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Mustering Science, Law, and Art to Save Endangered Species

Piping plovers recovered from hunting, but now face threats from habitat destruction and sea level rise.
Piping plovers recovered from hunting, but now face threats from habitat destruction and sea level rise.

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, close to ninety percent of all life on earth disappeared. Sixty-five million years ago, a wave of extinction wiped out the dinosaurs. Today, many scientists say we are on the verge of another mass extinction event – the sixth in our planet’s history, but the first to be caused by humans.

Estimating the number of species driven to extinction, or threatened or endangered with that fate, is far from simple. There are currently 1,567 plant and animal species on the U.S. Endangered Species List. Kieran Suckling, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says that's likely an underestimate, though, because getting a species onto that list is driven by politics and law, as well as biology. Suckling puts the number of threatened or endangered species in the United States closer to 4-5,000.

Globally, it's estimated that human activities, such as habitat destruction and climate change, are driving plants and animals extinct at a rate hundreds to thousands of times higher than the normal, or background, rate. Habitat destruction and climate change are high on the list of threats, although every species has its own story, and extinction rates vary dramatically from place to place and animal family to animal family.

The Center for Biological Diversity grew out of three young men’s (Suckling, of course, was one of them) attempt to save one old ponderosa pine that was home to a rare Mexican spotted owl. The Center has since used scientific research and legal battles to secure protections for hundreds of species, and Suckling defends the Endangered Species Act as one of the most sophisticated, flexible, and successful tools for fighting extinction.

But Suckling says there's  to what science and law can do, and that's where art comes into play.

"At the end of the day, conservation is about love," says Suckling, "and art is the language of love. Art is what brings us closer to the world and helps us understand our connectivity with it."

From an art exhibit on Martha's Vineyard, to murals that bring images of endangered species into rural downtown areas, to condoms in packages with slogans like "wrap with care, save the polar bear," Suckling says art and media are a key part of raising awareness and starting important conversations about our relationship with the natural world.

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