Wildlife and Human Populations An Emerging Crisis

There are more species on Earth today than there have ever been in the 2.5-billion-year history of life. Estimates run from five to thirty million species; ten million is a typical figure. Most of the vertebrate wildlife and birds are known; most unknowns are in the invertebrate animal, insect, and plant species. During evolutionary history, there was no wildlife management; wildlife conservation takes care of itself if no humans intervene. On statistical average, more species have been produced than have become extinct; diversity has gradually increased.

Some five catastrophic extinctions have been followed by rather swift regeneration of the lost species. On landscapes that have grown colder or drier, species may become fewer. Some groups of species were more numerous in the past, such as dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period, or birds in the Pleistocene. Nevertheless, diversity is at an all-time high. In one sense, all biology is conservation biology (biology that conserves life), whether or not humans are involved.

There are many more humans on Earth today than ever, and the expansion of human habitat, coupled with pollution, hunting, and trade in wildlife, threatens populations of wild animals and their habitats. Humans now threaten the biological processes that have been creating and conserving life for billions of years. Hardly an American landscape has not been impoverished of its native fauna. The larger once-dominant animals—such as eagles, wolves, cougars, grizzly bears, wolverines, bison, otters, crocodiles—are especially depleted. The New World depletion in both hemispheres is a result of Europeans entering a relatively empty continent and engaging in explosive development over recent centuries. The Amerindians had coexisted with wildlife for ten to fifteen thousand years.

Long-settled continents do not escape the problem either. Humans have inhabited Africa since evolving there over a hundred thousand years ago. Only in the twentieth century, as contemporary nations grew rapidly, was African megafauna or avifauna seriously threatened. Wildlife in China, India, and Tibet, among the oldest settled areas in the world, was greatly depleted. The crisis is as serious in the Old World as in the New.

The crisis is now potentially more urgent than at any previous time in the history of the planet. This generates unprecedented responsibilities because humans previously did not have much effect on wildlife, which took care of itself; unprecedented demands for trade-offs between human values and the welfare of wildlife; and unprecedented implications because of its global and irreversible scale.

Wildlife conservation is now challenged to mix human values with wildlife values. Fortunately, wildlife is valuable to humans and, so far, can be included among the human values. Humans wish to hunt and fish; they enjoy watchable wildlife; wildlife art is the most popular American art form. If backyard bird feeding is included, almost one in four Americans spends some time bird-watching. Animals are chosen as state animals; sports teams and automobiles are named for animals. Many animals serve useful roles in ecosystems; hawks catch mice, birds control insect populations. Wildlife can indicate the health of an ecosystem. Unfortunately, many human values conflict with wildlife on landscapes, as shown by the massive depletion of wildlife. Here human interests seem contrary to wildlife's flourishing. And what if wildlife is not valuable to humans? Have we some responsibilities for the values of wild things for what they are in themselves?

The Wildlife Society, the principal professional organization of management and conservation, affirms that "Wildlife, in its myriad forms, is basic to the maintenance of a human culture that provides quality living." The society seeks "to develop and promote sound stewardship ofwildlife resources and of the environments upon which wildlife and humans depend; to undertake an active role in preventing human-induced environmental degradation; to increase awareness and appreciation of wildlife values." It also urges "ethical restraints in the use of living natural resources."

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