Saving the Screwed
There are thousands of threatened and endangered animals in the world and humans (perhaps out of the goodness of our hearts, perhaps out of guilt) want to save them all. To do so, we’ve created laws to protect critters on the brink from poaching and habitat loss. We’ve even got laws to protect endangered species from predators and to conserve the species they depend on for prey. With all these laws, you’d think we’d have this saving-the-world thing down pat (ha!), but some of the species that need saving are messing with other species that need saving, leaving wildlife managers with one doozie of a quandary:
What the f*** do you do when one rare/ threatened/endangered/essentially screwed species eats another rare/threatened/ endangered/essentially screwed species?
It’s happening in China…
In the Daitan Nature Reserve, an endangered subspecies of Indian python is eating an equally endangered subspecies of Eld’s deer. The python is supposed to be eating rodents—which are much smaller than deer and lack the pointy antlers that can tear open a python’s stomach—but there aren’t enough rodents to feed all the pythons. Wait, “all” the pythons? Aren’t they endangered? Yes, but right now the pythons are breeding like bunnies (park officials don’t know why), their normal food supply can’t keep up and Eld’s deer are looking rather scrumptious.
Less than 50 years ago, poachers had almost knocked the Eld’s deer into oblivion. By protecting the deer in fenced-in enclosures, the Chinese government brought the population up from a low of 26 animals in 1976 to about 1,600 today. The python population, which was also threatened by poachers, seemed to be recovering nicely—until it ran itself out of food and started eating animals that kill it from the inside out.
Now it’s a race: the Eld’s deer population, which grows by about 100 fawns each year VS. the python population, where each female produces about 50 young per year. On the surface it looks like an easy win for the endangered deer-swallowing snakes, but, thanks to the gut-busting properties of the deer’s antlers, both species could be screwed.
It’s happening in Maine…
On the rocky islands off the Maine coast, recently recovered bald eagles are eating rare great cormorant chicks. In the 1960s there were 400 Bald eagle pairs in the entire United States. Now, there are 500 pairs in Maine, the largest population in the Northeast. Bald eagles are no longer technically endangered, but they’re still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Golden and Bald Eagle Protection Act. (In other words, it’s illegal to kill a bald eagle.)
Great cormorants aren’t technically endangered either, but there’s only one place they nest in the United States—the rocky islands off the coast of Maine—and their numbers are dropping quickly. In 1992, there were 250 great cormorant pairs in Maine. Now there are 80, thanks mostly to harassment and predation by bald eagles. The bald eagles are supposed to be eating fish, but overfishing has made fish rather hard to find. With their preferred prey playing hard-to-get, bald eagles have turned to something easy—great cormorant chicks.
There’s little doubt who will win the race between the untouchable bald eagle and the unprotected great cormorant. After all, it’s rigged.
And it’s happening in the Pacific Northwest…
Here, it’s totally normal for one endangered species to eat another endangered species. (The prey choice is normal, the endangered-ness obviously isn’t.) Southern resident killer whales loooove Chinook salmon, but Chinook salmon are getting harder and harder to find. For the southern residents, fewer salmon doesn’t just mean that the killer whales will be hungry. It means that they’ll draw on their fat reserves for nutrition, pulling the toxins that have been stashed in their blubber into their bloodstream.
Alas, for the killer whales and salmon, it’s not so much a race. Ideally, both species will tie. To learn more about the plight of the southern resident killer whales, check out Saving the Killers.