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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A life-and-death balancing act

Human interaction can be an enemy to or a protector of protected species.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/istock

The elephant was killed for its ivory tusks. It’s a sad, and too common, story.

The even more horrifying part came later, after poachers in northern Botswana tried to cover their tracks. Knowing that vultures feeding on carrion can tip off rangers to their presence, the poachers laced the elephant carcass with poison. And killed 537 vultures from five species, all of which are either endangered or critically endangered.

The loss was mind-boggling. And it gets worse: Many of the vultures killed last month were new parents who left behind chicks not likely to survive on their own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around such cruelty. Then you contrast that with what’s happening in Africa some 1,200 miles to the north, where endangered mountain gorillas are making a slow but sure comeback. That’s also due to human intervention — the establishment of national parks in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; tough enforcement of laws against hunting and logging within those boundaries; health care for the gorillas from trained veterinarians; and a nifty funding mechanism in which money paid by ecotourists to see the gorillas is used to pay park rangers who keep them safe.

Such is the yin and yang of preserving species.

It’s certainly true in our own country. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has been spectacularly successful in restoring populations of alligators, whooping cranes and bald eagles. But the Trump administration continues to try to weaken the law, even as the UN says that up to 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in as soon as a few decades — often because of human behavior.

Concern for species survival is not only a matter of principle, though humans do have a moral obligation to not blithely wipe out other organisms. We also must worry about how our actions vis a vis one species affect entire ecosystems in ways that we, in our ignorance or hubris, do not anticipate.

I’ve written about the havoc wreaked in Yellowstone National Park when wolves were eradicated, and the balance that was restored when they were reintroduced. Here’s another cautionary Yellowstone tale.

In the 1990s, lake trout turned up in Yellowstone Lake, possibly introduced by a misguided fisher. They flourished, and began eating young cutthroat trout, the vaunted native species. As cutthroat disappeared from the lake’s shallower waters (lake trout prefer deeper waters), ospreys and bald eagles lost their main food source, and numbers of each species plummeted. And the grizzly and black bears that gorged on cutthroat making spawning runs up local streams moved elsewhere.

On the other hand — and in species conservation there always seems to an other hand — an effort to protect bison, once reduced to 23 in the park but now numbering more than 4,000, has been so successful that Yellowstone is shipping out bison to bolster smaller herds elsewhere.

And on yet one more hand, the recovery of gray wolves in the West has led to their reappearance in northern California, and to the subsequent disappearance of six members of a pack of seven — killed, some environmentalists contend, by ranchers seeking to protect their livestock. Rancher worry is understandable, but gunning down whatever crosses one’s rifle sights cannot be our best answer.

And poisoning vultures destroys creatures that do a marvelous job of controlling the spread of diseases by quickly eating contaminated carcasses harmful to other species but not to vultures.

In nature, balance is critical and success is possible. But the work is hard and long. Without it, failure is guaranteed.

 Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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