Shooting free throws and averting mass extinction

October 3, 2007

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I love basketball, but I was never good at it. That’s not Coach Dyer’s fault; he offered encouragement to me back in the seventh grade. I simply didn’t practice enough — didn’t repeat the muscle movements over and over again so that the proper form and motion happened automatically. Muscle memory, they call it. 
Now, I have to admit, I really don’t love amphibians. I never had a frog as a pet, never dragged my parents to the amphibian house when we would visit the zoo, and never understood, until recently, that they are the canaries in the coal mine for our planet’s health. But now that I know Kermit’s in big trouble, I can’t walk away from it.  A team of us at FH is helping a new organization, named Amphibian Ark, to rally support — from governments, corporations, foundations, and consumers — so that it can capture and breed hundreds of threatened amphibian species. 
Among the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of most endangered wildlife, amphibians hold the distinction of potentially losing up to one-half of their entire class of animal life to extinction in our lifetime — almost 3,000 species. That would be the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. Amphibian Ark (AArk) was created by IUCN, Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to do the urgent work that’s necessary to avert the mass extinction, while other organizations will tackle the longer term problems, such as pollution and habitat loss.
It hasn’t been difficult getting media coverage for the issue, thankfully. And, it was a pleasure for our agency to develop the branding for the global “2008: Year of the Frog” campaign. But the ultimate success of Amphibian Ark depends on raising $50-$60 million pretty quickly. We need to make a personal impact with the people around the world who write checks, large and small. And let’s be honest, the number of environmental causes competing for funding is starting to look like an L.A. freeway at 4:00.
What separates Amphibian Ark, however, is its relative simplicity and potential for a speedy, happy ending. Once the money starts to flow, Kevin Zippel, a herpetologist and the master builder of the AArk plan, will dispatch scientists to remote areas of the world to capture species, then distribute the frogs, salamanders, newts, toads, and caecilians to multiple zoos.  They’re placing each species in several locations to reduce the chance of disease delivering a coup de grace.
Kevin would make a good basketball coach. He knows the X’s and O’s for saving frogs. He just needs a good booster organization. And we’re building it for him.

It seems to me that the U.S. public, and many policymakers, think about our environment the same way I thought about basketball. It’s fun to take a few shots, but not much fun to stay after practice to shoot a hundred free throws. When you miss, you have to retrieve the errant ball, return to the line, and do it all over again. A hundred times, every day.
We need to develop muscle memory to face and manage the really important environmental issues. If we begin with a regimen of small steps to save our planet, confidently expecting a positive outcome for our sacrifice, the momentum will alter the future for our children and their children. A quick “win” would do wonders for conditioning that muscle. AArk can provide that quick win.
Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, the president of the St. Louis Zoo, is the visionary who brought us into this issue. He asked us to sit down with him to discuss the action plan for fixing the amphibian crisis. He calls Amphibian Ark a landmark learning experience for mankind. I believe he’s right.
Want to jump into the amphibian crisis? Check out my frog blog.