Living on the Edge

By:  Jennifer Ray

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     The Florida panther, Cape Sable seaside sparrow, and Kemp's ridley sea turtle are classified in different vertebrate categories, but they all have something in common;  they are on the endangered list.  These animals' lives, as well as hundreds of other species' lives, are in danger as their survivial and reproduction rates decline.  Animals are becoming endangered primarily because of the effects human activities have on environmental change.  Environmental concerns are causing changes through increasing amounts of water pollution and development and destruction of natural habitats.  All wildlife plays an important role in maintaining a natural balance on earth; therefore, it is vital for the nation to embrace a movement for wildlife conservation in order for the list of endangered species to decline.

     The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 protects the vital habitat of all endangered species.  The problem with this is getting endangered animals on the ESA list before it is too late; many animals only receive protection after being threatened with extinction.   To be put on the ESA list, the number of a certain species must be accounted for through research (Wilkinson 26).  This research is very costly and not funded by the government; therefore, many species are known to be endangered, but cannot be added to the list for lack of research (26).  With this process, a long period of time passes before research begins, making it hard to know when some species are out of danger or nearing extinction.

     Increasingly, water pollution and habitat loss are problems endangering animals; the Florida panther has become endangered due to both.  Water supplies consumed by panthers have become contaminated by industrial poisons in the forms of pesticides and waste products (La Pierre 44).  Through testing of dead panthers, high levels of the element mercury have been found in some (44).  The damage done to the Florida panther population by water pollution is devastating.  Less than fifty adults are left, but an attempt to restore them is underway through a breeding program performed in captivity.  Numbers of panthers should start rising with the continuation of this program as nine kittens are already successfully living (44).

     Water not only creates a problem for animals when it is polluted, but also when natural water flows are interrrupted.  The cape Sable seaside sparrow is an endangered species because of water flow changes caused by development (Mackay 38).  The building of drainage systems (dams, levees, and canals) for new developments causes altered water flows.  Water is constantly re-routed to different areas; flooding, which soaks sparrow's nests, occurs and droughts leave land as fire hazards (38).  The restoration of these sparrows depends on redirecting water flow to specific areas, capturing sparrows and transporting them into the new areas of natural water flow.

     The challenges facing both the Florida panther and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow are unique because both of these animals' habitats are in Everglades National Park.  Many misperceive that national parks provide safe habitat from environmental concerns to animals living within (Wilkinson 29).  With increasing human population growth, developers seek new lands, often to be found along park boundaries (28).  The development near and around Everglades National Park has contributed to the water pollution, the disruption of the natural water flow, and to the habitat loss within the park.  Because of this incorrect assumption of protection, the public does not consider the effects of development near parks to be a problem and makes no effort to stop or reverse the effects.  Although the preservation of endangered animals is costly, projects have begun to reduce water pollution and restore natural water flow in the Everglades National Park (Mackay 38). 

     The endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle faces a challenging combination of both water pollution and natural habitat development and destruction.  The first challenge to sea turtles is water pollution, occuring in two main forms and affecting adult turtles.  Fishing nets catch sea turtles as well as the intended catch (shrimp, fish) leaving dead turtles to float ashore; the ingestion of debris found in the water also leaves turtles dead as it clogs their digestive system (Weber 32).  Pollution of all kinds is prohibited by law, but is still, none-the-less, found throughout the ocean.  The second challenge to sea turtles is the survival of their young left buried on land.  The increasing rate of tourism to beach areas contributes to lower birth rates; hatchlings follow the glare of the surf to make their way to the ocean; with growing numbers of motels and business contributing a great amount of light, sea turtles follow the glare of the lights--heading away from the surf (31).  Restoration projects are on going to make new nesting beaches for the sea turtles.  Hatchlings are captured for a one year period and moved to a new nesting beach, free of traveling tourists and development.  Over thirteen thougsand yearlings have been released into the surf to come back years later to nest on safer beaches (33). 

     As tourists steadily pour into beach areas and more people build beach houses, competition arises between man and sea turtle.  Development near beaches decrease nesting of sea turtles and creates complications for hatchlings; however, a conscious effort is being taken by seashore staff to carefully watch nests and direct beach dwellers away from the nests near hatching time (Weber 32).  Another effort is being taken by fishermen in certain areas; this is a program called Return a Gift to Wildlife, in which fishermen untangle sea turtles from nets and return them to biologistss who take them back to the sea after tagging them for identifications (Sadove 26).  This program rewards fishermen for saving the sea turtles and has successfully returned many turtles back into the sea (27).  One other advancement for fishermen is the new Turtle Excluder Device (TED), a metal barrier made to allow small animals into nets, but not large enough for turtles to pass (Weber 32).  This proves effective when used, but often fishermen continue to use regular nets that trap turtles along with the intended catch to evade the high prices of the TED and the hastle of buying new nets to accommodate the TED (Stearns 108)

     Despite attempts to live together, human activities pose a great threat to many endangered species.  Regardless of education and environmental awareness people receive through the media and by existing laws, the constant reminder is not enough as the number of endangered species continues to increase.  No single solution exists for saving endangered species; however, the practice of wildlife conservation provides some relief for animals as mankind is learning about how animals live, being more cautious not to harm natural habitats, and becoming more willing to forego development in these habitat areas.  This protection of animals is necessary for the continued existence of endangered species and for the prosperity of the ecosystmes of which all life forms make up.  This important concept of wildlife conservation is well stated by Stephen Jay Gould,  "We cannot win this battle to save species and envinroments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well - for we will not fight to save what we do not love."


La Pierre, Yvette.  "On the Edge."  National Parks  November/December 1997:  44.

Mackay, Katurah.  "Bird on the Brink."  National Parks  May/June  1998:  38.

Sadove, Samuel S.  "Fishermen rescue endangered sea turtles with help from Return a Gift for Wildlife."  New York State Conservationist  December 1995:  26-27.

Stearn, Bob.  "Net Effect."  Field & Stream  April 1997:  108-109.

Weber, Michael L.  "Contested Coastlines."  National Parks  January/February 1997: 30-33.

Wilkinson, Todd.  "Without a Trace."  National Parks  July/August 1998:  26-29.

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