Animals in crisis

Martin Wright reports on how the WWF's flagship species have faired in the past 35 years
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The Independent Online
Over the past 35 years, public concern for the fate of the world's great creatures has surged, while their numbers continue to decline, even collapse.

Each of the five animals charted here faces different threats, but the root causes are surprisingly similar: the destruction of their habitat, in the face of the fast-growing human population's demand for land; and their deliberate killing to meet human "needs" which are at best questionable - notably, use of their body parts as ornamentation and as constituents of traditional Chinese medicine.

Sustained campaigning by WWF and other organisations, coupled with practical measures on the ground, has led to some local recoveries. In very broad terms, the outlook has brightened a little for whales and elephants, while rhinos, pandas and, especially, tigers, are dangerously close to the edge.

Solutions, such as there are, lie both in helping local people to have a stake in the survival of those animals which are on their very doorstep, and in changing the attitudes - and touching the hearts - of those who consume them. Such tasks take time. Time is not on our side.

t 'Going, Going, Gone', an Independent/WWF book on Britain's threatened wildlife, written by Nicholas Schoon, is available for pounds 6.50, plus pounds 1.50 postage and packaging each copy, from 'Going, Going, Gone', Independent Offer, 91 High Street, Markyate, Herts AL3 8JG. As a launch initiative, for every copy sold the publishers Bookman will give pounds 2 towards WWF-UK's Site Safeguard Fund. Copies will be dispatched from November 11.


1,200 Giant Pandas exist

in the wild. Bamboo diebacks

are threatening starvation

WWF's "flagship species" has clung to existence by a fine thread throughout the Fund's lifetime. Back in the early 60s, reserves were seen as the answer. When the first four were declared by the Chinese in 1963, optimism prevailed that these would do the trick. Today there are 13, yet the wild Giant Panda is one of the world's most vulnerable creatures.

The Giant Panda favours a diet based almost exclusively on bamboo. This inevitably means that it has a limited habitat. They're confined to remnants of bamboo forest in the mountains of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.

Counting pandas is notoriously tricky. The latest estimate, based on spore analysis and satellite assessments, suggests there may be around 1,200 individuals. As such, they're vulnerable to the natural cycle of bamboo die-back. Every fifty years or so, swathes of bamboo forest flower, seed, and then die. When the forests were extensive, this phenomenon might even have been healthy for the pandas, spurring them to find pastures new and hence avoid risks of inbreeding. Today, it's more likely to have the opposite effect. Hundreds are thought to have died in China as a result of die-back during the 1970s.

Pandas are occasionally "rescued" (a euphemism for capture) for breeding programmes, but there has little success worldwide.


3 sub-species

of the tiger

have already

died out

Of all the world's great beasts, the tiger is closest to the edge. Caught between the hammer of poaching and the anvil of habitat loss, it faces extinction in the wild in a generation.

At the turn of the century, around 100,000 tigers roamed from Turkey to the Far East, from Siberia in the north to Bali in the south. Today perhaps 6,000 remain, over half of these are in India. Three of the tiger's eight sub-species are already extinct: the last Balinese vanished in the 40s, the Caspian disappeared in the 70s, and the Javan tiger a few years later. The South China tiger is on the brink.

Today's "flagship species" is the Bengal Tiger: an estimated 3,000 or so survive in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Of the rest: around 600 Sumatran tigers still live; 1,200 or so Indo-Chinese tigers exist; while the Siberian is down to a few hundred.

All are under pressure. Once hunted for sport or skins, the tiger is now poached for its powers, medicinal or mythical. They are being killed at terrifying rate. Much-trumpeted reserve programmes, like India's "Project Tiger" have largely failed to halt the killings. Laws banning the trade have proved inadequate: small wonder when a tiger skeleton is worth 10 years average wage in India.

As if this was not enough, the tiger's forest habitat is vanishing. WWF is helping local communities take an interest in the preservation of local forests, and so become the tiger's informal guardians.


There are only 600,000 African

and around 45,000 Asian

elephants left wild in the world

Over the past 30 years, there have been several reports of the imminent demise of the elephant. So far, they have all proven exaggerated. In part, this is due to a largely successful campaign by WWF and others against one of life's great inessentials - ivory. But poaching took a heavy toll, and it still goes on, despite the international ban. Elephants also need space - and in both the forests of Asia and the plains of Africa, that is a dwindling resource.

Three decades ago, African Elephants, roamed in their millions from the Sahara to the Cape. Today there are around 600,000. They have fared best in southern Africa, where powerful anti-poaching controls, combined with the elephant's value as eco-tourist lure, has seen numbers stabilise, even increase.

Elsewhere in Africa, elephants outside reserves are still being squeezed out, with a few exceptions, such as the forest elephants which roam the jungles of Gabon.

But their smaller Asian cousins are faring less well - ironically so, since the animal is honoured in mythology from Japan to India. For centuries, it was also a vital beast of burden, although mechanisation is making it redundant.

One in every five people on earth live in or near the habitat of the Asian elephant, and their numbers are doubling every 23 years. This puts them into direct competition with the remaining 45,000 wild elephants, and it's a contest in which the latter usually lose out. Around a half of Asia's elephants are in India; the rest are scattered from China to Borneo and Sumatra. Outside national parks (and sometimes inside too), their forest homes are cleared daily for agriculture and timber.

As with the rhino and the tiger, who share some of the elephant's habitat, the solution lies in bringing the locals onside. WWF is supporting imaginative development projects which help give villagers a stake in the forests' future.


Of the 11 great whale species,

7 are on the 'danger' list

The past 35 years have, on balance, been a Good Thing [sic] for whales. Today's whaling industry is a shadow of its former self, and widely reviled.

Much of the credit for this turnaround is due to WWF and other groups, which campaigned long and hard to save the world's largest mammals from near-certain extinction. In 1961, the year WWF was founded, 66,090 whales were harpooned in Antarctic waters. The story behind the record slaughter was one of sustainability.

Meanwhile, public opposition was growing, stirred by new evidence of whales' intelligence. The call to "save the whales" became a rallying cry for the general rise in environmental awareness. As Sir Peter Scott put it in 1972: "If we cannot save the whale, we have little chance of saving mankind."

By the mid-80s, the combined pressure of public opinion, coupled with alarming evidence of depleted stocks, was enough to persuade the International Whaling Commission to take drastic action. It agreed a moratorium on comm-ercial whaling in 1985.

But the years of slaughter had taken their toll. The North Atlantic Grey Whale was extinct; the Northern Right Whales hunted down to a few hundred; and of the vast Blue Whale, perhaps 500 survived out of an original population of 250,000.

Of the 11 great whale species in total, seven are listed as either endangered or vulnerable.