Visiting Oblivion: How To Save Endangered Species
by Taylor Parker
There are 450 of them. They used to follow giants to wait for their carcasses to open up and share their rancid muscular tissue. They fly thousands of feet in the air throughout the Southwest.
There are between a thousand and two thousand of them. Each can fit within a small coffee mug and they look exactly like beach sand. When they move in a group, it looks like the entire dune has shifted.
There are a little more than 2,500 of them. They use tools, they like to hang out with each other and they like to argue. They are constantly in cold water, are not fish and have no thick layers of fat to keep them warm.
There are, well, no one knows how many there are. But they travel from Alaska to Patagonia seemingly on a whim and have been doing that with their six cousin species for about 100 million years.
Two birds, a mammal and a turtle. These animals are what are known as Endangered Species and they share that dubious distinction – and protection- with about two thousand other plant and animal species in the United States. Of the 2,000 nationally, there are about 130 animal species and about 180 plant species federally listed in California. They are either listed as Endangered or Threatened and about 75% of them have Recovery Plans that are publicly accessible repositories of knowledge of the specimen’s life history, taxonomy, threats, and conservation actions with associated costs. The people studying them can tell you how much it will cost to recover these animals and when that will occur. But what they cannot do is tell you why you should want to or why you should care at all. If you make the effort to search them out, I think you will get a better understanding though.
The first on the list above is the California Condor and it is not a pretty bird. Ugly and nasty, it soars with a wingspan about as big as most garage doors searching for large dead animals. The second animal is the Western Snowy Plover and it took all of the cuteness from the Condor plus some. The third is the highly intelligent Sea Otter and the last is famous for its role in Finding Nemo as Squirt, the Pacific Green Sea Turtle. I choose them not for their looks or their benefit to humans but because you can spend a Saturday morning searching them out and still be back in downtown Los Angeles for dinner. You can be your own Jacques Cousteau or Crocodile Hunter and find an animal that is so rare and special that you can go to Federal Prison if you touch them (don’t touch them).
I recommend making the small effort to get to Santa Barbara for the Plover or to Long Beach for the Turtle because they are on the razor’s edge of whether they will exist in abundance or if they will be gone from our planet forever within the next 20 years. They are the Mona Lisas, the Rodin sculptures, and the Gutenberg Bibles of the natural world. Endangered species are even more precious and unique however for at least three critical reasons: they are the living, breathing evidence of 3.8 billion years of trying to make life work; they are creating themselves anew constantly; and they have no viable replacement. It is as if the Mona Lisa painted its own self over four eras to look perfect within the Louvre’s lighting while simultaneously creating replicas of itself that are all slightly different from the original but live within adjacent galleries. This metaphor may be a scientific stretch but it gives you a glimpse of the rarity of what we are looking at when we see an Otter scream and belch while wrapped in seaweed.
Endangered species are plants and animals that were already occupying a (mostly) small specific niche, filling a critical role within their ecosystem until generalists came in (due to almost exclusively human reasons) and did better than them. To stretch another analogy, a generalist is like a Walmart or a McDonalds: they adapt – they have the ability to. But the endangered species is the café down the street from you or the small architecture office that knows your neighborhood well and can design the most appropriate building for that vacant lot. Genetically, they care about the community they’re in. Don’t get me wrong, endangered species, like all species, would become generalists in a heartbeat and devour what they could without hesitation. But they don’t and there are reasons why. Why do they care about the niche they are in, what relationships do they have that we can learn from? How do they interact with the nearby marketable foodcrops? What kind of disease resistant fungi are they utilizing, depending upon or pointing to? What genetic capacities have they uniquely expressed over the past several eras of their own evolution? We have an opportunity to figure out why these special and specialized taxa have ‘decided’ to express themselves in the way they have.
If a species disappears, the ancient genetic lineage dies with it and so does the future of any further evolution from that source. What that means is that no more unique representation of life can occur from that taxon and that is the only way life exists at all: through myriad and rich representations. Life isn’t the static snapshot of what exists at a single moment but the potential within any given range of time to flourish anew. Extinction stops life now and the capacity for future life.
