Today is Endangered Species Day. This day is observed each year on the third Friday of May, a day to raise awareness about endangered species and celebrate those that have recovered through conservation efforts.1 But like me, I bet many of you probably already try to raise awareness when the opportunity arises.
When I was a child, I learned that baby harp seals – the adorable, white, fluffy ones – were killed solely for their fur. At 6 years old, I could not understand how people would kill these animals just for their coats. I believe this is what sparked the environmentalist in me at that young age. I would try to teach others about harp seal pup clubbing and I had a Greenpeace ‘Save the Seals’ button that I wore. A few years later, I learned about elephant poaching – again, shocked and dismayed that people would kill such a large, beautiful animal just for the ivory in its tusks. I wrote papers in school and even designed a t-shirt advocating for elephants.
Obviously, this has continued into adulthood.
Why Are So Many Species Endangered?
Most endangered species become endangered because of human activity. As our own population increases, other species experience the loss and degradation of habitat, mainly from deforestation. People overhunt and overfish, introduce invasive species, and contribute to climate change.2 Each of these actions slowly degrades the ecosystem of each species and they cannot survive. “Human activity has altered about 75 percent of the surface of the land, eliminating natural systems millions of years in the making and squeezing wildlife into fragments of their former ranges,” wrote Dr. Sylvia A. Earle.3
When we lose a species, we lose an important component in the intricate web of life. The loss creates a butterfly effect in the food chain and ecosystems. Scientists call this the decline of biodiversity. But when we lose a species forever, I feel like we’ve lost more than that – we are losing part of our humanity. We are losing something we can’t replace or reproduce. Technology can’t reverse extinction. (And even if it could someday, we don’t understand every single moving part of ecosystems. Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?)
“We are now causing the extinction of more species than have gone extinct in the last 65 million years.” -Rob Stewart, Revolution
How Many Species Are Threatened?
More than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction!4 Today, there are 8,722 critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.5 The IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the international authority on assessing the status and conservation of plant, animal, and insect species across the world. Here’s a short video about their importance:
“It amazes me that some of our most well-known species are the ones that are closest to extinction.” -Joel Sartore, the Photo Ark
The Endangered Species Act of 1973
This act is the main legislation in the United States aimed at conserving plants and animals at risk of extinction. “The act’s main directive is to recover threatened and endangered species to a state of health and stability in which they no longer require protected status,” Jeff Corwin wrote.6
“The act is easily the most important piece of conservation legislation in the nation’s history. Its most dramatic successes include the recovery of the American alligator, gray whale, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and eastern population of the brown pelican.” -Edward O. Wilson, Afterword of Silent Spring
Regardless of our political beliefs or affiliation, we must protect and preserve this act and its related legislation. We must stop allowing our representatives to strip away its protections, which they are consistently trying to do. Joel Sartore of the Photo Ark, wrote: “Legislators passed it almost unanimously in 1973. But it has not been reauthorized – given multiyear funding – since the late 1990s. As it stands now, funding for the [Endangered Species Act] comes from annual appropriations requested by the Department of the Interior – subject, of course, to the President’s agenda.”7
Let’s Go Back
“People protect what they love.” -Jacques Cousteau
We can’t just toss a few of every species into zoos and then call it good. We’ve got to do more. Maybe we should go back to thinking like we did as kids. Animals were special, exciting to see and learn about, and important to protect. We all understood this so clearly as children! Even Walt Disney understood:
“How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?” -Walt Disney
So what can you do? Protect what you love. Teach others. Here are “10 Actions You Can Take to Conserve Endangered Species” from the Endangered Species Coalition:8
Thanks for reading, and Happy Endangered Species Day!
In my last article, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. Today, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.
Kiska, Marineland Niagara Falls, Ontario
Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at Marineland since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.
In 1979, Marineland purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.
In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to Marineland. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between Marineland and SeaWorld.3
Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at Marineland. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).
“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4
The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5
In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed Marineland to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will Marineland give her up?
