National Wildlife Day 2020
The millions of different species on our planet are essential for so many of the most important things in our lives. This complex web of life provides the natural systems we depend on from clean air and water to fertile soils and a stable climate. It gives us food, medicines, and materials, and supports millions of jobs. And it also inspires us, making our lives richer in so many ways.
But our planet’s wildlife is in crisis- numbers have fallen by more than half since 1970, and species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate.
Human activities threaten wildlife in two main ways: by destroying and damaging the places where wildlife lives, and by using them in ways that are unsustainable.
Vast areas of natural habitat continue to be lost to agriculture, urban sprawl, mining, and infrastructure or are suffering from the effects of pollution, introduced species that often out-compete native wildlife, and, increasingly, climate change.
Meanwhile, many species are declining because of unsustainable levels of hunting, fishing, and harvesting. Others are being driven toward extinction to support the international wildlife trade or killed when they come into direct conflict with humans and livestock.
Founded in 2006 by animal behaviourist Colleen Paige, National Wildlife Day aims to raise awareness for endangered species around the world. Paige was the brains behind several other animal-themed holidays, including National Dog Day and National Cat Day, as well.
Celebrating National Wildlife Day twice a year might sound a bit strange, but this biannual holiday is no accident. Not only does it double the nationwide effort to protect endangered animals, but the dates themselves also have an incredibly touching story.
Back in the early 2000s, Australian conservationist Steve Irwin was a household name thanks to his TV show The Crocodile Hunter, a documentary series hosted by the fearless wildlife expert and his wife, Terri. Irwin was filming a new episode near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on September 4, 2006, when a startled stingray stung him in the heart and killed him.
Paige founded National Wildlife Day shortly after Irwin passed, choosing to mark the occasion on September 4th in his honour, according to NationalWildlifeDay.com. Yet one day was simply not enough to celebrate the life’s work of the beloved Crocodile Hunter. February 22nd, Steve Irwin’s birthday, was recently added as the second National Wildlife Day of the year.
Born on 22nd February 1962 to nature lovers and animal naturalists, Lyn and Bob Irwin, Steve Irwin spent his entire life living and working for and with animals. While growing up on the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park, his father taught him about reptiles, and also guided him on caring for animals, feeding them, and getting to understand them better. So it wasn’t really a surprise when at the age of 9, Steve began handling crocodiles.
He soon became an expert on reptiles and associated himself with the Queensland government in the country’s Crocodile Relocation Program. Steve became established as one of the most successful participants in this government-sponsored program, safely catching and relocating dozens of crocs in the most humane (and non-tranquilizing) manner.
Steve received international attention and soon stardom with the premiere of the first installment of The Crocodile Hunter, in 1996. He became the darling of many due to his candour, energetic presenting style, his love for the most ferocious of animals, his signature khaki shorts, and of course his catchphrase, “Crikey”!
Along with his wife Terri, he owned and operated the Australia Zoo and inspired millions around the world when it came to wildlife conservation. He worked diligently in creating awareness about the importance of protecting and preserving nature and all the species of plants and animals that exist. He worked on many documentaries and TV programs, including The Crocodile Hunter, Croc Files, The Crocodile Hunter Diaries, New Breed Vets, and more.
Steve never preached to others to do what he was doing, and instead chose to be a role model by sharing his excitement about the natural world. He was passionate about conservation, and considered it to be the most vital part of the work that he did – he often called himself a Wildlife Warrior (Wildlife Warriors is also the name of the wildlife conservation charity initiated by Steve and Terri)! He was particularly concerned about endangered species and the land clearing that leads to the loss of habitat for many animals.
Steve always urged people to learn to co-exist with other living beings and respect all forms of life.
Extinction of wildlife can be natural or due to human activity. However, in today’s times, the latter far outweighs the former. It is estimated that we are losing 200 to 2,000 species every year, at the very least. Human activity could be indirect, such as its contribution to climate change, or direct, such as poaching. When the tiger population in India fell from 100,000 to 2,000 in the 20th century, for example, the main reason was poaching. In Australia, the extinction of megafauna occurred 45,000 years ago when humans arrived on the continent.
