Are you inundated with cute animal YouTube clips? One more sneezing panda is gonna put me over the edge. Sometimes the links promise you eternal feel-goodness if you sign a petition or donate money or even just share the outrage. Being a practical, pragmatic, and somewhat skeptical human being, I don’t believe in the effectiveness of online petitions or “every time you share this link a tiger cub gets a dollar” kinda things; they are merely clever methods of data mining for nefarious purposes.
But a couple of weeks ago, one of my little cousins emailed asking how to get to Bangkok. Turns out, the kid is joining the US delegation to CITES' 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties. She will be the sole delegate for the Smithsonian, as well as its first youth member. Amazingly enough, I actually knew what CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was and I did what I could to guide her on finding flights. But going as a delegate? That required further investigation.
While everyone is posting cockamamie links on Facebook, Marissa, a senior at College of the Atlantic in Maine, might actually be on the road to doing something useful in real time. The kid’s resume looks like an adventure in human-ecological interaction. She spent almost year on an internship at the Smithsonian. According to the press release published by the college:
During her time at COA, [Marissa] Altmann improved the organization and management of the teaching collection of the college’s George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History, participated in a spring break course in ecological developmental biology at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, and also received a Maine Space Grant to study parasite interactions between periwinkles and microscopic worms known as trematodes. Additionally, Altmann collaborated with Acadia National Park to collect acoustic data on bat foraging behavior at Bubble Pond, and recently received an additional Maine Space Grant to survey these nocturnal species, an important task given the issues of bat declines in recent years.
So now she heads out onto a bigger stage.
CITES does do real work in the real world. The original concept was formed as a multilateral treaty in 1963 that ultimately gave way to the formation of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and eventually, to the development of CITES. As an independent convention, CITES works to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 34,000 species of animals and plants.” It’s probably worth mentioning that of the 193 member nations of the United Nations, only 17 (Andorra, Angola, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Federated States of Micronesia, Haiti, Iraq, Kiribati, Lebanon, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkmenistan and Tuvalu) are non-signers.
Why should we care?
We must care. We are stewards of this fragile planet. Every animal or plant that disappears from the forest or the field is another missing piece in the puzzle of biodiversity.