Human interference, whether it’s poaching, hunting, or developing and otherwise negatively impacting wild environments, is in a large part responsible for the endangerment of species s diverse as the dolphin, South American jaguar, black rhino and sea turtle. Six individuals are on a mission to save these animals now teetering on the brink of extinction, their efforts spotlighted in a WeatherChannel.com series aptly called “Brink,” available online throughout the month of July.
Four minutes or less in length but packing a powerful message, the “Brink” episodes spotlight animal welfare crusaders like dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, the best known of the six thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” Jacques Flamand, who is working to save black rhinos from poachers, Jill Robinson, who rescues captive moon bears from deplorable conditions in Chinese ‘bile farms,’ and Rebecca Aidworth, who documents the horrific legal slaughter of Canadian seals, hoping that the “eyes of the world” will bring an end to it. Two of the subjects -- Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of big cat conservation nonprofit Panthera, and Wallace J. Nichols, who is trying to save sea turtles with grassroots education -- shared their stories with MNN.
Dr. Alan Rabinowitz: My earliest friends were animals. When I found trying to speak to humans too difficult, I turned to my little pets. When my father took me to the Bronx Zoo for comfort, I gravitated to the lone jaguar in the Lion House. It seemed so out of place. As a young child first trying to speak, I could not due to stuttering blocks. .I turned to animals for comfort and as my only outlet for communication.
Do you have a background in biology?
I have college degrees in Biology and Chemistry, a masters degree in zoology, and a PhD in wildlife ecology.
What is your mission with Panthera.org and what do you hope to accomplish?
Panthera is the world’s largest wild cat conservation organization, with a staff of dynamic, passionate, and experienced scientists. They have become the voice I never had, enabling me to help keep my promise to save the jaguar and other big cats from extinction.
How close are jaguars to extinction?
The jaguars are the world’s third largest cat and, fortunately, they are not close to extinction. They are threatened in most places where they still exist but their numbers and their future outlook is much better than when compared to the tiger, lion, and perhaps even the leopard.
What do you want people to know? How can they help?
People need to care. They need to care about the policies of the governments they put into power and about issues that occur in other parts of the globe, that seemingly might not affect them. We live on a small finite planet, and the wellbeing of all living things on this small planet contribute to a healthy world. If we continue to decimate our environment and allow species to spiral into extinction, than we are endangering our own future.
How did you get involved in the “Brink” series? Do you think it will have an impact?
Neil Katz approached me about the series. I am very impressed with “Brink” and I think it reaches a significant audience. We need to get the message out that people must care.
Sorry to hear about your leukemia diagnosis. How are you doing?
I was diagnosed with CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia) in 2001. It is chronic and it is slow in its progression, but there is no cure at this time. Therefore I have had no chemo or radiation until it progresses to a point that impacts my life. Until they find a cure, the prognosis is that I have perhaps many years ahead until I run out of luck.
How does your health situation impact your attitude toward life and also how you approach your mission?
I work harder and longer hours than I ever have before. I don’t know how much time is left so I burn the candle at both ends. There is no slowing down, no retirement. There are many things to get done before I can no longer do them.
What do you want your legacy to be?
The future will be in the hands of others. I would like to finish my time on this earth knowing that the tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, and all other wild cat species are still roaming remote, wild areas of our planet, and that perhaps I played a small role in making that happen.
MNN: How, when and why did you become so passionate about sea turtles?
Wallace J. Nichols: I've been a bit of a turtle (and math) geek since I was a kid. We used to catch snapping turtles in the Chesapeake Bay, paint numbers on their shells, and put them back in the water. When we'd recapture them, we'd use simple algebra to estimate the population size. It was a game, as we didn't know that there was such a thing as "mark/recapture research." I dreamed about catching turtles, I loved it more than anything. A decade later -- and on the other side of the continent, that's essentially what our team does to learn about sea turtles. We catch them and then follow their lives, do some fancier math with the data, then use the information to help the turtles.
How close to extinction are they? Why?
The seven species of sea turtles around the world are a mosaic of success stories and urgent situations. Some populations are on the rise, while others are teetering on the brink, hanging by a thread. And still others are in limbo, neither crashing or growing, kind of in standby. Because sea turtles grow so slowly, mature late and migrate vast distances before reproducing, getting feedback from our conservation efforts requires a lot of patience. If you sign up to save sea turtles, plan on investing a decade for starters--maybe your whole life--before you see the fruits of your labors. The combination of sea turtle life history and threats like hunting for their meat and gathering eggs, accidental capture in many kinds of fishing gear, habitat destruction, and plastic pollution makes modern sea turtle life a challenge.
What is your primary mission and what do you hope to accomplish?
More sea turtles, healthier waterways. Generally, I hope to help people learn something astounding about themselves and our blue planet that they didn't know before. I think that can be an important step individually and collectively towards fixing our problems.
What do you want people to know?
I want people to get IN the water. Any water. And look around, pay attention to how it feels, how it connects them to the people they are with, and to the place. Water in all forms is intimate. It's sounds kind of touchy-feely, I know, but it's also neuroscience. The cognitive benefits and services provided by healthy waterways are enormous, but under-appreciated.
How can people help?
Have a look around and figure out how you want to help keep your water healthy or restore it. Ask questions. Join a local org. People are much more likely to dig in and commit long term to something if it was their own idea and connects directly to their health. Of course, we can also help people find a perfect place to hang out and help sea turtles!
How did you get involved in the “Brink” series?
I've known Neil Katz, the producer of “Brink,” for years. He's watched and listened as the sea turtle work has evolved to this point. And I've watched his career grow. It just made sense to share Grupo Tortuguero's story as part of “Brink.”
Do you think it will have an impact?
It's already had an impact. I love working with our dedicated colleagues throughout Mexico and Latin America, and raising awareness of and support for their efforts always helps.
Wallace J. Nichols with one of his beloved sea turtles. (Photo: Abigail Alling/Biosphere Foundation)