In May 2021, inspectors issued two orders to Marineland to repair the water system in the pools that house the beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and Kiska. “A months-long inspection of Marineland by Ontario’s animal welfare watchdog has found that marine mammals at the tourist attraction were in distress due to poor water quality,” according to the Canadian Press. Marineland initially appealed the orders, arguing that the unknown number of recent whales deaths were not related to poor water quality.6 But they later withdrew the appeal. It seems that the inspection is still ongoing, and I have not been able to find out whether or not Marineland has begun the required repairs.
There have also been numerous concerns over the regularity in deaths of beluga whales at Marineland, and animal rights activists are calling for more transparency. “The amusement park and aquarium has not been able to breed any new belugas since the passing of federal law (Bill S-203) in 2019 that prohibits the capture and breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity — something animal advocates say once masked the number of belugas dying at the park each year.”7There were around 54 belugas in 2019, and today there are around 40. Five of those were transferred to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, so what happened to the other 9?
In September 2021, a video of Kiska repeatedly hitting the side of her tank at Marineland went viral. This type of behavior is usually a sign of chronic stress. “Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a neuroscientist, explains that these kinds of behaviors, known as stereotypies, can include endless circling of the tank, grating their teeth on tank walls and gates, and other forms of self-injury.”8 Other visitors have made observations about Kiska exhibiting stereotypes. In addition to her loneliness, she now has poor water quality – this must be extremely stressful for her.
Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, an ecotype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.
Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank
The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.
Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:
At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”9Obviously, the plans were never revived.
His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”10There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.11 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”12 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.
The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:
“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”13
The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on its website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.
I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.
“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish
Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will Marineland Ontario give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?
Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.
Article, “Marineland faces legal complaint about Kiska, ‘the world’s loneliest orca’,” by Bobby Hristova, CBC News,
Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.
Article, “The man behind Marineland: 50 years of controversy,” by Liam Casey, The Toronto Star, October 3, 2011.
Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.
Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.
I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenges important and vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially reduce the strength of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that there are many species that would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when there were only 400 pairs remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals for agriculture which inevitably makes their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA held sacred.
They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.
Including Economics in Assessment
The New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation. This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.
“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.” – NY Times
I can’t agree more! I champion this statement because it is exactly what’s going on.
According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA. Of course he did.
We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.
Excluding Climate Change as a factor
While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the UN declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.
“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.” – NY Times
Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just BS. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”
The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened” the ESA allows protections to be put in to place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.
Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the numbers of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.
This Is Not the First Time the ESA Has Been Attacked
Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:
“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” – Jeff Corwin
“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin
In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:
“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”
Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this post:
You Can Help!
Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been overwhelmingly successful. So we have to fight this! Besides voting, here is a petition you can sign to help stop this! It will go to your state’s representative (it will ask you to donate but you are not required). I’m going to call my representative in the morning. We can be the change!
As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!
“Every year, more than 20,000 species tragically disappear from our planet.”
If you’ve never heard of Jeff Corwin, I want to introduce you to him. For many years I thought he was just another popular tv show host but it turns out that he’s much more. He’s a biologist, wildlife conservationist, educator, advocate, and voice for endangered species across the planet.
This book caught my eye at the local used bookstore and I had to buy it. This is a very intelligible book for anyone and is meant for all audiences. It’s not written academically but it cites an immense amount of research and scientific studies. I honestly had a hard time putting it down even though it deals with subject matter that is depressing. But Corwin countered much of the sorrowful information with stories of progressive movements and hope. And all of it is so important for us to know.
The title comes from the most critically endangered species we are about to lose which have fewer than 100 individual living members left. All are direct consequences of the actions and behaviors of humans. Here, Jeff Corwin talks about the film and book:
I have not been able to find the companion documentary they referred to yet, but if I do I will update this post.
