In the Game of Species, You Win or You Go Extinct

The world’s endangered species are stuck in a cycle of woe and misery that even "Game of Thrones" author George R. R. Martin would find macabre.

June 17, 2015

A mother saiga and calf.
Photo: Igor Shpilenok viai USFWS/Flickr

Is it me, or is the endangered species beat starting to look like something out of Game of Thrones? Just one heartbreaking chapter or episode after another. 

The Arctic wolf. The Asian lion. The Komodo dragon. The Key deer. For each of the house sigils found in Martin’s fantasy world, you can find a real-life animal that is just one plot-twist away from utter annihilation. Spoiler alert: Winter is coming for biodiversty, and it’s coming because humans are writing other species out of the story. By pushing animal and plant populations to the extreme limits of survival, we are responsible for a hundred- to thousandfold increase in extinction rates—whether we pull the final trigger (pun intended) or not

Take the story of the saiga. For 10 years, Kazakhstan, with a lot of help from the international community, has been working hard to curb poaching and allow the critically endangered saiga antelope population to rebound from a century of slaughter. In 2014, aerial surveys counted 260,000 of the animals remaining—not a lot, but definitely progress for a species on the brink.

And then…last month, more than half the remaining saiga keeled over and died of a mystery disease—about 134,000 died over the course of two or three weeks. That’s enough corpses to make the Red Wedding look like a tea party. 

Mass die-offs happen. The Ebola virus has killed one-third of chimpanzees (endangered) and gorillas (critically endangered) in the last four decades. In Florida, freak winters and red tides have led to a record number of deaths for the state’s endangered manatees. Over in the Middle East, conservationists worry the critically endangered northern bald ibis will disappear from Syria forever as a result of an invasion of Dothraki screamers—er, I mean ISIS.

With the exception of war, one could argue that these threats are part of the environment’s natural ebb and flow or just evolution at work. Most species can endure such challenges for millennia. Sure, some individuals must pay the iron price, but the species usually lives on.

But now, humankind has become the X factor. Our polluting, developing, hunting, and consuming ways have pushed many species right up against the Wall with no room left to maneuver to recovery. Their habitats plundered, their populations dispersed, their genetic diversity destroyed, species after species now reside within the pitiable space of a Game of Thrones cliffhanger. Even if they somehow survive one calamity, they live in a world where life is cheap and the Stranger lurks in every thicket. Survival is never guaranteed (right, Ned? right, Shireen?), but it helps when species have a bit of a safety net.

Let’s look again at the saiga antelope. This is no weak creature deserving of the King’s Justice. Saiga have trotted around the Eurasian steppes for millions of years. When other members of its genus went extinct in the Pleistocene era (about two million years ago), the saiga looked the God of Death in his beady black eyes and said, “Not today!”

These creatures are built to survive. Females can give birth within their first year of life and regularly produce twins. At the end of the last Ice Age, saiga numbered in the millions and stretched from England to Alaska. “This is a species on the edge, ecologically, that relies on being very abundant to withstand this type of event,” says E. J. Milner-Gulland, chair for the Saiga Conservation Alliance, about the current extremely lethal outbreak. But after decades of unregulated hunting, mostly for the animal’s horns, the saiga can no longer find safety in numbers.

Milner-Gulland says the antelopes have weathered similar epidemics in the past, noting a die-off in 1984 that wiped out two-thirds of the affected population. The current outbreak, however, has struck the world’s largest remaining herd, so the death toll accounts for a huge proportion of the global population. Poachers now have their sites on two much smaller saiga herds between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Milner-Gulland says we could easily see them both disappear over the next few years.

One day you’re part of a herd a quarter-million strong. The next day you’re a feast for crows.

Photo: Seilov/Wikimedia Commons

Saiga could really use a deus ex machina about now—alas, those only work in books and movies. Does a great dragon of conservation ever swoop down and pluck a species away from the armed men who want to slaughter it? No. Instead we get golden toads of House Marsh being wiped out by the likes of El Niño and the Floreana mockingbirds of House Baelish mobbed by invasive black rats.

Oh, and did you hear what happened to the last living Pyrean ibex, banner animal of the Brave Companions? It was found dead beneath a fallen tree. Seriously.

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. But in the game of endangered species, there are no winners—only those who haven’t yet gone extinct.

But unlike all those fair-weather fans claiming they’re “done” with Game of Thrones after Sunday’s gut-wrenching season finale, we can’t opt out of the game of endangered species. We wrote the world’s plants and animals into their plights, and now it’s time for us to choose our own adventure. Our choices—everything from thwarting poachers and reducing carbon emissions to recycling and keeping pet cats indoors—influence who lives and who is wiped off the face of the earth forever.

So let’s remember that although it sometimes feels as if “The Rains of Castamere” is playing on an endless loop in the animal kingdom, we have been heroes in the past. The gray wolves of House Stark, the white-tailed deer of House Baratheon, and the bald eagles of House Mallister all exist today because conservationists made a commitment to fight for them.

So brace yourselves. From the poles to the forests to the Eurasian steppe, night gathers…and our watch begins.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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