This film looks at the challenges wildlife is facing throughout the world. Extinction has always been a natural part of Earth’s history; five major extinctions have occurred in Earth’s past in which a large number of species went extinct in a relatively short period of time, at least geologically speaking. Perhaps the most well-known of these extinctions was that of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The cause is believed to have been a huge asteroid slamming into the Earth. The causes of the other extinction episodes are unknown, but they are surely the result of titanic geological, meteorological, or astronomical phenomena. Now, many scientists believe that we are beginning to experience a sixth mass extinction. This one, however, would be the first created by another animal species, namely our own, Homo sapiens.
“The State of the Planet’s Wildlife” examines some of the ways in which we are threatening the survival of Earth’s living creatures. Human population growth and the development it creates, the poaching of animals for food and for a wide variety of products ranging from ivory to furs, and global warming are all having dramatic impact on wildlife populations around the world. But, the film will also show how innovative and concerned people are successfully working to protect wild species. The threats wild creatures are facing in the 21st Century are daunting, but hopes for saving them remain robust. The first step is to become informed. This film is intended to help.
Introduce the following key terms to students:
biodiversity: the variety of all organisms living on Earth or in a particular region
browsers: animals such as deer and domesticated animals that eat grass, trees, and other plants
clear-cut: an area that has had all trees removed for logging; such areas often suffer from soil erosion because the tree roots that have held the soil in place are removed
commodities: products that can be bought and sold
dispersers: animals that unknowingly disperse fruits and their seeds (through scat after eating them, by carrying them in their fur, feathers, or feet, etc)
ecosystem: how everything—plants, animals, soil, weather, etc.—in a certain place—a school yard, park, a region, etc—is interconnected
endangered species: a species in such small numbers that it is considered at risk of extinction. Animals that are “officially” declared endangered are put on an endangered species list either at the state or national levels
exotic pet: an animal from another part of the world that is kept as a pet
globalization: to make global or worldwide in scope
indigenous plant: a plant that is native to a particular region or area and is not naturally found in other parts of the world
old growth trees: very old trees that are part of a mature forest ecosystem that has not been logged
over grazing: putting too many grazing animals on a piece of land so that much of the vegetation is removed and cannot grow back. Erosion is a result and soil is lost, making it more difficult for the plants to re-establish themselves.
pollinator: animals such as insects, birds, bats, and some mammals that visit flowers and unknowingly pollinate the flowers. The relationship between pollinator and plant is often critically important to both species.
savannah: a grassland with scattered trees, typical of East Africa
shantytown: A town that people on their own just constructed with whatever materials they happened to find. They are usually built next to cities and usually lack basic services like running water and electricity. Typically, only the very poor live in them.
silting: the washing of soil and other fine particles into streams as a result of erosion. High amounts of silt can clog the gills of fish, affect the visibility in streams, and even clog streams up.
soil erosion: soil washing or blowing away by wind, water, or ice
squalor: poverty, neglect
urbanization: development of land to make it urban in nature
wildlife corridor: undeveloped stretches of land that connect wild areas together, allowing wildlife to move from one area to another even with human development
To help students put the video in perspective, ask them the following questions:
- What challenges do you think wildlife is facing around the world? Why do you think species are on the endangered species list?
- Do you think the challenges facing wildlife are the same throughout the world, or do you think it varies from region to region?
- How do you feel when you think about the idea that we may be entering a sixth mass extinction of animals? This means that during your lifetime, you may see many species go extinct.
- What does wildlife mean to you? Is it important to you that animals such as lions, bears, and pandas exist in the wild, even if you never see them yourself? Or, is it OK with you that some of them exist only in zoos?
- How unusual is the current extinction threat? (Answer: VERY unusual! Only five instances of comparable species loss in the past 4.5 billion year history of the Earth are known. If we do not turn the current situation around, we will be witnessing the 6th major extinction episode on the planet.)
- Why is it difficult for China to feed its citizens by itself? (Answer: China’s population is 1.3 billion people, roughly 22% of the world’s total. That’s a lot of people to feed. China does NOT occupy 22% of the Earth’s surface, and much of its territory consists of deserts and mountains, unsuitable environments for intensive agriculture.)
- What is the connection between China and the Brazilian Amazon? (Answer: China relies on poultry and pork production to help feed its enormous population. The pigs, ducks, and chickens require feed made from soybeans. Brazilian farmers, responding to the demand, are burning and clearing the Amazonian rainforests and replacing them with soybean fields.)
- What is the connection between exotic tree plantations in South Africa and Japan and the United States? (Answer: The trees are being planted to supply paper mills in the latter two countries.)
- How is overgrazing in Kenya causing Lake Baringo to fill up with silt? (Answer: Overgrazing removes grasses and other plants that hold soil in place. Wind and water carry the unprotected soil into Lake Baringo. Planting grasses on the soil can significantly reduce this erosion.)
- How is urban and agricultural development outside the Everglades affecting the Everglades itself? (Answer: Most of the water in the Everglades flows into this vast wetland from outside the area. Polluting water outside the Everglades and diverting its flow elsewhere thus affects both the quantity and quality of the water inside the area.)
- What is the connection between poverty and the killing of wild animals? (Answer: Impoverished people are often hungry, and wild animals can serve as an available source of food. The selling of wild animals for medicines, pets, trophies and other products also can provide much-needed income.)
