Op-Ed: Extinction and the hypocrisy of public outcry

Photo Courtesy of MEAACT PHOTO/ MAKE IT KENYA/ STUART PRICE under CC Public Domain Mark 1.0. May 22 2015.

OPINION: By Sarah Rappaport
BU News Service 

The world’s last male northern white rhino, Sudan, passed away Monday at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

The decision to euthanize Sudan was made by the Conservancy and the Czech Republic’s Dvůr Králové Zoo, Sudan’s previous home, after the 45-year old rhino deteriorated rapidly due to complications resulting from his old age.

Sudan’s death effectively sounds the death knell for his subspecies.

The only remaining females of this subspecies are both Sudan’s direct descendants: his daughter and granddaughter. According to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the subspecies could be repopulated if in-vitro fertilization techniques are successfully developed using stored genetic material of males, eggs of the surviving females and surrogate Southern White Rhinos to carry any potential offspring. However, this is a huge “if”.  

All five species of rhino are considered threatened. The western black rhino subspecies was the most recent to be declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in 2011.

We shouldn’t be shocked.

While charismatic megafauna — large, mostly-mammalian species that have popular appeal — are usually the source of high-profile news stories, it’s not just rhinos that are suffering.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, nearly 30 percent of all vertebrate species populations are declining. Species numbers are decreasing at rates so high that scientists are calling this phenomenon the sixth mass extinction.

“You shouldn’t be able to see anything go extinct in the course of a human lifetime,” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction”, told the Washington Post in a 2014 interview. “The normal background rate of extinction is very slow, and speciation and extinction should more or less equal out. But that’s clearly not what is happening right now.”

In the past few decades, nearly 200 species of frog have gone extinct. As of 2017, one fifth of all European fern species are at risk for extinction, after having thrived on Earth for 400 million years. Even popular and recognizable bird species such as the snowy owl are now considered vulnerable by the IUCN.

Still, the media and the public react with surprise, astounded regret and sadness whenever a large species goes extinct. Many of the same people who will post mournful tweets and statuses about Sudan and the plight of the world’s rhinos will go on to ignore species considered minor, or engage in acts harming vulnerable or endangered species, such as the consumption of certain types of fish like atlantic salmon.

Even other charismatic megafauna species tend to fall by the wayside in terms of public outcry.

Don’t forget that there are other rhino species that are critically endangered. Only about 60 Javan rhino individuals are left in existence–and only in Indonesia. The Sumatran rhino species total stands at fewer than 100. Sumatran rhinos, the small and hairy relatives of the long extinct Woolly rhinoceros, were declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia in 2015, and now both species survive in only a few protected, yet fragmented, habitats.

Sudan’s demise is undoubtedly a huge blow to rhinos and conservation efforts worldwide. But smaller, non-mammalian species continue to die out. The lesser known extinctions of the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, the Pinta Island giant tortoise and the presumed extinction of the Ziebell’s handfish were all devastating to biodiversity. Yet, you’ve probably never heard of them.

We need to continue to care about charismatic megafauna. The public adores rhinos, elephants and large cats, and donations sent to conservation groups supporting these species usually trickle down to less popular animals in the same ecosystems.

But to disregard the decline of these species considered lesser beings is a slight to conservation and wildlife protection efforts as a whole.

Next time you mourn the loss of one animal, consider the thousands of species that will die out this year. Will you even notice?  

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service.

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