On Sept. 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon on earth died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. The species, once numbering in the billions, had been hunted to extinction.
Around the same time, another iconic North American species, the bison, was also being hunted past the point of no return. But the bison didn?t die off steadily until the last one perished in an enclosure. The species rebounded, and today shaggy herds meander through Yellowstone National Park, blissfully unaware of how close they came to being wiped out.
This week, the story of the passenger pigeon and the bison is being highlighted halfway across the globe, at a conference organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Jeju, South Korea. The Wildlife Conservation Society has circulated a list of Asian species that are at a ?conservation crossroads? and are desperately in need of the sort of concerted effort that prevented the bison from going the way of the passenger pigeon.
The list includes the tiger, orangutans, Mekong giant catfish, Asian rhinos, Asian giant river turtles, and Asian vultures. Some of the biggest threats to those species are the conversion of land to palm oil plantations and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade.
Joe Walston, executive director of Asia programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the conference comes at a critical moment for the region. ?Asia is going through many of the changes that took place in North America a century ago and is fast becoming a global economic powerhouse,? he said. ?But along with that comes the impacts of development.?
Action by governments will be critical to success, he added. ?As a region, Asia now really has total control over what happens to the species in the area. Governments finally have the capacity and financial means to turn the tide on extinctions, if they choose to accept the responsibility,? he said.
India is receiving recognition at the conference for an explicit high-profile commitment that it made in 1972 to protect wild tigers within its borders. ?India took full responsibility for the fate of its wild tigers,? Dr. Walston said. ?As a result, India is now the global center of tiger conservation.?
What conservation officials long for are parallel commitments from other countries in the region, including tough crackdowns on the illegal wildlife trade.
?Currently, Asia is one of the leading consumers of wildlife and wildlife products,? Dr. Walston said. ?Asia will thus define not only the destiny of local species but species from around the world.?