- Uncontrolled killing of wild animals will lead to their disappearance, thus eliminating needed sources of food and income. Why, then, don’t people reduce how many animals they are killing so that they can be confident that sufficient animals will be around in the future? (Answer: Nobody “owns” wild animals. They are a commonly-held resource. People typically have no incentive to preserve such resources; if, for example, a person encounters a wild animal and refuses to kill it, there is no guarantee that the next person that comes along will do the same. The first person will have deprived herself of the animal, but the animal will not have benefited. Thus, commonly-held resources like forests, grasslands, fisheries, and wildlife tend to be over-exploited. This is called “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Also, impoverished people are often so desperate that they can only worry about surviving the present, not preserving the future.)
- How will global warming threaten polar bears, living in one of the coldest places on Earth? (Answer: Polar bears hunt seals that come out to rest on the ice that covers the Arctic Ocean during the colder months of the year. Once the sea ice dwindles during the summer, many of the bears must fast until the ice returns. Consequently, the bears must eat a great deal of food to tide them over during the warm season. With global temperatures rising, the Arctic Ocean ice is appearing later in the Fall and disappearing earlier in the Spring. Ultimately, the bears may not have enough time on the ice to obtain the food they need to nourish them throughout the year.)
- How will global warming threaten African wildlife? (Answer: In two ways. First, in the face of increasing temperatures and dwindling water supplies, animals may find it more difficult to find sufficient food and water. Secondly, these climate conditions should make it more challenging for farmers to grow crops and graze animals. Increasing poverty will force many of them to hunt wild animals for food and income.)
- How does the burning of coal and petroleum in the United States and other countries affect the welfare of animals in the Arctic, Africa, and elsewhere? (Answer: Burning coal and petroleum releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere that are believed to be the cause of global warming. These gases are therefore called “greenhouse gases.” Energy conservation measures, such as riding a bike instead of driving and turning down the thermostat in your home during the winter, reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus slowing the rate of global warming and reducing the threat of climate change.)
- Grizzly Bears live in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, where they are protected. Sometimes they leave, however, entering privately-owned land on adjacent plains. Why don’t they stay put where they are safe? (Answer: Frequently, the bears must find food in habitats that lie outside the national park, often in areas of lower altitude.
- Formerly, when bears would appear on private ranch land, the ranchers would eliminate them, because they considered the bears threats to their cattle. Why do some ranchers, at least, regard the bears differently today and work to protect them? (Answer: The students may infer that the ranchers admire the bears and consider them integral parts of the magnificent territory in which they live. As one biologist says, the bears’ presence “means that we’ve got an intact landscape. It means something bigger than just those critters.”. The ranchers also appear to believe that they can figure out how to keep the bears and still protect their cattle.)
- How are new technologies and techniques helping people to save the bears and prosper economically at the same time? (Answer: The film shows a few examples: Specially-designed fences that allow bears to pass but keep cattle from wandering, new machinery that allows selective timber harvest while reducing damage to the forest environment, radio-collars that help biologists track the movements of grizzly bears.)
- Why might it be difficult to achieve the same results in developing countries? (Answer: These countries might not have access to the technology and expertise available in Montana.)
- Zoos are enormously popular, and offer most people the only opportunities they will have to view rare and exotic animals such as cheetahs, tigers, and gorillas. They are also controversial at times, as some people feel they cruelly hold animals captive which should be wild and free. Have a discussion with your students to explore how they feel about zoos. You can pose the following questions:
- Is it important to have zoos, so that people can see animals they would not encounter otherwise, learn about them, and become concerned for their welfare? If people could not see these animals, would they care about them as much? Is it important to keep some animals captive to fill the role as “ambassadors” for their kind?
- Zoos are important breeding centers for many species of endangered animals. Is it worth keeping some animals captive so that we can ensure that at least some representatives of endangered species can breed safely?
- Would it be satisfactory to you if animals such as gorillas and polar bears were to become extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity? Is it important to you to have these animals in the wild, as well?
- Zoos, of course, can only hold a tiny percentage of the world’s wild creatures. For example, the vast majority of animals on Earth are invertebrates, such as insects, sponges, spiders, and shrimp. Is it important to you to preserve these creatures in the wild, or is it satisfactory to you to only preserve large, attractive, and spectacular creatures in zoos?
- Grizzly bears are rare in the lower 48 states, and their future is uncertain. They require large amounts of wild country to survive, their behavior (e.g. preying on livestock, pilfering beehives) often runs them afoul with humans, and they are unpredictable, dangerous animals who have been known to seriously injure and even kill human beings. Two national parks where they live are Yellowstone and Glacier. Millions of people visit these parks every year, many of whom are unfamiliar with bears and how to avoid trouble with them. Ask your students how they feel about the presence of grizzlies in these national parks. Do they pose too much of a risk to visitors to live there? Should they only be allowed to live in more remote, less visited areas? On the other hand, what do the grizzly bears add to the national parks? Would they be diminished without the bears? Would visitors, free from the worry of dangerous bear encounters, find their visits to Glacier and Yellowstone more enjoyable? Or, do you think they should find it worth a little risk to be in a place sufficiently wild and pristine to harbor bears? If your students prove to have a range of opinions on the matter, you might want to have a class debate.