Celebrate Endangered Species Day with US Fish & Wildlife

The USFWS Endangered Species Day logo by Jennifer Hennessey.The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has declared today – Thursday, May 15th – as Endangered Species Day. While I support the need to spread awareness about the distressing loss of biodiversity our planet is facing—the sixth global mass extinction crisis in our planet’s history, it seems like a better name is in order. 

A day to honor endangered species, on its face, oddly seems to be “celebrating” the unfortunate state we—or more accurately, they—are currently in, or alternatively considering them in memoriam even though they are still on the planet with the potential to be saved.

When I was in school and we talked about endangered species, we would list them off—tigers, orangutans, panda bears, river dolphins, and so on—along with their remaining numbers and threats, and occasionally throwing in a “success story” like the American bald eagle, humpback whales, or the California condor for good measure.

But like a day celebrating them, the takeaway message was that this was a list of valuable things—like baseball cards or stamps—made more valuable due to their rarity.  And this message is the opposite of what imperiled animals species need. 

In fact, it is vital that we not embrace the rarity of these species on account of the fact that they are almost gone and thereby reinforce the underlying theme that their endangered status makes them that much more valuable. This message is already creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of their doom.

As we’ve seen with the use of endangered species products in traditional Asian medicines, art, and sport trophies, it’s actually their scarcity which is driving up the price and demand for these products. Particularly with luxury items like hunting a rare black rhino, or buying polar bear skin rugs or decorative ivory tusks, their uniqueness has driven the price of the items—and the price on the animal’s head—to unheard-of levels, creating a perverse incentive to keep them scarce.

Instead of memorializing or celebrating endangered species’ rarity, we should be looking for a future where there are no more endangered species—only plentiful populations living in safe and ample wild habitats.  With that in mind, I would advocate for changing the name to National Endangered Species Recovery Day, where U.S. citizens are encouraged to go out and do something to help a species in trouble or support an organization devoted to saving imperiled critters and their habitat. Or, following the trend of holidays celebrating people with great accomplishments, perhaps have a day in honor of the selfless men and women who have devoted their lives to the betterment of animal species, such as primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, marine scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle, or elephant guru Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

Another option would be to have a U.S. Endangered Species Act Day, celebrating this landmark law passed in 1973, which along with other regulations like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, have made the United States a world leader in legislation designed to save wildlife and their environment. This suite of ground-breaking conservation laws is truly something to celebrate, and given that it is often maligned by special interests with financial stakes in exploiting natural habitats or species, a U.S. Endangered Species Act Day could provide a positive boost to its public image.

Or, at the very least, it could be called Save Endangered Species Awareness Day, where instead of glorifying the U.S. Endangered Species List or the international IUCN Red List of disappearing animals, the day’s theme would be one of motivating change and action, of creating a day to reflect on what more can we do to help these animals, or even more pointedly—inspiring us to change what are currently doing that is leading to species’ demise. Examples of actions the U.S. could take would include denying trophy import permits for U.S. sport hunters who proudly slaughter imperiled animals like elephants and lions under the thin guise of “killing for conservation”, or decreasing the U.S. contribution to carbon emissions which drive habitat loss due to climate change.

Unlike celebrations of motherhood and our armed services, we don’t have a National Cancer Day, or National Economic Recession Day, because such holidays would embrace horrific things we would rather see be eliminated. And I while I would like to see the need for lists of endangered species eliminated through the global recovery of wild places and wild animals, the message for a national endangered species day needs to be one of hope, inspiration, and action. Talking about endangered species on National Endangered Species Day is not a bad thing, but doing something to save them is even better.

--JF

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