout the history of our species, we have played a role—often the starring role—in driving species to extinction. Sailors killed dodos and harvested their eggs, and sailing ships introduced predators to the dodos’ habitat. People hunted passenger pigeons and deforested their habitats until the remaining population collapsed. Hunting and a changing climate combined to eliminate the woolly mammoth before people even understood how big the world really was.

One could argue that the extinctions of dodos and passenger pigeons and, of course, mammoths were wrought long before we humans understood the importance of contiguous habitat or concepts like genetic bottlenecks. But now we do, and our excuses are gone. If we choose to value a few jobs in southwestern China or rural Idaho over the survival of pandas or wolves, it’s our fault; it’s not innocent ignorance. It’s time to step up.

Some companies are doing just that. I’m old enough to remember when Exxon’s slogan was “Put a tiger in your tank,” complete with a tiger mascot. These days, the ExxonMobil Foundation has joined with the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Save the Tiger Fund to advance tiger conservation programs across Asia. Patagonia supports the removal of dams that compromise habitats in rivers and riparian areas, an activity that has put the Pacific salmon on the endangered species list.

Lots of corporations “adopt” animal mascots because animals appeal to people. It’s time for those corporations—as well as the ones that merely depend on a healthy planet—to launch or redouble efforts to protect habitats. Unilever’s Klondike Bar sports a picture of the über-cute polar bear. Budweiser got a lot of mileage out of a bunch of frogs; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 34 species of endangered frogs. Frito-Lay’s Cheetos are represented by a cheetah. If every corporation that uses an endangered or threatened species put up some cash to help protect them, we would be far better off. It is possible to pull species back from the brink; we’ve had successes with black-footed ferrets, alligators, and others.

By the way, it’s not just mammals that are in trouble. But it’s hard to steer attention toward the plight of Furbish’s lousewort (a plant), and there probably aren’t any corporations with a sense of fun so expansive that they’d adopt the bearded black millipede. What about Honey Nut Cheerios? Is it time for General Mills to contribute to efforts to understand the causes of colony collapse disorder?

Corporations are powerful entities, and it’s encouraging to see some, at least, using their might to help protect the planet and its inhabitants. It’s high time for others to join in. 

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