Conservation happens one animal at a time

 

With Congress divided and 2020 looming, it’s hard to build consensus about how to solve problems that are bigger than Washington. The good news is that while the most urgent conservation issues are large and complicated, we don’t need to wait for massive reforms to make real progress.

Consider two instructive pieces of legislation discussed by members of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife last week: the Big Cat Public Safety Act and the SAVE Right Whales Act.

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The Big Cat Public Safety Act would make it illegal to keep as pets or allow public contact with any lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, pumas or cougars. That might sound niche, but across the United States, alarming numbers of captive big cats are in private hands. It is impossible to know exactly how many, given the lack of federal regulation, but estimates number in the thousands — including more tigers privately owned in the United States than remain in the wild worldwide. 

The SAVE Right Whales Act would designate $50 million over the next decade to eliminate the two leading causes of right whale mortality: fishing gear entanglement and collision with ships. Between spiking mortalities and falling birth rates, scientists estimate there are fewer than 420 right whales left. Of these, only a quarter are breeding females, meaning that the species could very well disappear within 20 years. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonRules for first Democratic primary debates announced Moulton says new Trump rape accusation furthers need for impeachment proceedings 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown MORE (D-Mass.) put the problem in stark terms: “Now we have a choice: we can be the generation that brings them back, or the generation that allows their extinction.”

While both the Big Cat Public Safety Act and the SAVE Right Whales Act have bipartisan support, neither bill has much name recognition outside select circles of stakeholders. (Ironically, the lack of awareness is a problem that both of these bills aim to solve, with initiatives to educate law enforcement, fishermen and the general public.)

Ignorance about the problems facing big cats and right whales fits a larger pattern of willful neglect. We humans often discount the problems facing other species as far away or inevitable or somehow less important. But directly and indirectly, their problems are our problems, too: problems with our environment, our economy and the way we live. That’s why individual animals matter in conservation. They make it real.

And they show us how direct interventions add up to long-term change. When we rescue one animal — one leopard trapped as a backyard novelty, one whale tangled up in fishing gear — we’re doing much more than saving a life. We’re saving a species in danger of extinction.

Human activity is driving what biologists call a “sixth mass extinction.” (The fifth killed off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago.) With vertebrate extinction rates accelerating to 114 times the natural rate, we’re on track to lose up to 40 percent of Earth’s species by 2050. If that happens, it will undermine food webs and entire ecosystems.

As overwhelming as that sounds, some of the most effective solutions are surprisingly simple — simpler than the sweeping reforms garnering so much attention. Short of net-zero carbon pollution, we can immediately keep wildlife where they belong: the wilderness. Short of overhauling global transportation systems, we can immediately set speed limits for ships. Short of building a green economy, we can advance new rope-less fishing gear technologies.

To be sure, restricting private ownership of big cats or reducing fishing gear entanglements is not going to definitively solve the problems that lead to species loss. Nevertheless, both bills are short-term lifesavers while we come up with longer-term solutions. What’s more, they are examples of the kind of fresh thinking and bold action necessary to help people and animals thrive together.

Unfortunately, our political climate makes it dangerously easy to frame conservation as a wedge issue. At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintock58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill Conservation happens one animal at a time House passes bill expressing support for NATO MORE (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the committee, mischaracterized the Big Cat Public Safety Act as a political tactic by “big business zoos” to put their smaller competitors out of business. The SAVE Right Whales Act, he went on, conceals an attack on offshore drilling, “harm[ing] our nation’s economy and energy independence.” Instead of engaging with the solutions on the table, McClintock spent his time knocking down straw men. Neither bill has anything to do with commerce or energy. The solutions in these bills are common-sense ways we can work together, across industries and party lines, to practice conservation.

One by one, animals’ lives are hanging in the balance. Instead of wringing their hands about the next election, members of Congress should focus on the next extinction.

Azzedine Downes is president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.