Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: May 15 is Endangered Species Day

“They took all the trees put ’em in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em. Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Joni Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I received a thoughtful children’s book, Rojo, the Red Baby Panda at the Zoo. In an accompanying note, author Hope Mucklow reminded me that May 15 is Endangered Species Day.

Red Pandas are small mammals native to the Himalayas and southwest China and are classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss and poaching.

As a science teacher, it can get disturbing when the discussion of ecosystems turns to endangered and extinct species. Students begin to grasp the notion that extinction is forever. It’s gone. No one wants to lose the minute or the majestic, but like most things precious, everything has a price.

Living things have been arising and vanishing since the world began. Extinction is part of nature and nature is powerful. Climate changes, oxygen levels change and meteorites bombard Earth’s surface.

When homo sapiens came into the picture, they used their power and intelligence to create nanochips, space stations and everything in between. And we crave our “stuff.” But in our desire to “have,” we have turned a blind eye to the compelling evidence of how our achievements and desires impact other living things. Some are necessary, but much is pure lust and greed.

The importance of diversity

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, scientists have classified approximately 1.7 million organisms, although even more have not yet been classified. Between 10-50 million species may inhabit our planet. Each one depends on and is part of a complex, often delicately balanced network called the biosphere — a network of untold ecosystems. No one really knows how the extinction of one organism will affect another, but the removal of a single species can set off a destructive chain reaction.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service reminds us that “the extinction of even a single plant species may result in the disappearance of up to 30 other species of plants and wildlife.”

How does it happen?

Extinctions occur naturally and will continue to do so. But U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service correspondent Sarah Leon says there is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that the current rate of species extinction is much higher than the natural rate of the past. Human activities seem to be the basis for the current rate and extent of species loss and endangerment.

Humans take up more and more space on Earth for our homes and cities. We pollute the habitats that remain. We illegally hunt and kill animals for their body parts. In some areas, threatened species are hunted for food. We bring exotic and invasive species into existing habitats. Simple activities from off road biking to buying a teak dining room table alters or destroys the habitats that plants and animals need to survive. Because human populations are growing so fast animals and plants are disappearing 1,000 times faster than they have in the past 65 million years.

Biologists estimate that since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, more than 500 species, subspecies, and varieties of our nation’s plants and animals have gone extinct and that in the 21st century 100 species will become extinct every day.

Like a rough diamond lying undiscovered in a mine, some obscure species of plant could one day be lifesaving if we find it before it vanishes. We should be humbled to recall that a lowly fungus gave us penicillin and that plants have provided us with chemicals that have reduced pain and fever, prevented clots, stabilized heart failure and halted cancer.

If these organisms had been destroyed before their unique chemistries were known, their secrets would have died with them.

Call for action

Endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants are of ecological, historical, esthetic, recreational, and scientific value to us all. Medicines to cure cancer come from vanishing plant species. Animals such as pollinators help create the fruits and vegetables we need for nutrition. Ultimately, these species are a part of the complex web of life that supports us every day.

Since many of our nation’s native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct, Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966, and then a more comprehensive law, the Endangered Species Act, in 1973.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is to protect and recover imperiled species, and to preserve the ecosystems upon which these species depend.

Generations to come

The ancient Iroquois Seventh Generation Principle is based on the philosophy that the decisions made today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation says “The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.”

The implications of losing endangered and threatened species is a topic that we need to be discussing in the classroom, at the dinner table and when we make choices that ultimately impact the environment. Students can not protect what they are not aware of or connected to in some way.

Endangered Defined

“Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

More than 1,300 species of plants and animals are currently listed as either threatened or endangered in the United States. Extinction remains a real threat for many of them. There is a list of endangered Florida fish, insects, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals — ranging from the Florida manatee and Florida panther to Lolita the Killer Whale who has been living in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium for 44 years.

May 15

May 15, 2015 is one day set aside for children, parents, educators and policymakers to step back and take a look at our individual impacts. It makes us uncomfortable to know how we are killing off animals and plants that we depend upon to keep our Earth diversified and balanced. Not to mention beautiful.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe says it is a day to learn about the importance of endangered species and why they’re worth protecting. There are many species that are still at risk even with the protection they’ve gained but there are success stories too. The Endangered Species Act has helped our nation protect wild things and wild places, ensuring that our children’s children and future generations can see species such as the bald eagle, the black-footed ferret and the American alligator. Endangered Species Day offers us an opportunity to recognize the ESA’s good work and the work of all those committed to it.

Do your part for the future generations. Become part of the movement.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.