Population Matters

Farewell, the Rhino

December 30th, 2011

Quietly, without ritual or public fanfare, the Western Black Rhino this year was officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  None are believed left in the wild.

To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the world will little note, nor long remember the passage of the Western Black Rhino.  No major news outlet catalogued it among the top 10 or 100 news stories for 2011.  It didn’t even make front page headlines on the day its extinction was officially announced.  After all, it’s not as if we had extinguished the last wild rhino on the face of the planet.

But that day may be coming.  An environmental journalist for the National Geographic reported a few weeks ago that, “It has been a bad year for rhinos in South Africa.”  As of a few weeks ago an estimated 433 rhinos had been killed in 2011, a hundred more than in 2010.  With an estimated 20,000 rhinos now left in South Africa, it’s possible that other rhino species and subspecies will one day follow the Western Black Rhinos, a subspecies, into oblivion.  Asian rhinos are also in jeopardy.

Unfortunately for the rhino, its horns are believed by some to cure or prevent cancer.  Still others believe that it is an aphrodisiac or a cure for gout.  An MSNBC story this week indicates that the “street value of rhinoceros horns has soared to about $65,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), making it more expensive than gold, platinum and in many cases cocaine…”

The culprits, of course, are the poachers and the traffickers who are trying to cash in on the rhino horns, and the buyers who support the illegal trade.

The hope is that increased enforcement by game officials in South Africa and elsewhere will eventually curb the poaching and save the rhinos from extinction.  The poachers, however, are strongly motivated and heavily armed.  It’s hard to be very optimistic.

When we read these stories most of us have little or no sympathy for the poachers who prowl South Africa’s border with Mozambique, nor should we, but most of us—unlike many of the poachers—are not struggling desperately to feed our families.  Human economic necessity, as much as greed, may be killing the rhinos.

The larger question that needs to be pondered is not the fate of the rhinos, as important as that it is; it’s what the human species is doing to the planet and to all the creatures that make this planet their home.  For years now, leading biologists have been warning that human activity is triggering the “sixth mass extinction” in the history of the planet and the first mass extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.  By some estimates, we are killing off species at 100 or even 1000 times the natural rate of extinction.  E.O. Wilson, the noted Harvard biologist, warned years ago that if current rates of human destruction of the biosphere are not reduced, one-half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years.

The nations that signed the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity have pledged to reduce the rate of plant and animal extinction, but we are not winning the war against biodiversity loss.  The UN reported last year that there was “no indication of a significant reduction in the rate of decline in biodiversity.”

As inexorably as a comet follows its orbit, we are steadily destroying animal habitats in an effort to fulfill our expanding appetite for food, energy, and natural resources, but unlike the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, we can change our trajectory.  We can reduce our numbers by making family planning services more widely available to women who want to avoid a pregnancy, we can reduce our ecological footprints by changing our consumption patterns, and we can marshal the resources needed to maintain wildlife preserves.

But will we do so in time to avert an ecological and human disaster?  Not as long as we ignore the impact that human numbers and human material aspirations are having on other living creatures. For many creatures, like the Western Black Rhino, it is already too late.

Farewell, the rhino.

Western Black Rhino

Posted by Robert J. Walker.  Re-posted from the Huffington Post (12.30.2011)

It Could Have Been Worse

December 23rd, 2011

The deadlock over the payroll tax cut extension having been resolved, Congress is now concluding the 1st session of the 112th Congress.  From the standpoint of family planning, it could have been worse…a whole lot worse.

When the new Congress was sworn in this past January, family planning advocates knew that it was going to be a rough year. With the change in House leadership, we anticipated that there would be an effort in the House to trim support for international family planning assistance.  And we knew that there would be an attempt to defund UNFPA.   What was feared, but not expected, was that Congressional opponents of family planning would seek to defund the clinics run by Planned Parenthood and to eliminate altogether Title X, the forty-year old program that has done so much to improve reproductive health and expand family planning options for low-income women in this country.

Funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X survived, and so did international family planning assistance. The omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress this month froze bilateral international family planning assistance at last year’s level of $575 million, but cut funding for the United Nations Population Fund from $40 million to $35 million. While the cut in funding for UNFPA was a setback, House opponents of family planning failed in their efforts to slash the funding levels by 25 percent.  House-led efforts to repeal the global “gag rule” were also rebuffed.

The FY2012 appropriation for international family planning is far below the $1 billion appropriation level recommended by our organization and other members of the International Family Planning Coalition, but given the political opposition that we faced, we can be thankful that steep cuts were not enacted.  Everyone who spoke out this year in support of family planning, domestic and international, should be sure to thank those Congressional leaders who were so instrumental in staving off this year’s attacks.

The battle, of course, is not over.  In a few weeks, Congress will return for the 2nd Session of the 112th Congress, and the political tug-of-war will resume.  In the meantime, however, the Population Institute wishes to thank all those organizations and individuals who spoke up this year on behalf of women, family planning, and reproductive health and rights.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, President


Getting to Zero: Hope and Challenges for World AIDS Day

December 1st, 2011

Today is World AIDS Day, a day for awareness, commemoration, and celebration.  HIV/AIDS has claimed and affected the lives of millions: between 1981 and 2007, an estimated 25 million people died from the virus and there are an estimated 34 million people living with HIV today.  But this World AIDS Day, the tone is more upbeat and optimistic.

This year’s theme – “Getting to Zero” – signals a push for a time when, in the words of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), there will be “zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.”  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech this past November, called upon the American people to help usher in a time when the world will have an “AIDS-free generation.” While these goals may have seemed extremely far-off or even impossible on the first World AIDS Day in 1988, the UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report 2011 gives cause for optimism.

According to the report, the number of people living with HIV is up 17% from 2001; the number of AIDS-related deaths fell to 1.8 million in 2010 (down from 2.2 million in the mid-2000s); the number of new infections is down 21 percent from the epidemic peak in 1997; and 47 percent (6.6 million) of the estimated 14.2 million people eligible for treatment in low- and middle-income countries accessed lifesaving antiretroviral therapy in 2010.  All are encouraging signs, but as the report points out, there is more work to do.

HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect some populations of the world more than others.  Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, contains only 12 percent of the global population, but has 68 percent of all the people living with HIV.  In 2010, the region accounted for 70 percent of all new HIV infections. With a population projected to climb to over 3 billion by the end of the century, more resources, energy and focus must be directed to sub-Saharan Africa in order to have any chance of “getting to zero.”

Globally, women account for 50 percent of those living with HIV, a number that seems to be holding steady.  In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, the proportions are even higher (59 and 53 percent, respectively).  HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for women of reproductive age (15-44). In 2008 alone, an estimated 60,000 maternal deaths were attributed to HIV.

The report from UNAIDS calls for more efficient and targeted investment in order to adequately and effectively meet the varying HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention needs around the globe. (International assistance for AIDS response shrank from $8.7 billion in 2009 to $7.6 billion in 2010.) One way to more effectively use available resources is to more fully integrate HIV programs with reproductive health and family planning programs.

Letting these programs operate independently of each other can often result in healthcare gaps, explains the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE): “Women living with HIV may go untreated because their family planning provider does not test for HIV. Others may receive treatment at an HIV clinic, yet face stigma if they seek prenatal care. Girls facing unintended pregnancy may receive prenatal and maternity care, yet no information on contraceptive methods.”

The world has come a long way from the uncertainty and fear felt at the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s: Globally, transmission rates continue to fall, more people are living (and for longer) with HIV, and access to treatment continues to expand. Yet, for all the optimism and hope for an “AIDS-free generation,” much more must be done. So this World AIDS Day, let us dare to hope for our future, but not lose focus on the many challenges that must be overcome to make that dream a reality.

Posted by Christina Daggett, Program Associate