If you herd books on endangered species, you’ll hit on this slogan: “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores.” It’s a modern pinpoint strategy, a kind of “Marshall Plan for the planet,” according to the smart and fervent writer Caroline Fraser. I’ll start with her “Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution” (Picador, 2009) because it truly shoulders hope. And in our world of disappearing elephants, polar bears, and thousands of other vulnerable, irreplaceable, and poetically endearing species (the numbat! the aye-aye! the oblivious tiger beetle!) this is a precious stone.
To explain that slogan, then: “Cores” refers to big protected wilds, like national parks or even entire biosystems (a full mountain range, say, or a whole savanna). “Corridors” means those areas that connect the cores, because a cutoff core means a less diverse (and thus, eventually imperiled) habitat. Corridors also provide species safety: Until the 1997 creation of “Y2Y,” the Yellowstone to Yukon Corridor, nearly all Banff National Park’s wolves that died were killed at two stress points; over one period, 27 percent fell by the Trans-Canada Highway, 60 percent by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
But what makes “Carnivores” so crucial? They regulate the other animal populations and this in turn keeps us green; if carnivores didn’t eat herbivores, they’d graze everything to desert. Big predators like lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) matter disproportionately to their numbers: No “Life of Pi,” no life. And smaller, fragile species impact not just the food chain, but humans directly. The cone snail, for instance, is needed for research into pain medications for sufferers of AIDS and cancer. And the prairie dog is needed for its tunnels, which chute rain water to the American Southwest’s jeopardized water table. Drain the water table, get a failed state. As Fraser writes: “Gradually, we are realizing that the environment is the economy.”
I’m not the only one thinking about threatened animals (and economies). In Bangkok, the big yearly CITES Conference of the Parties has just kicked off (CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Over the next couple weeks, attendees will grapple with leopard quotas in Botswana, the fate of the Tibetan antelope, and how to fight over-harvesting of queen conch shells in Colombia. CITES established the “Magna Carta for wildlife” in 1975, to quote Laurel A. Neme, the author of “Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species” (Scribner, 2009). The international pact set limits and protections, but even so illegal wildlife trade is the world’s third-largest criminal activity, after drug and human trafficking. It’s a $20 billion enterprise.
Most trade is what you’d expect: pelts, ivory, live animals. But I had no idea that the lion’s share goes through Asia, where animal parts are thought to boost human virility: powdered rhino horn, tiger penis pills, deer musk, crystallized bear bile. In the ’90s in South Korea, for instance, bear bile sold for over $1,000 a gram, 20 times the price of heroin. Note to Pfizer: Sell Asia on Viagra, save endangered species.
All this illicit trade is “a trifecta of low risk, weak penalties, and high profits,” writes Neme. Indeed, it even funds terrorism. Sudan’s Janjaweed militias make money from poaching. So does Al Qaeda. “Animal Investigators” tells the gripping story of the “Scotland Yard of wildlife crime,” an Ashland, Ore., outpost OF THE US FISHERIES AND WILDLIFE SERVICE that tracks and nabs the bad guys. Neme shadows several cases. There’s one in Alaska, where headless walruses wash ashore (they’re killed for their tusks) and another in Brazil, host to the Tony Soprano of scarlet macaws (they’re killed for their feathers).
Two more top writers have taken on the subject of endangered species. Diane Ackerman is the more rhapsodic with “The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds” (Vintage, 1995). She travels from Japan to the Amazon where “[n]o gasp of sunlight goes untrapped” and a golden lion tamarind monkey is colored “sunset-and-corn-silk.” And David Quammen is deft and funny. His “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions” (Scribner, 1996) is “full of cheap thrills,” he writes. Meaning that islands exaggerate the process of evolution and thus teach us in sped-up, dramatic ways. More to the point, islands also amplify extinctions; they’re all core, after all, no corridors.
Quammen presents a startling image for such habitat fragmentation: If you cut a beautiful Persian carpet into 36 pieces, it becomes useless, and it unravels. So goes the world itself. “Island biogeography is no longer an offshore enterprise,” writes Quammen. “It has come to the mainlands.” The stats are ever-shifting. But some estimates put as much as 30 percent of the world’s animals and plants on the road to extinction within 100 years. We can see the results of such “islandification” by looking at actual isles. An island bird, for instance, is 50 times more likely to become extinct than a mainland bird. Quammen’s eponymous dodo, of Mauritius, fell because desperate sailors ate it (two 30-pounders could feed a whole crew) and then loosed pigs that devoured the eggs.
Quammen also talks of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. He tracks komodo dragons in Indonesia and corrals ants on an island off Baja, Calif. And he offers up some great freedom fighters for animals, such as Carl Jones, a “sarcastic Welshman” who works in Mauritius for the International Council for Bird Preservation. Jones craftily climbs cliffs to steal the eggs of endangered white kestrels, coaxes new life from them in incubators, meanwhile spurring the mothers to hatch extra eggs in replacement. Oh, he also loves to fling dead mice high in the air, which the kestrels snatch in mid-flight.
Flinging also figures into “Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators” (Bloomsbury USA, 2008). Legendary University of Washington zoologist Robert T. Paine spent months pulling starfish off the rocks in Mukkaw Bay, in Puget Sound, and flinging them back into the waves. Why? To prove the importance of “keystone species.” It turns out this orange and purple Pisaster ochraceous starfish evens up the rocks’ mussel populations by sampling from each at the raw bar. Take away Pisaster, you get disaster: Unchecked, one aggressive mussel species becomes kingpin. And within months, seven of the 15 varieties are edged off the rocks, the rest in steep decline. Author William Stolzenburg goes on to “consider the view from the top down” with killer whales, wolves, eagles, jaguars, lynxes, and more.
Most of these books genuflect to Edward O. Wilson, the brilliant Harvard entomologist, island biogeographer, and nature writer. His “The Future of Life” (Vintage, 2002) begins with a keyed painting of endangered species — hawksbill sea turtle, a condor’s egg, and my pet favorite, the fat pocketbook pearly mussel — and a heart-heavy open letter to Thoreau. “The living world is dying,” writes Edward to Henry. “The natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet.” Is there hope? A bit. Besides “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores,” we must also bring our population to a sustainable 2.1 birthrate, and switch from the GNP to the GPI (general progress indicator), which includes the environmental cost of economic activity. As such, the book’s epigraph cries like a (yes, endangered) harpy eagle. It’s from John C. Sawhill, the late president of The Nature Conservancy: “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton, She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.