To mark Endangered Species Day we asked Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid, to share a blog about his passion for protecting endangered species from trade.

I have dedicated the last 25 years of my life to protecting endangered species from trade. For me, it is an issue that matters as it may ultimately wake us up to the disastrous course we are steering our home planet. Endangered species put a recognisable face to concepts like habitat destruction, deforestation, overfishing, climate change and unsustainable consumption. 

Sadly, it may have to be the loss of well known animals, such as Northern white rhinos (only seven individuals left), forest elephants (62% decline in the past 10 years) and South China tigers (no confirmed sightings in 25 years) that make us realize that we need to learn to live within our environmental means. These canaries in the coalmine indicate all is not well.

Image courtesy of Kristian Schmidt/ WildAid.

The fact that the extinction rate is now thought to be 1,000 times greater than the natural level should raise alarms.

Image courtesy of Vern Evans Photography.

What we have done to these species will hopefully make us realise that we have more in common and at stake than our cultural or political differences, and that the only way out for us to survive and prosper is to work together and use our "superior intelligence". Or, perhaps we ain’t so smart and we’ll just continue headlong towards the environmental precipice in lemmingesque fashion. 

We are the first generation to have the knowledge and affluence to choose a different way, but whether we’ll take that path is a big question. Like it or not, we are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event our planet has experienced in its long history.

On geological terms we only just got here, but boy did we make an entrance. The previous events resulted from asteroid hits, volcanic periods and drastic climate change. Who could have thought that one “supersmart” species could knowingly create such a disaster and just keep on steaming towards the iceberg to boot?  

The fact that the extinction rate is now thought to be 1,000 times greater than the natural level should raise alarms. Yet, way before extinction we have the impoverishment and degradation of our environments, which may be even more serious for human welfare – our denuded and empty forests and our depleted oceans. I’ve travelled to some pretty remote locations and the people most in need are those whose environment has been damaged or destroyed.  If your surrounding environment is healthy, there are always resources. You may not be rich, but you will be able to feed yourself reliably.

But our lack of action to prevent the poaching of 33,000 elephants a year for ivory or the use of 28-73 million sharks in shark fin soup each year is part of a greater trend of putting off problems for another generation - we dodge the hard decisions; population, the consumption explosion, climate change, water shortages, increasing national debts, and cutting taxes when we all want more services. We forge ahead regardless leaving the next generation to pick up the tab. 

So what will be our legacy? 

Image courtesy of Kristian Schmidt/ WildAid.

We are the first generation whose children will live shorter lives than us due to overeating. We’re also leaving huge environmental problems stemming from population and consumption. Population projections show we will top out at around 9.6 billion with most of that growth in less wealthy nations chasing resources from an already heavily depleted nature.

We are also binge consuming like crazy and perhaps the apex of our unsustainable appetite is taking the last of a species. Catching the last Spix macaw from the wild for exotic bird breeders, shooting the last rhino in Vietnam for its horn as a fake cancer cure or perhaps shortly killing the last forest elephant for an ivory carving is about as flagrant a selfish act as any human can undertake.  

So, where better for humanity to unite on a common cause and stop the taking of the last of many of these species? It should be easier than controlling population growth as it’s not about religion or limiting people’s freedoms, but about changing our culture. 

Were Marx alive today no doubt he would call “consumerism” the opiate of the masses. Time to awake from our stupor. 

WildAid has focused on highlighting the disastrous effects of overconsumption on wildlife. While traditional conservation efforts have been studying and trying to protect the supply, we have pointed out that it is the demand that pays the bills and drives the deadly trade. 

Image courtesy of Vern Evans Photography.

Image courtesy of Peter Knights/ WildAid.

We’ve employed the very techniques used by high-end advertisers to boost consumption as our way to deter it, with some recent success on sharks. In China, shark fin consumption has been reduced by 50-70% according to media and trade sources. 

Surely it’s only by moderating our consumption like this that will help us start heading in the right direction for endangered species, for our climate and for our very own survival.