The animals listed above I chose because you have a good chance of seeing them and they are captivating enough to make the travel worthwhile. But California is a biological treasure trove and there are special plants and animals all over the place. Outside of Hawaii, California has the highest biodiversity in the United States, some of the most endemism (meaning they can’t be found anywhere else), and southern California in particular is considered one of twelve biodiversity ‘hotspots’ on the planet. So, short of a coral reef or the Amazon, you’re living in a place chock-a-bloc teeming with life. With so much life it only makes sense that we would also have higher than normal levels of special plants and animals – and we do. Beyond the endangered ones, we also have individual Bristlecone Pine trees that were born when Jesus was, Creosote and Spiny Lobsters that are theorized to be immortal (except by predation), and the Ocotillo (an oddly majestic almost-cactus plant species) that might be one the newest species on earth. Searching for the rare species will find these other specialists as well.
Beyond experiencing the wonder of them and beyond enjoying the biological world we live in, endangered species study and conservation is downright revolutionary. In his book Listed, Joe Roman wrote that endangered species represent a pivotal point for us as a species. He elegantly wrote that the Endangered Species Act is “an unprecedented attempt to delegate human-caused extinction to the chapters of history we would rather not revisit: the Slave Trade, the Indian Removal Policy, the subjection of women, child labor, segregation. [It] is a zero-tolerance law: no new extinctions. It keeps eyes on the ground with legal backing – the gun may be in the holster most of the time, but it’s available if necessary to keep species from disappearing. I discovered in my travels that a law protecting all animals and plants, all of nature, might be as revolutionary—and as American—as the Declaration of Independence” (emphasis added).The legislation is revolutionary and when he says ‘unprecedented’, he means not only unprecedented in environmental work but unprecedented as a species. It is an unprecedented, revolutionary piece of cultural expression for our species (any species) to care significantly about species not our own.
The truly weird part of that statement is that Roman is not being cavalier or sensational. It is possible to figure out culturally how to stop the sixth great extinction that is occurring right now and the only one occurring due to a species (us) and not a geological cataclysm. There are good examples of how humans have fixed this. Go to any California beach and you will see California Brown Pelicans that were on the verge of extinction in the ‘70’s. Drive up near Hearst Castle and you will see giant Elephant Seals that were hunted down to 2 animals in 1892. On the downtown skyscrapers of Long Beach, Los Angeles, and San Diego you will find the west coast subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon- the fastest flying bird in the world- that recovered from only a handful of chicks 40 years ago. All of these animals have been removed from the endangered species list by humans working diligently to do so. It is possible to save these animals, to pull them from the brink of oblivion. In most cases professionals know how to but for the average person, we don’t know why we should.
In Long Beach, I help lead education tours to share the Green Sea Turtles with the public. I have been criticized for doing so under the rationale that the less people that know about them, the less threat there will be to the turtles. This runs counter to the whole point and purpose of education. The legislation for saving Pelicans and Peregrines needed voter support, it needed an educated and passionate constituency. The more that we as a society choose to learn, the more we choose to value and prioritize. This is why I encourage you to visit these endangered species: visit them, learn about them, share your experience with your friends, give money to organizations working on them, vote for them, and be vocal in your support of them when necessary.
More than is probably healthy, I am a pragmatist and so I always ask myself why something deserves my attention or energy. Endangered species have confused me because I have no great, all-powerful answer to why I should care about them. Nevertheless I do and the unsatisfying yet implacable answer, the one I can never get away from, is that I get the opportunity to care about them. I recommend you take that opportunity as well and visit some of the places I have listed below or on my website and I hope the experience is as empowering to you also.
For more information:
Green Sea Turtles
Long Beach, California
Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust
Big Sur, California
Western Snowy Plovers
Santa Barbara, California
UC Santa Barbara
Southern Sea Otters
Morro Bay, California
(you can also visit them at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach)