Today marks one of the least known, but most significant, holidays of the entire year -- Endangered Species Day. Launched by the United States Senate, the annual event takes place the third Friday in May and is celebrated by thousands of people throughout the country at parks, wildlife refuges, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, libraries, schools and community centers.
Endangered Species Day provides an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the efforts that are currently underway to preserve our world's wildlife populations and discover how they can help support these initiatives. It is also the perfect forum to educate the general public on topics such as wildlife, plant and natural resource conservation and welfare, and the significance of creating a legacy for future generations that we can all be proud of.
Perhaps most importantly, today's celebration offers a platform to discuss the Endangered Species Act, or the "ESA," a critical piece of legislation designed to protect imperiled wildlife and plants from extinction. The ESA has proven vital for the continued conservation of hundreds of species since its creation in 1973 -- some of its most well-known beneficiaries include the American bald eagle, the African elephant, the grizzly bear, the tiger and the Northern Atlantic Right whale.
Unfortunately, implementing the Endangered Species Act is not without challenges. There is currently a laundry list of animals and plants seeking protection, and it has become increasingly evident that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- the federal agencies charged with administering the ESA -- cannot process the petitions fast enough.
This reality is especially disconcerting for animals such as African lions -- a species for which IFAW submitted a technical and scientific petition to list as Endangered under the ESA in March 2011. The review process for listing a species under the ESA now takes anywhere from two to five years to complete, and the sad truth is that irreversible damage can be done to these wildlife populations during that time.
For example, even if the U.S. government finds that African lions deserve the protections from trade that accompany a listing, literally hundreds -- if not thousands -- of individual lions will have been killed and imported into the country by American trophy hunters while the petition review process was underway. For a species that is believed to have only 35,000 individuals left in the wild, this could significantly harm some lion populations' chances of recovery. So while the ESA is still considered one of the strongest and most important animal conservation laws in the world, there is a need to improve the way it is being implemented in order to provide timely emergency relief for species struggling to survive.
Endangered Species Day is guaranteed to be an eye-opening experience for anyone who participates. Today, thousands of Americans have the chance to learn about species in danger of extinction and the tools for -- and challenges to -- facilitating recovery.
With humanity already leaving an omnipresent footprint on the world, the Earth's animals and the ecosystems in which they live are now dependent on us for survival. It is our responsibility to ensure they are on our planet for generations to come. Establishing our legacy for tomorrow begins today.
Jeff Flocken is the DC office director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). For more information about IFAW's work to protect imperiled and endangered animals, please visit ifaw.org.
For additional information on Endangered Species Day and the activities taking place across the country, I encourage you to visit the Endangered Species Day Website and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
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