Saving Wildlife From Extinction

with William Pitt Ph.D. of Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

More than 28,000 species are considered threatened, according to the IUCN-World Conservation Union. The ripple effects of animal extinction can affect all of humankind.

William Pitt Ph.D., Deputy Director of Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, joins Comcast Newsmakers to discuss global efforts underway to save endangered wildlife.

Posted on:

Dec 02, 2019

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Pai Hong: The world's last surviving male northern white rhino died in 2018. Now only two female northern white rhinos remain, the last living members of their kind on Earth. Hello. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Ellee Pai Hong. The white rhino is just one of many species on the brink of extinction. Joining me to discuss global efforts to save endangered wildlife is Dr. William Pitt. He is deputy director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Dr. Pitt: Thank you for having me here today.

Pai Hong: You know, we heard about the white rhino in the news last year, and it's significant, not just because we've lost a species, a male species of this kind, but there are ripple effects that affect humankind, and we just don't know it yet. Dr. Pitt: Yes, you are correct, and we don't know all the ripple effects that that could have, but there are other things that we do know. We do know that species are being lost every day.

Pai Hong: And in terms of the number, we don't even know how many species have already been lost. There's a statistic that I read from IUCN World Conservation Union. More than 23% of mammals, 12% of birds, 4% of reptiles, and 32% of amphibians are listed as threatened. Listening to those statistics, that's pretty scary.

Dr. Pitt: It is scary, and those are based on what we do know that are out there. There are also species that we don't even know exist yet.

Pai Hong: The ripple effects of all this, you don't immediately know that, either, so it may take a few generations to find out what that effect is. But ultimately, bottom line, it's going to affect humankind.

Dr. Pitt: Yes, it can, and there are things that we don't know whether they're going to affect, but also could affect us directly. It's a canary in a coal mine, you know, which species is going next, but they're all indicators that something isn't right.

Pai Hong: But there are conservation efforts that are under way, and it requires a lot to bring a species back to life and repopulate them. But there's a success story involved. You were involved in it yourself with the Guam rail. It's a specific type of bird that was indigenous to Guam. Tell us about that.

Dr. Pitt: Yes, so, the backstory on this is fascinating, and it is a success story. During World War II, much military cargo went around the world, and when it came back to Guam after World War II, one of the things it brought back was a snake. It was a brown tree snake. And it slowly established itself on Guam and established itself in the southern end of the island and moved through to the north. As it went along, it started wiping out all the species. It wiped out birds, it wiped out reptiles, and it wiped out bats. And it wasn't until the 1970s that people really had an indication that something was wrong, that the birds were disappearing. And it wasn't until the 1980s that they figured it out, that it was the brown tree snake that had wiped out 10 of 12 birds on Guam, 5 out of 11 reptiles, 2 out of 4 bat species. It was, you know, 30 or 40 years later that they really discovered what had happened.

Pai Hong: And the number of Guam rails really were reduced to about 20, I believe?

Dr. Pitt: Yes. Originally, there were probably tens of thousands of Guam rails on the island. By 1980, when they did a recovery effort, which was local government and several zoos brought them into captivity, they brought in 20 into captivity. So that was in 1983.

Pai Hong: And once they were brought into captivity, you really started with breeding efforts to make more Guam rails. But that's not the only challenge there. To reintroduce them into the wild, you have to make sure the habitat is appropriate for them, as well.

Dr. Pitt: Yes, and so that was one of the things with ripple effects. Not only are you trying to deal with brown tree snakes, but without the birds in the habitats, the forest is changing. There's different plants, plants are disappearing, insects are disappearing. There's a whole host of other factors, unexpected things, that had been happening in the background over the last 50 years.

Pai Hong: Well, this is a success story, but I know that conservation efforts, they face a lot of challenges, some of which is habitat loss, animals and plants losing their natural habitat. They can't quite adapt to it.

Dr. Pitt: Yeah, and that's the incredible thing of this, is the success story. Guam rails were down to 20 in the '80s, and now there are several hundred in the wild and in human care. We've established populations in the island of Cocos, which is a small island about a mile off the coast of Guam, southern end of Guam, but it's only about a hundred acres, and it's snake-free. And in 2009, we removed rats off of that island, another invasive predator. Without snakes, now that population is flourishing, but it's only a hundred acres. The island of Rota, about 50 miles north of Guam, there were no snakes on that island, so they established a population there. Just a couple of years ago, we were involved in an effort and brought 49 Guam rails back there for release. Pai Hong: Wow.

Dr. Pitt: And, really, the great thing about that that was such a thrill was not me reintroducing them, but was the schoolchildren. We had fourth and fifth graders from the island of Rota, that each one of them got to release one into the wild. Because it's really their bird. It's not my bird.

Pai Hong: And doesn't that make them want to protect them even further years down the line, right?

Dr. Pitt: Yes, yeah. But that's the thing is, you know, at that age, [00:05:36.09] that's where you really get hooked and say, "I can make a difference. I can bring something back to the wild, and this is -- You know, I'm part of this."

Pai Hong: Yeah, really, you hear about conservation efforts like this and you think, "How do I help out in this effort?" But there are ways that folks at home can do to help this effort.

Dr. Pitt: Yeah, and at home, you know, just making smart decisions, researching what decisions you're doing on a consumer basis. Are you buying products with palm oil that have been attributed to the destruction of forest in Asia? Because trying to produce more palm oil. So that is one of the things. But you can make other choices like recycling.

Pai Hong: All right. On that note, Dr. William Pitt, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate your time today.

Dr. Pitt: Thank you.

Pai Hong: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I'm Ellee Pai Hong.

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