Wildlife refers to the animals and related plants in a state of nature, or the species of fauna that are not domesticated or tame and are also indigenous to an area, region or range. The expression is relatively recent in origin dating to Richard Jefferies' 1879 work discussing the various animal species in the Wiltshire Downs in southern Britain. Jefferies insisted, “glance into the hedgerow, the copse, or stream,” and “there" you find "nature’s children as unrestrained in their wild, free life as they were in the …backwoods of primitive England.”
The term wildling is much older, however, as is wildness from which wildlife is derivative, being used for example by William Shakespeare to refer to those qualities of living things not under the influence or control of humans. Charles Darwin when referring to artificial selection by comparison used the term natural selection when he considered those products of populations not subject to human breeding, or domesticated species. He influenced greatly the tendency to this day of specialists to contrast wild with artificial varieties of plants and animals. Wildlife then refers to the fauna and flora native to or naturalized over some generations to places that assure their ongoing survival with little or no human assistance or interference.
Within a generation of the word’s introduction, wildlife had become a common reference to protecting indigenous animals and their related vegetation because of an appreciable and obvious decline in the number of dominant species over particular parts of the Earth. The more obvious principal animals, referred to now as charismatic wildlife, had declined precipitously in number like the Pacific coastal sea otters (Enhydra lutris), as the focus of market hunting. Other species like the American bison (Bison bison) and beaver (Castor canadensis) declined also due to loss of their native range, while some were extinct like the Moa (Dinornis giganteus) birds of New Zealand. The regional eradication of South African elephants (Loxodonta Africana) in the Cape Province, and Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris), in India due to trophy hunting, troubled thoughtful zoologists and hunters alike.
The abrupt decline in these wild populations spurred influential leaders in the Europe, the UK, and the US to press for protection of range land, prey species, and further hunting restrictions in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Wildlife refuges of modest to enormous size were created to insulate certain characteristic species from commercial exploitation and industrial intrusions. Organizations such as the Trust for Wildlife in the United Kingdom, or state Audubon societies in the United States were formed in part to sustain governmental agencies in the tasks of learning about species, the size of populations and their home ranges, or engage actively to protect desired species against poaching. Sport hunting groups and angling (fisher) organizations advocated the preservation of game populations and the Ecological Society of America undertook a survey between 1915 and the 1930s of the remaining biological associations in which non-game animals and plants coexisted.
In Russia, an area almost twice the size of the United States, large reserves called "Zapovedniki" were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to better study the biosphere. Ninety-nine such reserves and 33 National Parks and a number of nature reservations (zakaznik) were created since 1916 when the initial "Zapovednik" was preserved on Lake Baikal. Under the influence of cross-disciplinary ideas of Russian earth scientists, such as Vladimir Vernadsky who coined the term "biosfera", or biosphere, a coherent look at wildlife needs had emerged before the retreat of scientific research under Josef Stalin in the 1930s. Possessing most of the earth’s boreal coniferous forest, Russia’s Eurasian preserves include nearly a fourth of all the world’s timber in addition to valuable wildlife ranges.
Wildlife conservation referred to a social movement among educated elites to protect the ecological conditions and the populations of predator and prey species that were indicative of evolutionary continuity and changing biological and geochemical conditions on which a wide array of plants and animals depended to feed, breed, migrate, and flourish. Currently in the United States, 548 national wildlife refuges or waterfowl protection and wetland management areas exist in 49 states covering approximately 100 million acres. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers these preserves, which is a division of the Department of the Interior. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a sincere love of natural science, hunting, and wildlife, in 1903, launched the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system by designating Florida's Pelican Island as a preserve for native birds. However, despite a historic dedication to protecting wildlife, 83 percent of the US wildlife refuge acreage is in Alaska. The funding for these refuges as currently managed, costs “less than $4 per acre. By comparison, the National Park System receives more than $20 per acre for management,” according to the Environment Media Service, and more recent investigative reports. These reports reveal that “40 million visitors a year” use the wildlife refuges contributing “more than 27,000 jobs” and “an estimated $1.7 billion to the economy.”
Wildlife today are under pressure generally from human intrusions due to consumption and population growth and specifically due to the loss of their former range, food sources and breeding areas, a fracturing of the biological communities wildlife rely on, and the loss of genetic variability needed to maintain dynamic populations. Ecological disruption caused by loss of focal or necessary species (referred to as keystone or sentinel species) and changes due to rising levels of air and water pollution are understood now as prevailing causes of wildlife decline. An estimated third of the world’s wild species face extinction and these threatened or at risk populations are tracked by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Half of the primate species may become extinct before the century’s end. As indicators of the ecological and evolutionary conditions in which wild species thrive best, wildlife conservation today is the focus of international and government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, museums, and research scientists who advocate for the study and protection of wildlife and their native surroundings.
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- Thomas R. Dunlap. Saving America's Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
- Richard Jefferies, Wild life in a Southern Country. Moonraker Press: Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, U.K. (1879) 1978. Page 21.
- John F. Reiger. American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation.
- Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, Biosfera, (The Biosphere). Scientific Chemico-Technical Publishing: Leningrad, 1926.
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- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859.
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- Zabelina, N.M. "Zapovedniki i Nacional'nye Parki Rossii" (Nature Reserves and National Parks of Russia). 1998, Logata, Russian Federation.