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Biologist Jeff Corwin Draws Attention To The Earth’s Most Endangered Species

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Aired 11/10/09

Scientists estimate that more than half of all existing species on earth will be extinct well before the end of the 21st century. We speak to conservationist and TV host, Jeff Corwin, about his new book, 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth's Most Endangered Species.

Jeff Corwin will be at Warwick's this Wednesday, November 11 at 7:30 PM to discuss his new book.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. After years of hearing about endangered species, some of us don't take the issue very seriously anymore. Politicians take advantage of our extinction fatigue, and make fun of our efforts to save the endangered delta smelt in Sacramento or the California Least Tern, an endangered bird in the Tijuana estuary. But the urgency of the issue has increased. Scientists say about 20,000 species go extinct each year. My guest, Jeff Corwin, has a new book and television documentary called “100 Heartbeats,” outlining the critical threats animals are facing around the world. Jeff Corwin is a biologist and Emmy-winning producer, host of many television shows on Animal Planet and the Travel Channel. And, Jeff, welcome to These Days.

JEFF CORWIN (Biologist): Thank you very much. I’m so glad to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, tell us the meaning of the title “100 Heartbeats.”

CORWIN: Well, the title came from an article I read when I was actually and undergraduate student nearly two decades ago, and the article was written by my sort of iconic hero, E.O. Wilson and it was entitled “100 Heartbeats,” and was written for Time magazine. And it was about this potential future tragedy where we could be in a place where species could be reduced, many species, to 100 individuals or less. And I remember reading that and thinking—this is just when I started traveling and doing field work. This was before the television stuff. I’d started to formulate what I do for graduate work on bats. And I felt like, you know, I’ve been to rain forests, I’ve been traveling, that’s never going to happen. And a few years ago, I came to sort of the sobering and startling realization that we are there. We are at that point now where many species have been pushed to the brink and many of these species have entered what – an exclusive club, a club you don’t want to belong to because if you belong to it there are just 100 individuals of you or less. So what I wanted to do in this book and with the documentary is to – is to take these sort of kind of scary, intimidating, overwhelming concepts like climate change, habitat loss, species exploitation, environmental degradation and pollution, take these hot button issues and tell them through the intimate plight, through the intimate story of an individual within a species and the heroes of conservation fighting to save them.

CAVANAUGH: What, Jeff, are – what are some of the most endangered species on the planet?

CORWIN: Well, it’s really – it’s quite shocking how many species are in danger. You just mentioned that startling figure. We lose a species of life on our Earth once every 20 minutes. That’s – that equates to massive trees, plants, and life forms that really have only disappeared at such a rate about 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped off the Earth. And, unfortunately, there’s just many, many examples to tell you, and, for example, in the Americas and throughout the world, one of the – I think the most iconic example and perhaps the quintessential example of species extinction are the amphibians. Amphibians have lived on our planet for 350 million years. They’ve survived five major extinctions and it is predicted that we will lose half of our planet’s amphibians within the next three or four decades from now.

CAVANAUGH: Umm.

CORWIN: So the question is what do we lose when a species becomes extinct.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, what do we lose?

CORWIN: Well, you know, I think people could argue that there’s an esthetic loss, that we lose a piece of our natural heritage. But looking at amphibians, amphibians, because of their sensitivity to temperature and water quality and air quality, and these are animals that are born in the water and live connected to the water. They breathe through their skin so humidity and temperature and chemistry is very – can impact these species in many ways. So they are often looked at as the ultimate indicator species for environmental health. They are our planet’s canaries in the coal mine. And when we see, for the first time in human history, since modern humans, Homo sapiens, have walked the Earth, we are now witnessing what many scientists believe are the – is the sixth extinction. And amphibians who have survived five major extinctions over 350 million years truly embody and crystallize the sixth extinction. So what do we lose? Well, we lose – and, you know, incredibly valuable partners in agriculture for pest management. We lose animals that are keystone species. Keystone species are life forms that directly connect life forms within a living community, within an ecosystem. For the “100 Heartbeats” documentary, I was just filming in Panama just two weeks ago and I walked into a rain forest where this unique, very special frog called the Panamanian golden frog, which was once the emblem, symbol, of Panama, which is now tragically extinct in the wild. In fact, we documented and found the last surviving adult. And when you walk into a rain forest where the amphibians are gone, it is the most unsettling, eerie feeling because it’s stone silent. It looks like a postcard perfect rain forest but all the animals, all the creatures that depend upon amphibians for survival have fled or have died off because their resource, their keystone resource, has disappeared. So that’s all the nature the ecosystem is lost. We lose because, as you probably know, rain forests, which only take up 5% of the planet’s surface, contain 60% of our planet’s life. Out of that life, 40% of the medicines we use for our own survival we harvest from rain forests. And one of the resources where we get medicines from are the chemicals found in amphibians’ skin. We now know with the extinction of a number of species by examining the remaining preserved tissue that we’ve lost very valuable medicines that we’ll never be able to reproduce.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, in the book “100 Heartbeats,” you make a statement that it’s not enough anymore to develop programs just to leave endangered animals alone; we have to step in and help them survive. Why do you say that?

