As I’ve traveled the world, one thing has been glaringly obvious to me: deforestation is threatening our biodiversity. In the US, we are so used to seeing parking lots rather than forest; we no longer take notice of the wake of destruction that follows us. But, when you stop and take a look around it is really quite devastating. Even more obvious is when you travel to exotic locales – places where you expect to see stretches of virgin forests filled with lions and tigers and bears – but, (oh my!) instead you see the scars of agriculture and the emergence of westernized cities. It’s a clear and important thing to notice about the evolution of human development across the globe, but something just as important, and less obvious, is the loss of species altogether – not just the trees but all those lions and tigers and bears too.
In earth’s history, there have been 5 documented mass extinctions. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs, or more recently the extinction of animals like mammoths and saber-toothed tigers during the last ice age. Today, some scientists argue that we are in the middle of a 6th mass extinction. Why? The biggest cause is habitat destruction (i.e. deforestation). But, there are other reasons that are contributing substantially to this loss of biodiversity. For instance, illegal hunting, killing for parts, or capturing for the pet trade. All of these forms of poaching add up to serious damage against our fellow creatures.
Unfortunately, people often don’t recognize all these forms, especially when they travel abroad. For example, on my first trip to Peru in 2009, I came across various animal parts including a boa skin and ocelot paw in the market of Iquitos. More recently, jewelry made of feathers and butterfly wings were being cheaply sold on the streets of Moyobamba. In Ghana, animal parts such as elephant ears and dehydrated monkey heads were used as parts of juju practices. And in all of my travels, the illegal pet trade and bush hunting, particularly of primates, is pervasive. Especially in remote areas or in countries with less than reliable governments, enforcement is incredibly difficult. So, what can be done from this bleak, sickening outlook?
Firstly, there is a lot of institutional change that needs to happen – this necessitates a decrease in corruption and an increase in true enforcement. Secondly, the poor need alternatives to bush hunting which many view as their only option to a balanced diet. For example, while in the Peace Corps, we helped to teach ways of producing alternative protein sources, such as building rabbit hutches, or helped to facilitate the development of new skills, such as beekeeping, for alternative income sources. And lastly, as with everything, there needs to be more education. This is where you can do your part to help save our rapidly disappearing biodiversity, especially while traveling abroad.
- Don’t buy items made with animal parts (unless you know they are legitimately made) – I know they look really cool – but you are just fueling the demand for poaching.
- Avoid eating bush meat as much as possible (for my friends out in the bush I know this isn’t always a possibility, but given the option always choose to forego).
- Don’t keep exotic pets (unless you are certain they were raised in captivity and not taken out of the wild).
There is always more you can do, but these are a few good ways to start. In my opinion, (if you’ll allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment) when you travel abroad, you are representing your country, whether you like it or not. Each and every one of us can choose to be a good ambassador and promote the true values of our country, rather than perpetuating the horrible un-reality our media promotes to the rest of the world. Take a stand and refuse to participate in any way, shape, or form the hunting of endangered animals, buying of animal parts, or promotion of the illegal pet trade.
During my time here in Peru, it is clear to me just how threatened the San Martin titi monkey truly is. As its habitat shrinks, we are seeing diet changes and competition between species for resources – something that shouldn’t be happening if there was enough forest. More and more, groups are becoming isolated by forest fragments, threatening genetic exchange. Without a doubt, habitat destruction is the biggest threat to the titi monkey’s survival. But when compounded by bush hunting and the illegal pet trade, it can at times seem hopeless. Education is critical. While PMT continues to work hard at educating local people, you can do your part by being a smart consumer, especially when you travel to those beautiful exotic locales with lions and tigers and bears. Let’s keep those lions and tigers and bears (and monkeys!) where they belong – in the forest.