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"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

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A Man-made problem
Sarah Sabaratnam

New Straits Times

5th June 2003

For World Environment Day this year, Sarah Sabaratnam looks at how humans have become the most consequential presence on Earth, driving species and ecosystems to extinction.

MALAYSIA, one of the 12 mega biodiversity centres in the world, is in danger of losing almost all its large mammals to extinction. You'd think there were a host of reasons for this, but really, there's only one: us.

We do this by destroying the habitat of land animals; and when we do spare them their home, we leave it in pockets where inbreeding and territorial conflicts become a problem. We also pollute their water and food sources. When we destroy ecosystems, we destroy their homes.

We also over-harvest the sea. We have a palate for any four-legged thing with its back to the sun, and we don't care if the animal is endangered. In fact, the more exotic they are, the more we'll pay for them.

We also accessorise ourselves with the body parts of some of the most endangered animals in the world.

Finally, we create a demand in the exotic pet trade market. This encourages poaching and trafficking in illegal wildlife, perpetuating, the vicious cycle just goes on.

Conscience is not something that seems to exist. Our needs and lust take precedence over everything else. How did such a selfish generation, if not species, come to be born? Greed and a lack of awareness have been some of the reasons cited. It is also deeply-rooted in Asian culture, for instance, to use parts of wild animals for medicine and food.

Then, there's a problem of enforcement and legislation that don't encourage sustainability.

It's an attitudinal problem but it has to change.

"It is not our right to be sending things into extinction. And, if we are messing things up, it's our responsibility to fix it," says Chris Shepherd from TRAFFIC South East Asia. TRAFFIC is a wildlife trade monitoring network. Norman Myers and Crispin Tickell write in the FT Times Weekend that little effort has been made to study the evolutionary effects of what we are now doing to the diversity of life. "In effect, we are conducting a planet scale experiment with the haziest idea of the outcome, except that it will be irreversible and probably severely adverse to human well-being.

"The present generation is implicitly, however unknowingly, taking decisions for future generations that will radically alter the world.” As soon as any species goes extinct, the whole ecosystem goes out of balance. It affects the web of life and there will be implications on us eventually. "We may not know the exact implications from the disappearance of some animals, but for others, there is already evidence," Shepherd says.

For instance, he says, if the tiger population is reduced, there will be an explosion of wild pigs. Wild pigs cause massive damage to crops and bringing them under control is expensive.

Similarly, removing snakes from plantations would mean an influx of rats, and a fortune spent on getting rid of them.

In India, snakes are being returned to plantations to control the rats and in Malaysia, we are now experimenting with barn owls.

Myers and Tickell point to similar conclusions.

"The mass extinction under way is disproportionately eliminating those species, notably predators and parasites that keep pests, both actual and potential, in check. By removing natural controls on these species (pests), they will multiply still more, many seizing the niches vacated by extinguished species.” Shepherd cautions that we should not be interested in conserving wildlife and other species only when they are of benefit to us. They should be protected for their own sake; we have no right to dictate their importance.

"There should be a conscious respect for other wildlife," he says. Perhaps there is a lack of respect because there is very little value put on wildlife.

Fines for crimes against wildlife are inconsequential and do not reflect the seriousness of the done deed.

For instance, when more than RM50,000 worth of exotic meat and wildlife animal skins were seized from a restaurant owner's house in Bahau, Negri Sembilan recently, the maximum sentence would be a fine of RM3,000 or two years jail or both. That amount would be petty cash to the restaurant owner. It would obviously do nothing to deter others like him.

Our only hope is that judges would be harsher and impose the maximum jail sentences for each charge (officials said there were 11 charges against him).

Ecosystems and species are beyond anyone's power to restore once they are gone.

So long as we continue to damage or convert wetlands and our rainforests, there can be no good news for the future. Let's hope the authorities come to grips with this before it is too late.

As Myers and Tickell put it, "... Few species or clades survive in their original form for long. In our case, we could be the victims of our own successes as well as our own failures."

The writer can be contacted at

1. Make time to read up on the Convention on International Trade of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) at and Make a note of the animals listed there and their status.

2. Make a stand when purchasing or eating parts of endangered animals. For instance, some people refuse to eat shark's fin soup served at most dinner functions. By abstaining, they are making a stand while creating awareness among the other nine diners on the table. Trust me, it will become a topic of conversation.

3. Report restaurants serving meat or parts of endangered animals. These include that of bear, pangolin, tiger, civet cat, snake, leopard and tapir.

4. Say no to fur.

5. Before obtaining an exotic pet, check that the animal is not listed on any of the CITES appendices.

6. The Government should put out more public service notices.

7. Teach your children, parents and friends respect for wildlife.

8. If you have any other suggestions, write to us.