Why initiate the Conservation Conversation. Because wherever you find endangered species plunging toward extinction you will also find local residents who are unaware, misinformed and/or who see conservation efforts as a threat to their own livelihood or wellbeing. Around the world, research shows the primary obstacle to saving an endangered species is local community opposition. Examples are all around us:
- gray wolf and American bison in Yellowstone National Park
- animals that compete with humans: mountain lions, Asian elephants, snow leopards, etc.
- large and/or venomous snakes and lizards: rattlesnakes and Gila monster
- small animals deemed valueless: prairie dog, yellow-legged frog, Channel island fox
Successful conservation efforts require educating and involving the public, and empowering their opinions, choices and actions. But how do we initiate this vital conversation.
Giving The Island Fox A Voice
Between 1994 and 2000 the largest population of Channel Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis) dropped from 1,780 to just 15 individuals. Similar dramatic population crashes occurred across four California islands:
|San Miguel Island||450||15|
|Santa Rosa Island||1,780||15|
|Santa Cruz Island||1,465||80|
|Santa Catalina Island||1,342||103|
As the surviving island foxes were brought into captive breeding facilities, Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy contracted with a professional hunt service to lethally remove a large feral pig population that had destroyed native habitat and attracted an unnatural predator to Santa Cruz Island–the golden eagle. While the effort was vital to saving the island fox, members of the local community challenged the action in court. In the midst of the turmoil Friends of the Island Fox was founded by two Los Angeles Zoo docents in partnership with Channel Islands National Park. The goal was to educate the local community about the island fox, act as a liaison between the public and the scientists, and to invite community participation in conservation efforts.
What is an Island Fox.
Before the community could support conservation efforts they had to know what an island fox was and the vital role it plays in the ecosystem. They needed to know why they should care.
The California Channel Islands are similar to the Galapagos Islands; many of the plant and animal species are endemic. The island fox evolved from the mainland gray fox, but in adapting to survive on California’s coastal islands it became smaller in size, more omnivorous and its behavior became more monogamous, territorial and cathemeral. Because of its fruit-filled diet, the island fox acts as a primary seed disperser and keystone species.
Conversation starter: (video) Observing an animal’s behavior can initiate discussion regarding adaptations and habitat needs. In addition, personal knowledge can engender empathy.
Discussing Cause and Effect
Many conservation problems are complex cause and effect situations. The island fox was indirectly impacted when DDT caused the extinction of island bald eagles. These fish-eating eagles did not prey on the small fox and kept other large raptors from colonizing the islands. Introduced domestic animals degraded the island vegetation and left the predator-naïve island fox with few places to hide.
Conversation starter: Island fox populations were not studied until their decline. The following population modeling activity demonstrates how knowledge about animal populations can inform community decisions.
Activity: How Many Foxes
- Participants represent an island or specific land area with 4 sections. Development is pending, but before choices are made information is needed. Participants with an “E” in their first or last name stand; they are the fox population.
- Feral domestic herbivores have denuded two island sections. “Foxes” in these habitat sections wearing bright colors are spotted by the introduced golden eagle and eaten.
- A stowaway visitor (raccoon) to a third section has introduced a canine disease. Any “foxes” that have had contact with the disease vector have contracted the distemper virus. Only those with a “J” in their name have natural immunity and survive.
- Now what is the population dynamic. Which areas have the greatest fox density and diversity. How should development proceed.
The Costs of Conservation
Involving the community means bringing them to the table regarding conservation expenses. Letting students and adults voice how they would spend conservation dollars is empowering, enlightening and encourages creative ideas that can improve your bottom line. Radio tracking collars to monitor island fox survival, road signs to deter car-strike mortality, rabies and distemper vaccinations are all vital elements of island fox conservation. When we bring the reality of the costs to schoolchildren and community groups, participants of all ages demonstrate a strong desire to contribute to direct funding of conservation efforts.
Conversation starter: With annual conservation expenses of $29,260 and a budget of 20,000,
what choices would you make.
Activity: Island Fox Conservation, You Decide:
- Radio collars $250 per fox (20 foxes on 4 islands = $20,000)
- “Watch for Foxes” road signs $120 each (8 needed = $960)
- Rabies & distemper vaccinations $10 per fox (80 foxes on 6 islands = $4,800)
- Education flyers for boaters regarding raccoons $1 each (3,500 flyers = $3,500)
How would you modify your choices when the unexpected happens: 1) $5,000 restricted research donation; 2) $5,000 general donation; or 3) $5,000 crisis expense.
The Challenges of Success
As of 2011, the Channel Island fox is demonstrating the fastest recovery of an endangered species in North American history. With that success comes new challenges. Island foxes are frequenting campgrounds and picnic areas on Santa Cruz Island. How do you stop people from feeding a charismatic fox with an eye for human food.
Conversation starter: Island foxes acquire moisture needs from their food. Especially in summer that means juicy fruit. Playing with food can physically demonstrate the difference between wild food and human food and bring home the importance of not feeding wild animals.
Activity: Island Fox and Water – Take two sealable plastic bags: 1) with chips and 2) with wild food (prickly pear cactus fruit, currants, etc.). Smash the contents and pour off the liquid.
The Conservation Conversation must be reciprocal, the greater the discussion, the greater the community involvement and potential success. Engaging everyone from schoolchildren to adults has changed the local California community from an obstacle to an active partner in saving the endangered island fox.