The Critter Connection

Little Brown Bat

The destruction of the natural world we see across the globe today is "fallout" from the human population explosion that has occurred over the course of the last 50 years. In order to satisfy the needs and wants of ever-increasing numbers of people all over the globe, humans chop down forests, bulldoze mountains, divert streams, spray poisons, introduce invasive species, take out wild animal populations, and pave over land upon which wild creatures depend.

Examples of the negative impacts of human population growth on birds, wildlife and habitat can be seen in nearly every animal family and in most species. The stories you'll find here are especially poignant because the time that we have to solve the problems these species face is very limited.

As bad as things are now, they are likely to get worse in the years ahead. The reason: At current fertility rates we will add more people to the planet in the next 50 years than we have in the previous 500,000 years.

Audubon hopes that will change and that you will join with us in being an agent for change. Audubon knows that investment in international family planning assistance is an investment in environmental protection, human health and political and economic stability. And yet, despite our enormous wealth, the U.S. is last among the top 20 countries contributing to international family planning assistance as a percentage of our gross national product (GNP).

Birds Tell a Story

For millennia, birds have served as one of humankind's most important early-warning systems. Birds have helped predict the change of seasons, the coming of storms, the presence of land at sea, and have indicated the rise of toxic levels of pollution in the food chain. Now birds are telling us that something is terribly wrong in the environment. More than 50 percent of Neotropical migrant species monitored in the eastern U.S. and prairie states have been in decline for the last 30 years. Scientists now think the decline of these Neotropical songbirds is due, in large part, to habitat destruction caused by rapid rates of population growth both in the U.S. and beyond our borders.

Many of "our" songbirds spend six months a year in Latin America and the Caribbean. The tropical forests many of these birds are dependent upon are being cut in order to cope with burgeoning rates of population growth. In Central America, for example, where population doubling times range from 25-30 years, over 80% of the original forest canopy is gone.

In the largest tract of tropical forest remaining in Central America history may soon repeat itself.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve was established in 1990 through an agreement among Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The reserve protects key habitat in the ecological land bridge that links North and South America. Scientists say one third of all North American migratory birds pass through the region.

Once inhabited by several million Mayans, the area was depopulated in the 9th Century after deforestation, erosion and soil exhaustion brought about agricultural collapse for the Mayan people. A thousand years later, this same cycle may play out on a global scale as population increases and forests fall.

One result: fewer and fewer Cerulean, Kentucky and Prothonotary warblers are returning to the U.S. every year. The one hope: family planning. Only family planning can help people in the region to plan the size and spacing of their families, and in turn, reduce their impact on the fragile forest. In doing so, they preserve the resources for their children and the offspring of countless bird and wildlife species.

For Neotropical migrants their struggle doesn't end at our border. Population-driven forest destruction and alteration in the U.S. has had an equally devastating impact on songbirds. The population of the U.S. has risen from 78 million in 1900 to over 300 million today.

As cities have grown, suburban sprawl has taken its toll. Fairfax, Virginia, for example, a suburb of Washington, D.C., saw 69 percent of its forest converted to homes and businesses between 1980 and 1995.

Since 1980, the U.S. has converted more than 10 million acres of forest to suburb -- an area twice as large as Yellowstone, Everglades, Shenandoah, and Yosemite National Parks combined. This type of changing land use and habitat alteration is particularly harmful to migratory birds. Fragmented forests generally do not provide adequate habitat, and clearing of forests puts nests at higher risk from predators.

Take Action

Please take a few minutes to send a message to Congress in support of increased funding for bird conservation. In just five minutes, you can make a world of difference.

Great Apes

The forests of Africa once rang with the sounds of monkeys. In Ghana and parts of the Ivory Coast, however, one of the loudest and most flamboyant of those monkeys will never be heard again. Scientists say Miss Waldron's Red Colobus monkey is now gone -- shot into extinction by "bushmeat" hunters seeking to fill additional cooking pots with game from rapidly shrinking forests.

"As their (primates) habitat is destroyed" by an increasing human population, there are "smaller and smaller islands of forest, too small to represent a viable gene pool," says Anthropologist Jane Goodall. Goodall's own Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania comprises only thirty square miles, surrounded by villages on three sides and a lake on the fourth. The lack of forestland is as much a problem for humans as it is for chimps. "How can we preserve Gombe," Goodall asks, "when the surrounding people are starving?"

The human population pressure on primates is severe across the globe. Goodall notes that when she came to Africa in 1960, there were approximately two million wild chimps left on the continent. Today there are about 120,000, and the numbers are rapidly dwindling.

Habitat destruction driven by human population growth is pushing Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Orangutans, and most smaller monkeys closer to extinction. The 600 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild (there are zero in captivity) live in the rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo -- countries with the fastest population growth rates on earth. The Orangutan, found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia, is near extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. Experts now say all the Great Apes may be extinct within the next 20 years.

It is a bitter and sad irony that human population growth may wipe out our closest relatives on earth, the Great Apes. The good news is that there is a huge potential for rapid fertility decline in countries where these creatures still reside. Yet even with expected fertility declines, Africa's current population of 820 million is expected to rise to 1.32 billion by 2020 and will continue to grow after that.

The fate of the Great Apes is tied to ours. Without family planning, the fate of the Great Apes is far from assured.

Sea Turtles

Some 60 percent of the world's population now lives within 35 miles of a coastline. Through a combination of population growth, migration, and urbanization, this figure is likely to rise to 75 percent by the year 2020.

What this means for the world's oceans is clear -- more pollution and more development along fragile beach fronts the world over.

In many parts of the world, including the U.S., sewage treatment facilities that were adequate only a decade ago are now overflowing and discharging untreated sewage into rivers and oceans.

While beaches are in trouble, the oceans themselves are not doing well. Seventeen of the world's major fisheries are over-fished, with coastal fisheries being particularly hard hit.

In immediate peril are the world's coral reefs. Called the rainforests of the oceans, coral reefs are found not only in warm, tropical waters, but in deep cold waters as well. Coral reefs provide food for 1/6th of the world's human population while protecting fragile shorelines and bringing in billions of tourist dollars to tenuous economies.

Currently, over-fishing, coral taking, sewage, deforestation, and climate change threaten coral reefs. Studies show that in areas with large and growing population, destruction or damage to coral reefs is greater.

One endangered visitor to beaches is the sea turtle. Beach vehicles, poachers and human encroachment destroy millions of turtle eggs each year, while rapid coastal development is driving up the economic and political costs of beach protection. With the population of the Caribbean projected to double in the next 50 years, it will be increasingly difficult to protect sea turtle populations.

Like birds, sea turtles roam the world as international citizens that cross vast expanses of the globe. Yet today, every species of sea turtle found in U.S. waters -- Leatherback, Hawksbill, Kemp's Ridley, Loggerhead, and Green -- is listed as either threatened or endangered.

"The populations of sea turtles of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, in the absence of adequate protection and management of the same, will not survive commercial exploitation, due to the increasing demand by human populations and other economic activities of the Caribbean coast of the three countries." Tri-Partite Agreement for the Conservation of Sea Turtles of the Caribbean Coast, 1995

Can the Caribbean accommodate twice as many people? The question is academic: It will have to. Demographic momentum is now so great that the only question now is how soon regional populations will double. At current birth rates, the population of the Caribbean may double in less than 40 years. If basic family planning services are made widely available in the Caribbean, however, population growth may slow to the point that coastal development and environmental protection may no longer be treated as mutually exclusive goals.