Pre-human events such as the Ice Age have also caused mass extinctions, but contemporary threats to wildlife are often a combination of human activity and natural factors. Two such examples are the Amazon fires and the Australian bushfires, which occurred last year. They were perhaps natural but accelerated to unprecedented levels because of human activity, notably deforestation and climate change. It is estimated that 2.3 million animals died in the Amazon, and more than a billion in Australia.
India, home to four biodiversity hotspots and a variety of ecosystems and terrains, including mountains, rainforests, coasts, plains, and deserts, has about 7.6 per cent of the world’s mammals, 14.7 per cent of all amphibians, 6 per cent of birds, 6.2 per cent of reptiles, and 6 per cent of flowering plant species.
According to reports, four species of fauna and 18 species of flora have gone extinct in India in the past few centuries, including the cheetah, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Himalayan quail, and the pink-headed duck. Protecting tigers, leopards and pangolins (the last is reportedly the most trafficked animal in the world) is difficult, given the huge demand for them from neighbouring China, but this may change as Beijing is reportedly willing to crack down on wildlife trade following the coronavirus outbreak.
Like tigers, India has seen success in many other species. The Gir forest in Gujarat is home to the only surviving population of Asiatic lions in the world. In the late 1960s, there were only about 180 Asiatic lions. As of 2018, there are more than 600. India must continue this effort to fulfil its responsibility and stay true to Article 51A (g) of the Constitution, which says “it is the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”.
India has seen a few conservation successes lately. The population of leopards, tigers, and lions fell sharply in the 20th century but is now seeing a recovery. India’s tiger population has doubled in the past 12 years. Experts give the credit to protection efforts by government and non-government organisations. The development of the tourism industry around wildlife has also helped the cause. Several former poachers now protect wildlife and have become safari guides.
Let’s have a look at some of the most endangered species on Earth:
This rare leopard subspecies which lives in the Russian Far East, numbers less than 80 individuals, according to Wildcats Conservation Alliance. It is under severe threat from habitat loss driven by human development and forest fires in the region—as well as poaching and diseases such as Canine Distemper Virus.
Cross River gorilla
Researchers estimate that there are only between 200 and 300 members of this subspecies of the Western Gorilla left in the wild, although directly counting them is a tough task given that they are wary of humans and live in the relatively inaccessible territory. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), these gorillas live in at least 11 groups spread across the forests of Cameroon and Nigeria. The gorilla faces threats from habit loss as a result of logging and agriculture hunting and a loss of genetic diversity.
The smaller of the two African rhino species suffered precipitous declines in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, between 1960 and 1995, the black rhino population in the wild was reduced by a staggering 98 percent, largely because of poaching driven by demand for its prized horns which are used in traditional Asian medicine. Numbers have bounced back to more than 5,000 today thanks to conservation efforts across Africa, although the black rhino is not out of the woods, especially given the rise in demand for its horns, according to the WWF.
This smallest living tiger subspecies now comprises only around 400 individuals, all of which live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Their habitat is being destroyed by rampant deforestation on the island to make way for agriculture, timber harvesting, and residential developments. This often pushes the animals into conflict with humans, which can result in them being killed, according to Fauna and Flora International. The big cats are also a target for the illegal wildlife trade with one survey conducted by monitoring group TRAFFIC estimating that 78 percent of Sumatran tiger deaths- about 40 animals every year are the result of this illegal trade.
The Vaquita- a species of porpoise unique to the northern part of the Gulf of California is considered the world's most endangered marine mammal. The species is on the brink of extinction with estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released in July 2019 indicate that there may be only 9 individuals left, since fall 2018. The population has been reduced dramatically as a result of illegal fishing operations in protected areas of the Gulf, with the mammals often drowning after becoming entangled in nets intended to catch other creatures, such as the critically endangered totoaba fish.
We need to protect wildlife for many reasons. It is a source of inspiration. It nurtures a sense of wonder. It is integral to the balance of nature. It’s time that we focus on saving populations of the most ecologically, economically, and culturally important species in the wild. Ultimately, by protecting species, we save this beautiful, vulnerable, and utterly irreplaceable planet we call home.
We need to reverse this loss of nature and create a future where wildlife and people thrive again.