As jungles, forests and waters vanish, around the world 50 - 100 species become extinct every day. It is the greatest rate of extinction since the age of the dinosaurs.
The Humane Society of Canada (HSC), along with other concerned groups and individuals, is sounding a national alarm over a report that 31 more species have recently joined Canada's list of endangered species. This brings the total to 338 species of animal and plant life now deemed to be at risk in Canada. We are urging children and adults from all walks of life in every community to become "Wildlife Guardians", working with us to protect animals and the earth.
Canada is home to an estimated 300,000 species. Of those, only 72,000 have been identified -- total natural history unknown. Because they are disappearing faster than we can name them or assess their benefits, we are still not certain of their precise role within complex ecosystems.
Many other plants and animals may be in trouble, but it takes human and financial resources to investigate each one. Even more devastating is the fact that the government agencies, entrusted to protect wildlife, are not doing anything meaningful to staunch this terrible loss of life and habitat. In Canada, natural habitat is disappearing at the rate of 240 hectares per hour.
More than 90% of Southern Ontario's Carolinian forest has been cleared or cut, and 75% of our original prairie land has been paved under or ploughed over, including 99% of all tall grass.
According to Canada's State of the Environment Report, the vast majority of wetland ecosystems are gone from coast to coast: 80% of the Fraser River delta wetlands in British Columbia; 71% of the Prairie wetlands; 70% of Southern Ontario wetlands; 65% of the Atlantic coastal marshes.
Habitat loss has accounted for approximately 80% of the decline of species in Canada. Over 99% of species destroyed since the turn of the century have been caused by humans, with habitat destruction the number one threat facing species.
The legal and illegal hunting of species is the second greatest threat facing wildlife. Pollution to the air, water and land threatens other species, such as the belugas of the St. Lawrence River, which are being killed by water borne pollution.
Wildlife plays an important role in maintaining important ecological balances. Plants assist in removing pollutants from the atmosphere and maintaining a carbon balance. Microorganisms break down water pollutants and on land they nourish the soil and plants. However, many ecosystems have already been overburdened with toxic contaminants.
Nearly half of all medicines used today originally came from wild organisms (i.e. cancer drug, Taxol, is derived from the rare Pacific Yew tree; a key drug to fight Hodgkin's disease and leukemia was discovered in the Rosy Periwinkle plant). Aspirin is derived from salicylic acid found in willow plants. Less than 5% of known plant species have been screened to determine their medicinal value. Cures for diseases such as AIDS and cancer may be found in some of these species.
Although 30,000 species of plants are known to be edible, only 20 species provide for over 90% of the world's food-supply and a mere three species (wheat, rice and corn) provide more than half the world's food.
Most Canadians would be astonished to learn that no endangered species laws exist in Canada to require governments to protect endangered species or prevent the destruction of their habitat.
Instead the identification of endangered species and wilderness areas falls under a bewildering political labyrinth that includes 3 levels of government, 14 different jurisdictions, and over 20 separate agencies.
Although, reportedly intended to mount effective action plans, the resulting maze of laws and regulations have become a veritable minefield for those concerned with the effective protection of wildlife and their habitat.
A government study found 95% of Canadians believe it is important to protect endangered species, yet, unlike many other countries, Canada lacks a federal endangered species act. Therefore, there is no single agency mandated to implement meaningful recovery programs for threatened species of wildlife and their habitat.
To make matters worse, current Canadian environmental impact assessment laws do not make specific references to wildlife, and the entire review process is riddled with legal loopholes which are regarded as working in favour of development rather than wildlife and the environment.
Some opponents have said that protecting endangered species and their habitat will adversely affect economic development. This is simply not true. A recent study in the United States, which has had a federal Endangered Species Act since 1972, found that of all the development proposals referred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, because of potential impacts on endangered species, over 99.9% were allowed to go ahead.
In 1991 Canadians and foreign tourists spent $9 billion on wildlife related activities generating almost $5 billion in tax revenues and almost $6 billion in personal income earned by the 200,000 jobs than were sustained by the resulting economic activity.
Preventing a species from becoming endangered or habitat from being degraded is far more cost-effective and sensible that trying to deal with the problem after the fact.
Twenty species have already become extinct in Canada since the year 1900. In 1994 over 60,000 workers in Newfoundland lost their livelihood with the collapse of the northern cod fishery. The salmon fishery in British Columbia is facing a similar fate. Once a species or habitat is at risk there has already been a loss of biodiversity and these poor business and environmental practices can no longer be allowed to continue.
Species also have their own intrinsic value as well as being economically valuable for human use. Allowing government agencies to continue placing a price on the head of every living wild animal and plant is to reduce them to a commodity to be bought, sold, traded and used up when the demand inevitably exceeds the supply.
Such a policy also advances the dangerous notion that the only wildlife worth protecting is the wildlife which can pay its own way -- and that policy represents poor science and economics because it is based upon the current inadequate base of knowledge about endangered species and the role that they play in complex ecosystems.
Canadians want effective protection for wildlife but, so far, the only response politicians seem capable of delivering is a toothless committee whose chief function is to record the epitaphs of a growing list of endangered species.
An ad hoc group, known as COSEWIC (The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), is composed of representatives from each provincial and territorial government, four federal agencies and three national conservation organizations. The Committee meets annually, in April, to consider status reports on candidate species.
The committee has no legal authority and has been warned, by politicians, that it has no right to even attach recommendations for action plans to its status reports. At the present rate at which this government committee is studying the problem it has been estimated that it will take them over a thousand years to evaluate all of Canada's species. Another ad hoc committee, which also has no legal authority, call RENEW (The Committee on the Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife), has approved a relative handful of recovery plans for endangered wildlife and actually implemented even fewer. Neither COSEWIC or RENEW currently have a mandate to include non-vertebrate species, groups of species and ecological spaces. Both committees advise they may broaden the scope of their mandate however, based upon their past performance, this offers little hope for timely, effective intervention.
At the 1992 United Nations (UN) Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janiero, Canada played a lead role in the drafting and passage of the Convention on Biological Diversity which was signed by over 160 nations. This UN Convention calls for "the conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats and the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings."
n working to honour the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, federal and provincial territorial governments are required to review their laws to determine how well the country fulfills the convention's requirements. But, there is a further complication: because the use of wildlife has, in the main, historically been the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments, there is no doubt that there would be constitutional challenges mounted against the passage of a national endangered species act.
Thus, the last best hope, to protect endangered species and their habitat, is a lasting partnership between the provinces, territories and the federal government. Party and regional politics have no place in such negotiations and Canadians must drive this message home to our elected officials.
HSC is formulating more effective ways to alert Canadians and empower them with the information needed to create and sustain a moving force that demands decisive immediate action on endangered species and wilderness areas. Species, such as the great auk, the sea mink, and Dawson's caribou, have already vanished. Within geographic regions of Canada, species such as the walrus, grizzly bear, black-footed ferret, and the swift fox, have been pushed over the brink of extinction.
Along with the majority of Canadians The HSC believes that wildlife has an inherent right to protection. And our children deserve to be able to see wild species thriving in their natural habitat -- not staring back at them from the other side of a glass case, gathering dust, in a museum.