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We Can’t Afford to Write Off ‘Stars’ of the Wild

For many people, the words “wildlife” and “wilderness” conjure up images of things very far away. I’ve been blessed. As a teenager growing up, I lived for a time in the Congo, where backyard wildlife included exotic birds, monkeys, pythons and even the occasional leopard. In those early years, I learned to appreciate and form a strong emotional connection to wildlife and wild places. Today, through the Internet and other advances in communications, the world has gotten smaller, and as we increase our understanding of global environmental issues, we continue to learn that everywhere, including the Congo, is our backyard.

Recently, I was asked to narrate a short documentary called “Living with Predators.” At first I thought it was a retrospective of my movie roles, but actually this documentary was made to inform Members of Congress about the challenges in the wild that face 13 of the Earth’s endangered predators, including lions, snow leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs, Ethiopian wolves and others. It was made because one of the greatest challenges facing these animals is simply a lack of understanding. Today, issues that are global in nature such as climate change and avian flu dominate media attention and also our environmental agendas. This is understandable, but consequently, the cause of individual animal species teetering on the brink of extinction is becoming obscured.

Fortunately, Reps. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) recognize that we cannot afford to “write off” these species and have introduced the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act (H.R. 1464/S. 1033) to help save them. They understand that the survival of these predators is often critical to the ecosystems in which they live and to the survival of countless other species. These ecosystems provide benefits to the planet and to people as well. So while these predators walk the path of our making, they certainly don’t walk alone.

I learned about sharing a path with a great cat years ago. While riding on a safari in Kenya with my daughter, we were ambushed by a lioness. As she crouched before us, holding us at bay, time was suspended. We were at her mercy, no longer in control of our fate. It was elemental, thrilling and terrifying. After what seemed like a lifetime, the lioness decided to let us pass, unharmed, through her space and glided off into the high grasses. Today, it is we who determine her fate.

Alarmingly, biologists say today they are increasingly practicing “triage conservation” with respect to these species — directing limited resources toward saving only those communities around the world with the best long-term prospects for survival, while populations continue an overall decline. The crowding of these wildlife icons into less and less space is increasingly accepted as a sacrifice made in order for humanity to thrive. This is shortsighted thinking, however. Through conservation efforts, we can implement the technologies that will let us share the Earth with these animals while making it a better place for humans as well. But we need to start now.

As recognizable “stars” of the wild, great cats and rare canids are well-suited to serve as indicators of the planet’s wildlife health. But we will have an earlier indication of what to expect as the House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to help decide the fate of the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act on Sept. 6. This legislation ultimately asks for us to share a common path with wildlife and understand that to protect our environment, we need to respect and preserve nature’s natural order. We can start now by keeping these 13 magnificent animals from making a final curtain call.

Glenn Close is an actress and board member of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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