CORWIN: Well, ultimately, we have these creatures that have been pushed to the very, very edge and we have reached – we are really rounding the corner very close to that point of no return. That if things stay in its present course, halfway through this century, well, potentially, within our lifetimes, we could potentially lose half of all species on our planet. It is truly unprecedented. And not only are we witness to this sixth extinction, which is unfolding, I mean, today Australia just announced the extinction of two of their iconic species of mammals. There are creatures that I’ve actually filmed in my show that are now extinct, a number of species. And we really – we’re almost in a situation where it’s almost like a military battlefield triage scenario where we literally have to get in there and get hands-on and protect these species because we just don’t have that luxury to sit back and leave it to someone else. We are at that moment in time where we do have a chance to really shine. It’s really interesting. We are witness to this mass extinction. We are also the reason that this mass extinction is taking place. You know, when the dinosaurs disappeared it was because of a cataclysmic event, it was because of an – one theory is of an asteroid slamming into the Earth. Today, that asteroid, it’s us.

CAVANAUGH: Right. There’s a chilling picture in your book. It’s of a little, beautiful Hawaiian bird and you read the caption and you read ‘now extinct.’ And that bird is just gone from the planet. I’m wondering, Jeff, in doing all the research you did for your book and traveling the world the way you do, do you think that it is realistic that we can save populations of animals that are down to 100 heartbeats?

CORWIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. There are – If I didn’t think it was possible then I wouldn’t have written the book and I wouldn’t have done the documentary. Ultimately, “100 Heartbeats,” for me, is a book about hope. You know, we can’t bring back the passenger pigeon. We can’t bring back the heath hen or the Steller’s sea cow or the Caribbean monk seal. These animals are gone forever. But we can take that loss and we can allow that to become the fuel to drive us forward to protect what life remains. And there are many examples of where our species has risen to the occasion and did what was right and protected a species. You know, we can look none of the – You know, Panama has lost its iconic symbol at least for now. But that adult frog that we captured now is in a breeding facility and is now breeding with females in captivity. And the hope is that someday when that habitat is stabilized and can sustain the frogs, they will be reintroduced. But we can look to our national symbol, the bald eagle. In New York – In the state of New York 30 years ago, the bald eagle population was reduced to one pair. If you were in the United States 150 years ago, there were 300,000 bald eagles. In the United States 30 years ago, there were only 400 pair throughout the lower 48.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

CORWIN: Today, there are 70,000. But for me the most powerful example is a creature called the black-footed ferret and…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

CORWIN: …I tell this story in the book.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CORWIN: And this – this – when I think we are at a situation that feels hopeless, I try to recall the black-footed ferret. The black-footed ferret became extinct, at least on paper. It was recognized as an extinct species. But, lo and behold, in the late 1970s, a rancher in Wyoming heard his dog, Rex, barking at the front door, and in the mouth of the shepherd was a dead black-footed ferret. Just because the species was extinct, this man had never even seen a black-footed ferret. So he took it to a local taxidermist. You know, talk about – a lot of conservation is about science and research but sometimes it’s about luck. And he took this black-footed ferret to a taxidermist and they looked at it and said, oh, my goodness, do you know what this is? He says, this is supposed to be extinct. Now that black-footed – This is ranch country. That black-footed ferret – that guy could’ve just thrown that black-footed ferret away and say, hey, we don’t want to tell anybody about this, you know, because this could potentially impact our livelihood, right?

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

CORWIN: So he brought it to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service went to the ranch where those black-footed ferret – where they believed they were at, and what they found was the last remaining colony…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

CORWIN: …of black-footed ferret, a species that had been extinct for over a decade. But, unfortunately, tragedy hit. That colony of 100 animals, because of plague, dropped down to about 11.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.

CORWIN: Now I first visited that with the…

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, we’re going to have to leave it there. I’m so sorry.

CORWIN: Oh, if you – it’s in the book.

CAVANAUGH: It’s in the book. And I want to tell everybody that you will be discussing and signing copies of the book “100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species,” including that black-footed ferret, and you’ll be at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Wednesday, November 11th, tomorrow, at 7:30 p.m. Jeff Corwin, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

CORWIN: Thank you so much, and I can’t wait to finish that story.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific.

CORWIN: I’ll see everyone there at Warwick’s.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much, Jeff.

CORWIN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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