One in five vertebrates face extinction

The bad news: One in five vertebrates could go extinct within our lifetime, and the number may rise even higher than that.

The good news: It would be a lot worse if it weren’t for conservation efforts.

That’s the verdict of a global study of 25,000 threatened vertebrate species presented to the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Nagoya, Japan. It found mammals, amphibians, and birds are especially hard hit, with fifty species a day sliding closer to extinction. The main culprits are logging, agriculture, hunting, and alien species.

Yet conservation efforts are saving some animals. The white rhino, like the ones pictured above, was almost extinct a hundred years ago but is now the most common rhino in Africa and its status has been upped to Near Threatened, meaning that while it still needs to be watched, it’s not in any immediate danger. Here’s where ecotourism comes in handy. For example, Niger is hoping to cash in on safari tours by helping a unique subspecies of giraffe, bringing the population from fifty to two hundred in just a decade. Countries where the white rhinos roam are also pushing ecotourism and safaris.

Another success story is the giant marine reserve created in the South Pacific a few years back. This 73,800 square-mile reserve is one of the world’s largest and was created by Kiribati, one of the world’s smallest countries. If tiny island nations and poverty-ridden countries can help out their animals, one has to wonder why any species in the First World are threatened at all. Major food sources like tuna face extinction and even mythical beasts like the Loch Ness Monster may be extinct. When even our legends are dying out, you know we’re in trouble.

[Photo courtesy Joachim Huber]

A Canadian in Beijing: Shannon’s Wings

Today is the one-year anniversary of my friend’s death. One year ago today my friend committed suicide and I had never before lost a loved one to the concept of choice. It was shocking, to say the least, and I struggled hard to work through the meanings, the messages, the learning, the processing, the feelings. And, that work is never truly over.

She took to the sky and her wings were hers to exercise, I know. But, we all miss her. We only have the feathers she left behind and a lot of unanswered questions. The word of the year has been: acceptance.

Here I am in Beijing – so far from my little country town (where she died) and Montreal (where she lived) – and yet it feels like Shannon is just next door, living across the hall. As it happens with significant things in our lives, when the time of year comes around again that marks the passing of time since that event, everything seems to be a reminder of her as though she’s really close by. Thoughts themselves seem to manifest outside of my mind into the so-called randomness of life. That is how it has been for me these past few days. Shannon has been in everything my eyes have lingered on; she has been in every conversation that has sparked my interest; she’s even in my lessons at school.

We learned the word for suicide yesterday and it came up again today: Zi Sha 自杀 . Seeing as Bejing is twelve hours ahead of Montreal at the moment, I felt that was fitting. Both days full of reminders to mark one day back home.

I also had a great chat with an artist yesterday about the concept of breathing, cross-species communication, flight. All of these topics were in Shannon’s art and as I chatted with this artist in Chinese in a dimly lit café over cold beers, I felt as though I could have been chatting to her in English on a dimly lit country porch over red wine. Same vibe. Same style of conversation. Language, country, gender irrelevant.

This week began with a visit to a bird sanctuary, as well, which also symbolizes my friend. She loved birds and drew them regularly. She collected feathers and repeatedly photographed, carved and painted a dead sparrow that she found that had apparently frozen to death. It lay frozen in time and it captured her interest in a really special, poignant way. This image has now become symbolic of her life, her yearning for release, her curiosity about the other side.

The bird sanctuary was an accidental discovery. My friend and I stumbled on it while walking around and exploring the countryside. For just 6 kuai a person (with our student cards – less than $1 Canadian), we were able to stroll through the park and visit all the birds. But, nothing is an accident, really. The timing of this discovery was right in line with the significance of this time – a commemoration of my friend.

I took copious pictures of birds from all over the world, not just China. So many colours and shapes and sizes. I was amazed by the diversity of birds in this small sanctuary. Put a sparrow next to an ostrich and it seems uncanny that they’re both birds (Just look at those ostrich feet!) Put a turkey next to a flamingo and it’s hard to see how they’re from the same species! But, they’re all beautiful in their own way… (be nice to the turkeys, now!)

There were these super large birds whose Chinese name I have forgotten. (Does anyone know what they’re called in English?) They were the most interesting to me because they appear to be so animated with their large eyes, their slouched and hobbled walk. (The opening shot on this blog is of this bird and below is its full body.) It reminds me a kid’s cartoon whose name I have also forgotten, or the way judges in court are often depicted with their hunched shoulders, spectacled eyes and long gowns resembling black feathers. The fact that they’re so big also made it possible to read expression in their eyes, which is something you can’t normally do with birds. I told them (silently) that I was sorry that they were trapped in there. They looked at me with disgust. We were both helpless in that moment.

I walked away from their large cage feeling a rush of wanting to release them all – every bird in the park – and let them take to the sky. I know it’s not responsible. After all, look at the effect of starlings on North America just because of one man’s desire to have all the birds of England in Central Park? But, the urge to release a winged creature is something that just rushes up in me when I see a bird in a cage. I want to use my opposable thumbs to help them return to the wide open spaces above it all…

And, of course, along the exit pathway there was a full wall that showed birds that have already gone extinct and when. Many of these extinctions are a result of development, pollution, hunting, and of course a lack of human foresight that led to thoughtless decisions or loss of habitat. It struck me that perhaps it is possible that some of these birds simply went away. Maybe they just didn’t feel like staying in this world in the way that it was and has become. They left.

It’s possible. Anything’s possible.

Shannon’s date of extinction was June 12th, 2006. For me, her face was on that wall too. I miss her.

I miss you.