Corwin explained the story of each species delicately yet methodically. I did read one review where Corwin was criticized for jumping around from one species to the next in different regions of the world. But one glance at the table of contents reveals that he was clearly dividing his book into thematic sections about the major human causes of endangered species. The sections were:
Global warming and habitat loss;
The introduction of non-native species, pollution, and disease;
The exploitation of animals for products and economy.
I will say that that same review applauded Corwin for his genuineness and for highlighting how we can motivate people around the world to change.
“If you’ve ever doubted that a small group of people can make a big difference in the face of a tide that seems inexorable, organizations like the WWF and the IRF are proof that such a change is possible.”
The Endangered Species list is vast
At the time this book was written, there were 16,928 endangered species in the world. I was hoping that that number had decreased since 2009, but I figured it probably increased at least slightly.
But I was devastated to discover that there are now 27,000 endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are generally accepted as the global authority on endangered species. Corwin cited the IUCN heavily in this book. If you’re not familiar with the IUCN, please check out this 3-minute video that will help you learn about them:
Corwin explained that there were 3,246 critically endangered species (the highest risk category for endangerment of extinction by the IUCN) in 2009. He wrote: “Whether we realize it or not, we need them…We’re inextricably bound with nature. When we put the survival of the natural world in jeopardy, we simultaneously put our survival in jeopardy.” We’ve harmed landscapes and habitats and entire ecosystems, and it’s going to hurt every species, ourselves included.
“We can’t fall back on letting nature take its course when we’ve changed the land and its inhabitants in ways that nature never intended.”
I was surprised to learn that habitat destruction is the number one cause of species extinction worldwide. It makes sense – as the human population increases, human activities spread and drive the land to a state in which the land can no longer support the indigenous species. Urban sprawl, logging, mining, commercial fishing, homesteading are all culprits, but agriculture is the main source of habitat destruction.
Oil & Drilling
We all know oil spills are bad. When animals try to lick off oil from their fur or feathers, “the effect is toxic and can induce kidney failure.” They also rely on their fur or feathers for warmth, but when they’re coated in oil, the animal can freeze to death. “Unless they’re rescued – a monumental feat in remote regions – animals affected by oil spills typically die of hypothermia.” This makes me want to stop driving immediately. How do I stop supporting this global greed for oil? That’s a discussion for a future series of blog posts.
Poaching, Slaughter & the Exotic Pet trade
Poaching is another major cause of species endangerment and extinction, although it is not always defined as just the slaughter of wild animals. It often includes animals captured for the exotic pets trade, for which there is a huge demand on the black market. Those animals are removed from their habitats, affecting the ecosystem. This reduces the populations in more ways than one – since they do not reproduce in that ecosystem, their numbers obviously decline further.
Slaughter for commercial profit is most visible from the slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses. These large animals are killed for only one body part, the tusks or the horns. The rest of the animal is left to rot. National Geographic recently featured an informative article on poaching. My family and I recently visited the Nashville Zoo and I was impressed with their exhibits about critically endangered species. I took a photo of one about the rhinos because the image so shocked me that it moved me to tears:
We can do better, I know we can!
“While the dinosaurs disappeared as the result of a natural but catastrophic event, the current causes of extinction are largely the result of human behavior.”
Even though the book made me quite depressed about the state of species across the Earth, the book was very inspiring. It inspired me to feature this review of the book, to read more on the topics, and to write future posts on the subject. Corwin offered hope at every turn in the book and that is why I loved the book.
“We’re not powerless, though. As demonstrated by the success story of the American bald eagle, great strides can be made through compassion and dedication.”
I found the dedication Corwin wrote to his daughters particularly inspiring. Here’s part of it:
“To my daughters…you are both so very precious to your mother and me; your optimism and trust, reflected through a lovely lens of innocence, inspires us…While at present the creatures who share Earth with us are in jeopardy, I have faith that my generation will make things right so you and your children will have the opportunity to thrive upon a rich, healthy, and diverse planet. We will not fail you.“
That’s beautiful, and it’s exactly how I feel about my own child. My son is precious to me and I do not want to leave a devastated planet behind for him to deal with. I want to be part of the change!