Today is Endangered Species Day, which is hardly cause for celebration, as ideally no such occasion would exist. This is not an ideal world, however. That was clear earlier this month when the UN’s biodiversity and ecosystem arm IPBES reported that one million species worldwide are threatened with extinction.
Yet conservationist Rob Shumaker—author, orangutan expert, and president of the Indianapolis Zoo, which biennially awards the Indianapolis prize, the most prestigious global award in conservation—is optimistic. “You have a lot of power. You can save endangered species,” he urges enthusiastically over the phone, explaining what he wants everyone to take away from the UN’s report. “The government has to look at broader policy issues…but that isn’t permission for individuals to give up. Individuals can have a massive impact.”
Shumaker argues that how each one of us shops, eats, drinks, and goes about daily activities influences the likelihood of numerous species surviving or dying out, and in turn the quality of life for all future humans. This means that we all have a lot of responsibility and power.
He knows that a single human can save an endangered species because he has seen it happen, repeatedly. Despite the UN’s dire predictions, which he in no way minimizes, Shumaker says its key message is that it’s not too late to turn things around. Individuals can’t just shrug and give up in the face of the problem’s seeming enormity.
Shumaker’s belief is grounded in evidence. The Indianapolis prize honors leading conservationists for their extraordinary individual contributions. The first recipient, George Archibald, is credited with saving whooping cranes from extinction. Archibald negotiated around the world for cooperation in his mission—including in the Korean demilitarized zone—although he had no diplomatic training. The ornithologist even danced with a female whooping crane named Tex to form a bond strong enough so that she would lay an egg and help make a future for the species. No gesture was too big or small for Archibald.
If dances with birds (or wolves) aren’t your thing, or if you’re living a totally urban existence, busy and disconnected from nature, Shumaker can think of many measures—far less extreme than those Archibald took—that you can take to make a major difference. They are so simple that you might dismiss these moves as inconsequential. But you would be wrong.
Shumaker argues that recycling, being a conscious consumer, not wasting water or food, and avoiding single-use plastics are things any individual can do. Collectively, these efforts can have a huge impact on the quality of life for all creatures, including future humans. He has spent decades working on animal conservation at global scale and still insists that everything individuals do is important. All the more so, given the current state of environmental affairs worldwide.
“The [UN] report says that there is still an opportunity to reverse the most dire predictions. The timeline is urgent but not catastrophic,” he says. “There is no time to delay. Action is required now,” Shumaker says.
Even little things add up. Take aluminum can recycling for example. Aluminum returns from the recycling bin to stores over and over again in a true closed loop. Nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today, according to the Aluminum Association, a US industry advocacy group. And recycling aluminum saves more than 90% of the energy needed to create more metal from raw materials. Tossing away a single aluminum can is basically like dumping half of that can’s volume of gasoline, because that’s how much energy it will take to create a new one.
The more natural resources are saved and less energy is expended on producing new materials, the better the chances for the planet and all its creatures to survive long term. That’s because manufacturing processes create carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, and climate change is one of five main drivers of the extinction crisis, according to IPBES. Pollution is another main driver and also a byproduct of manufacturing. By recycling aluminum cans, you’re helping to minimize the need for manufacturing that is threatening life on Earth.
Even if you don’t give a whoop about whooping cranes, there’s still something in this for you. As IPBES Chair, Robert Watson, explained in a statement on the report, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
While Shumaker admits that it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many animals you can save by being conscientious, he argues that it’s crucial for each of us to recognize our power and exercise it. Everyone eats, so everyone can contribute to conservation by being conscientious about the food they choose, say.
By reading the labels on our coffees, chocolates, and oils, for example, and choosing products that rely on a sustainable process, we can ensure that lands animals rely on aren’t destroyed for production. Download this app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, or check out the organization’s website, and find out just which fish you can get for dinner to minimize negative consequences in the ocean. Simply by being attentive, we can mitigate damage to the planet and animals, according to Shumaker.
Conservation scientists who devote their lives to understanding animals and their habitats see a direct connection between human activities and species survival. And they, perhaps more than anyone else, understand the potential impact of a single individual.
Take Steven Amstrup, chief scientist of Polar Bears International and 2012 Indianapolis Prize winner. Amstrup discovered that the sea ice that polar bears rely on for traveling, hunting and raising their young was melting due to global warming. In 2017, he wrote, “We can be absolutely certain if we allow the world to continue to warm, there will be ever greater numbers of such events as survival rates decline over more and more of the polar bear range. And we can be certain that, without halting greenhouse gas rise, the world’s polar bears gradually will disappear.”
Amstrup has done everything in his power to stop that from happening. He’s recognized as the foremost expert on polar bear conversation, collecting the data to list them as endangered and getting these creatures’ plight international attention. Yet, he doesn’t despair. He believes it’s not too late to save the beloved bears. “Humans have caused this problem and humans can fix this problem,” he has said.
That is the message that conservationists are echoing everywhere. A summary of the IPBES report states: “Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.”
Shumaker is saying the same thing. Do not be daunted by the global scale of the problem, he urges. Instead, act individually, taking inspiration from the Indianapolis Prize winners who have worked to save endangered species. Thus you’ll be part of the needed change, an agent of conservation. As Shumaker puts it, “Every single one of them gives us reason to hope. They have clear successes.”