Monday, February 25, 2013

If A Turtle Falls In The Forest...

Are you inundated with cute animal YouTube clips? One more sneezing panda is gonna put me over the edge. Sometimes the links promise you eternal feel-goodness if  you sign a petition or donate money or even just share the outrage. Being a practical, pragmatic, and somewhat skeptical human being, I don’t believe in the effectiveness of online petitions or “every time you share this link a tiger cub gets a dollar” kinda things; they are merely clever methods of data mining for nefarious purposes.

But a couple of weeks ago, one of my little cousins emailed asking how to get to Bangkok. Turns out, the kid is joining the US delegation to CITES' 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties. She will be the sole delegate for the Smithsonian, as well as its first youth member. Amazingly enough, I actually knew what CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)  was and I did what I could to guide her on finding flights. But going as a delegate? That required further investigation.

While everyone is posting cockamamie links on Facebook, Marissa, a senior at College of the Atlantic in Maine, might actually be on the road to doing something useful in real time. The kid’s resume looks like an adventure in human-ecological interaction. She spent almost year on an internship at the Smithsonian. According to the press release published by the college:

During her time at COA, [Marissa] Altmann improved the organization and management of the teaching collection of the college’s George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History, participated in a spring break course in ecological developmental biology at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, and also received a Maine Space Grant to study parasite interactions between periwinkles and microscopic worms known as trematodes. Additionally, Altmann collaborated with Acadia National Park to collect acoustic data on bat foraging behavior at Bubble Pond, and recently received an additional Maine Space Grant to survey these nocturnal species, an important task given the issues of bat declines in recent years.

So now she heads out onto a bigger stage. 

CITES does do real work in the real world. The original concept was formed as a multilateral treaty in 1963 that ultimately gave way to the formation of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and eventually, to the development of CITES. As an independent convention, CITES works to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 34,000 species of animals and plants.” It’s probably worth mentioning that of the 193 member nations of the United Nations, only 17 (Andorra, Angola, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Federated States of Micronesia, Haiti, Iraq, Kiribati, Lebanon, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkmenistan and Tuvalu) are non-signers.

Why should we care?

We must care. We are stewards of this fragile planet.  Every animal or plant that disappears from the forest or the field is another missing piece in the puzzle of biodiversity.

There are some pretty weird animals out there. To be sure, we can wonder “why” when we look at an elephant, a camel, or a rhino. We can all shudder when we look at snakes or a coelacanth.  And the plants are not exactly safe either. Do you really want to be the one who plucks the last Findlay’s orchid (Dendrobium findlayanum) from the wild? Forests are being clear cut and in doing so, the delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere has been damaged. 

The living beings of this world should not be bartered away for a transitory price.

Keep in mind these species didn’t just happen. They evolved. They got to be who they are and what they are through millions of years of being. They became because they adapted. Humans have not remained the same nor will we, and there is much to learn from the evolution of species who have been here far longer than we have. Trafficking horns, fins, and petals is not a good use of our global birthright. 

Right now, freshwater turtles are getting lots of attention at CITES. They play crucial roles in keeping freshwater ponds, rivers, and lakes healthy ecosystems. Take away the turtle population and suddenly you lose a tremendous resource; their shells alone have a job as a nutrient sponge - one that retains and transports nutrients throughout aquatic ecosystems. They are not for chasing with sticks! 
Our lady of the pond  ~
just don't get in her way
You can ask anyone one of us who live on our pond just how delicate that balance is...and how rapidly it is failing to maintain despite our entreaties to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for help. If you don't walk outside every so often and notice whether or not your trees are thriving, whether or not your pond is turning into an marsh, or if your dunes are eroding because some people don't like dune grass, you're not doing your job as a resident of this planet. If you don't make an attempt to understand the inter-dependency of your own little natural world and then take a stand to protect it,  you’re troglodyte. It’s just that simple. 

The old camping credo, "Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it," is particularly important these days. We've learned what neglecting the barrier islands of the Mississippi Delta meant to the residents in the moments after Hurricane Katrina hit. We know that clear-cutting the rain forest impacts the entire planet's ecosystem. And we know that the lure of ivory has decimated the elephant populations because poachers never looks at what they kill, only at the tusks. But convincing the local population to protect its resources must be the major thrust of any conservation organization. As the International Union for Conservation states in its World Conservation Strategy:

Protected areas and threatened species could most effectively be safeguarded if local people considered it in their own interest to do so. Working with rather than against local people became a major working principle for IUCN.

We are all the local people, as we need the Marissas of this world. They force us to acknowledge we are responsible one for another. This, folks, is the essence of tikkun olam …repairing the world. And it's not only about rain forests, jungles, or the African savannah; it's also about our own backyards.

The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Traveling to new and exotic locales?
Hot spots are everywhere. Let your family know you're okay.

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