A continuing world need: protecting endangered species

WHAT's needed to more effectively protect the rare animals and plants on the world's growing list of endangered species? A continued buyer boycott of products made from such animals, a more aggressive international effort to stop the making and sale of such goods, stronger efforts to protect the habitat of such species, and renewal of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. An American couple, just back from the Caribbean, was astonished recently when United States Customs officials confiscated a newly purchased pair of leather boots. The tourists were unaware that the boots were made from the sea turtle, an animal near the top of the Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered-species list.

Few Americans learn with quite such a jolt what is on that list of close to 1,000 species.

Fortunately, a few once-rare species, including three varieties of Micronesian birds, are no longer on the list. Many more species are rare now only in certain geographic areas. The North American alligator, while not everyone's favorite creature, has made a comeback; six more Southern states this summer moved it up a notch to the ``threatened'' category. Two decades ago hunters had so depleted supplies that the alligator was deemed a relic headed the way of the dinosaur.

Many steps can help in moving species off the endangered list.

Current US legislation, carrying stiff penalties of up to a year in jail and a $20,000 fine for harming an endangered species, is up for congressional renewal this year; it deserves support.

Greater environmental awareness, aimed at preserving the habitat of various species and lessening pollution, also helps. Revival of the brown pelican, now faring particularly well on the Atlantic Coast, for instance, has been largely attributed to Washington's ban on DDT in the '70s. The species was partially removed from the endangered list in 1985.

Many efforts to breed species in captivity, including a recent Wyoming experiment with black-footed ferrets, and also an effort to breed red wolves, which will be placed in North Carolina later this month, have been very successful. The increase from 15 to 150 in the North American whooping crane population over the last 50 years is attributable to such breeding efforts.

Yet the challenge of preserving the best of the world's wildlife remains immense. Unfortunately, many more species are added to the endangered list each year than taken off. The list has quintupled over the last decade; new species are constantly being discovered and more species, for a mix of reasons, are in trouble. The last known dusky seaside sparrow died in Florida this month; wildlife experts will make one last search of the species' natural habitat next spring before adding the sparrow to the extinct species list. Expected to be added soon: the rare California condor, which has not yet bred successfully in captivity.

Still, endangered species can be helped to recover. Preserving their home environments is vital - which is one reason that natural scientists decry the rapid disappearance of the world's tropical rain forests. Commercial development constantly threatens endangered species. And poaching, usually to trade the skins and meat of rare species, is on the increase. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a group of 94 nations, is exploring at its biennial meeting in Ottawa this week how to cut down more effectively on such illegal activity internationally. Further gains need to be made against pesticides as well (see related news story, Page 1).

In the meantime, more vigorous enforcement efforts at the border can help. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which claims its warehouses are ``bulging'' with confiscated products made from endangered species, constantly updates and proffers a list of such taboo products. The more that travelers refuse to purchase such items, the less likely traders are to kill more endangered species to replace the goods.

Not only should the endangered-species list lengthen, but government's aim to reduce the list to zero deserves every citizen's full support.

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