Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Importance of Predators and How You Can Help One Species Right Now

I recently received an action alert email from Defenders of Wildlife concerning a devastating poison called carbofuran. This agricultural pesticide is made by a US company and has been deemed too dangerous to be used in the United States, but it can easily be bought in Kenya and East Africa. What is it being used for? Herdsmen are purchasing it in order to kill lions, leopards and other predators.
According to Defenders: “Just a handful of carbofuran -- a deadly neurotoxin that Defenders helped to ban in the U.S. -- can kill an entire pride of lions”.

Despite the popular belief that lions are abundant, they are in steep decline. According to Defenders, just 50 years ago, a half million of the big cats could be found roaming Africa. Populations have plummeted to an estimated 16,000, a decline of more than 95%. Kenya now hosts fewer than 2,000 lions, down from 35,000 fifty years ago. At this rate, Kenya’s lions will be extinct within two decades. This issue got me to thinking about predators in general.

Predators or carnivores have been my main passion since I was five years old. Bears, wild cats and dogs, and the entire mustelid family (weasels, wolverines, martens etc) are just a few of the animals that have captured my heart. As a birder, I am also aware of the importance of predators in our ecosystem. You are probably thinking, “Why should birders care about lions and other predators?” Predators are a keystone or umbrella species. Protect them, and their habitat, and you protect everything else that lives within that habitat, including birds.

One classic example can be found right here in the US, in Yellowstone National Park. Once wolves disappeared from the park, the ecosystem began to suffer. With no major predators to fear, elk and deer began to congregate and demolish anything they could reach. Willow and aspen trees began to die out as these ungulates browsed them down to nothing. Returning wolves to the ecosystem has caused prey animals to disperse and spread out more, which is allowing these trees to flourish. Browsed out riverbeds are once again lush and green.

Where there are trees and shrubs, there are nesting birds. See the connection? Wolves also provide food for other wildlife. Coyotes, ravens, bears, magpies and eagles have all benefited from wolf kills. The presence of wolves has helped bring down the coyote population, which was out of control. With the reduction of coyotes, other predators such as foxes, fishers, wolverines, martens and badgers are increasing in number, which of course leads to a healthier ecosystem.

It is all a careful balancing act, and one that is fiercely intertwined. Take one component out of the equation, such as predators, and watch an entire ecosystem begin to decline.

For many people, predators symbolize the last of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Many others fear predators. They think the only good predator is a dead one. This is the farthest thing from the truth. In fact, predators are essential to our natural world. Without these powerful creatures, entire landscapes can change for the worse. I also truly believe that when we lose predators, we lose the wildness in our souls. Right now, in Africa, lions can be lost within twenty years, unless something is done now. Take a moment to make a difference. Please go to www.defenders.org now and sign the petition to save the African lion!!!

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