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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Museum Message

Air Date: Week of

About sixty-five million years ago, back in the Mesozoic Age, it's believed that a huge asteroid hit the earth. One theory holds that its impact kicked up a massive dust cloud which blotted out the sun and chilled the planet's surface killing off the dinosaurs and many other organisms. Today, according to a new, major exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it's the impact of human activity, not asteroids, which is putting thousands of species at risk. Richard Schiffman reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. About 65 million years ago, back in what's called the Mesozoic Age, it's believed that a huge asteroid hit the Earth. One theory holds that its impact kicked up a massive dust cloud that blotted out the sun and chilled the planet's surface, killing off the dinosaurs and many other organisms. Today it's the impact of human activity which is putting thousands of species at risk. That's the message of a major new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Richard Schiffman has our report.

(Children's voices echo in museum hallways. Fade to growling sounds. A woman's voice: "This is one of the most famous dioramas in the American Museum. It recreates a family of gorillas on a forested mountainside in Zaire...")

SCHIFFMAN: Some visitors are taking an audio tour of the museum's vast collections.

(Woman's voice continues: "Curator Ross McPhee." McPhee: "When the Aikley expedition collected these specimens in the 1920s, the mountain gorilla population in Africa was estimated to be in the thousands. Today only 600 survive. In fact, today, the spot you see here in this diorama is terraced farm land.")

SCHIFFMAN: Generations of New Yorkers have marveled at these animals in the cavernous Aikley Hall of African Mammals. They were collected early in the century by President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid big game hunter, and naturalist Carl Aikley, and mounted against realistic backdrops of rainforest, desert, and Serengeti grassland. What museum goers may not realize is that many of these animals, including the mountain gorillas and the black rhinos on the far side of the hall, are now in trouble.

EMILY: I didn't know that they, their front horn could grow so big.

KATE: I knew that! They can grow a little longer than that.

SCHIFFMAN: Young Emily and her friend Kate have stopped in front of the diorama with the black rhinos. As part of a museum workshop on endangered species, they're answering a series of questions.

EMILY: Why do you think this animal is endangered? Because its horns are pretty nice, and people probably want their horns.

KATE: And they kill them for the horns.

SCHIFFMAN: Museum researchers warn that by the time these children have grown up, the black rhinoceros and many other species may exist only in dioramas like these. That's one reason they've launched a special exhibition: Endangered: Exploring a World At Risk, just down the corridor from the African hall. Memologist Ross McPhee is the curator. He says the greatest danger to wildlife is habitat destruction.

McPHEE: The original name of this show was going to be Endangered Species, and I had a problem with calling it Endangered Species, because in many regards it's not individual species that we need to be concerned about. What we need to be concerned about is the collapse and loss of whole habitats and ecosystems.

SCHIFFMAN: Ecosystems like the Everglades, for example.

(Growling sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: We step into a virtual swamp, replete with overhanging trees, running water, and an alligator that seems to be striding out of the painted backdrop.

(Alligator growl continues)

McPHEE: We're now looking at a diorama that is meant to depict a part of the Florida Everglades during the dry season. In a nutshell, what's happened in the peninsular part of Florida is that it has been converted from one of the most elaborate, interesting wetlands on the surface on the planet to a greatly diminished figment of what it used to be.

SCHIFFMAN: Ross McPhee says that as more water gets diverted to Miami and for crop irrigation, the Everglades are literally drying up, leaving it dotted with small ponds like this recreated gator hole we're looking at. Alligators actually dig these small ponds. Now, with alligator numbers declining, there are fewer gator holes. And some of the plants, birds, and fishes which depend on them to survive Florida's dry season are currently endangered.

CHILD: Hey, it's alive! It's a live animal.

SCHIFFMAN: Just across from the Everglades display is a pool with live baby Chinese alligators from the Yangtze River. These specimens are on loan from the Bronx Zoo's Species Survival Plan breeding program. A scant 300 of these yellow and black skinned reptiles exist in the wild. A bit further on, there is an open diorama featuring 2 stuffed pandas collected early in the century.

(Asian music. A woman's voice: "Giant pandas hold a special place in the hearts of people around the world. In the zoo they seem safe and secure, but for most pandas in the wild this isn't the case.")

SCHIFFMAN: As the last bamboo forests are cut to make room for China's growing population, the pandas and other endemic species like golden monkeys and Chinese pheasants are at risk. Until as recently as the 1980s, panda skins fetched upwards of $10,000 on the Asian black market. Strong anti-poaching laws are now enforced in China. But the worldwide trade in animal parts continues to imperil many species.

(Growls; children's, then adults' voices in the background)

LANGAM: I'm Larry Langam. I'm an exhibit designer here at the American Museum of Natural History. With this area, what we call Exploitation Avenue, we've taken a number of products that have been made from endangered animals and displayed them in storefronts.

SCHIFFMAN: The miniature business district in the exhibition includes a well-stocked Chinese apothecary, with items like tiger bone tincture, rhinoceros horn potion, and tortoise anti-toxic pills. And there's also a fashionable boutique with a python skin belt, a monkey fur dress, and a leopard hat.

LANGAM: I think that we're able to engage people and entertain them with the beauty of this display, but at the same time it's very clear that there's something really grotesque about it.

SCHIFFMAN: After habitat loss and the hunting and poaching of wild animals, the third major threat to wildlife, according to Ross McPhee, is the introduction of non-native species. Some insects, seeds, and animals are carried to new areas as stowaways on ships and airplanes, while others are deliberately brought in.

McPHEE: Species that live in their normal ranges tend to be well adapted. If you take them out of their local environment and put them elsewhere, where they would now be considered introduced, anything can happen and it's very hard to predict.

SCHIFFMAN: In the 1950s British officials introduced Nile perch into Lake Victoria, hoping to augment the villagers' diet. It proved a boon to the local fisher folk. But the voracious perch wiped out many of the unique species of fish which populated the lake.

McPHEE: Although the ambition was humanitarian, the end result has been an ecological disaster. So that the lake, the fish, the people are now much worse off than they ever would have been had nature been left alone.

(Dramatic music and ambient voices)

SCHIFFMAN: The exhibition ends in a round tomb-like structure. It's filled with models of extinct species like the Great Auk and the Stellar's Sea Cow, set in alcoves in the granite wall.


McPHEE: This is the last stop of the story, in a sense. If you do nothing about the leading causes of endangerment in terms of over-exploitation, habitat loss, and introduced species, then this increasingly is where the world's biota is going to end up: in little niches in a catacomb like this.

(Gongs continue. Child: "Oh my God, 1,146 animals just got extinct." Dramatic music and gongs up and under)

SCHIFFMAN: As you leave the tomb you pass a digital counter which estimates how many species have gone extinct since the exhibition started. Based on a rough calculation of 3 extinctions per hour, the counter will read over 27,000 on September first, the day the exhibition closes.

(Gongs and music continue)

SCHIFFMAN: From the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.



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