Black tarps and yellow caution tape greeted dozens of children who showed up Friday at Zoo Boise.
Between 10 and 11 a.m., in recognition of Endangered Species Day, the zoo’s exhibits of animals on the endangered species list were blocked off from view. Vulnerable and threatened species exhibits had caution tape in front of them. The idea was to show people what the zoo would be like if those species went extinct.
And make no mistake, extinction is a real possibility for thousands of species, zoo Director Steve Burns said. The number of wild animals today is about half what it was in 1970, according to one report. Over the next century, Burns said, between one-quarter and one-half of all species are expected to go extinct.
This is the Earth’s sixth extinction crisis, Burns said. Earlier crises included the loss of dinosaurs and other prehistoric mass die-offs. This one began about 150 years ago and has been marked by the near-extinction of the American bison and other species.
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On Friday, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has 229 accredited member institutions around the country, unveiled Saving Animals From Extinction, an initiative that will raise money, educate the public, organize volunteers, advocate for new policies and identify habitat in the name of saving 100 species from extinction.
Why so few, when there are some 16,000 endangered species on the planet? Because a broad, shallow effort to save them all could be less effective than a deep, focused effort on a few, Burns said. Every year for the next decade, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will identify 10 new species that represent the program’s line in the sand on conservation. This year’s are the African penguin, Asian elephant, cheetah, gorilla, sea turtle, sharks and rays, western pond turtle, whooping crane and vaquita (a small member of the dolphin family that lives in the Sea of Cortez).
None of those animals is on display at Zoo Boise, but that doesn’t mean the zoo won’t contribute its expertise, money and work to help save them, Burns said.
Awareness is a big front in this battle. Sometimes the wildlife conservation community will ask people all over the world to take action to save animals. Sometimes people will be asked not to take action, Burns said. Avoiding shark-fin soup, for example, reduces the incentive to hunt sharks. Boycotting ivory reduces demand for elephant tusks.
“I wish I could just sit here and say, ‘Zoos just need to do A and B, and this species will be saved,’ ” Burns said. “But all of these species are unique.”
Zoo Boise holds a special place in wildlife conservation. It was the first zoo in the world to add a fee for conservation to its price of admission. Today, 20 zoos around the country have followed suit. Money people pay to take boat rides and feed animals at Zoo Boise also goes to conservation.
Without zoos, many species of animals wouldn’t have survived, Burns said.
Every year, Zoo Boise raises about $275,000 for conservation, Burns said. Nationwide, zoos raise $160 million. Burns wants to double that number. He thinks programs such as SAFE are a step in that direction.
“Education and inspiration are important, but they’re no longer enough,” Burns said. “We’ve got to put more money on the table.”