Wildlife Conservation through Coins

Figures 1-12

In September, 1914, a rare bird slipped from her perch and lay dead on the floor of her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. Usually when a bird dies, no one pays much attention, but this one was tenderly gathered up and sent to Washington, DC, where she was expertly mounted. Her name was Martha and she had been seen by thousands of people. The unusual thing about Martha was that she was the very last passenger pigeon known to be living anywhere in the world. It's hard to believe that the world will never see another living passenger pigeon. They had been the most numerous bird that ever lived, with a population of 3 to 5 billion in the early 1800's. In 1870, with their numbers already diminished, one flock contained over 2 million birds. They were strong, swift flyers and lived up to 25 years if caged. But their numbers also made them the cheapest meat available and after 1860, the telegraph and railroad allowed hunters to follow their flocks with nets and traps. In 1896, the last flock of 250,000 was slaughtered by hunters and in 1900 a young boy shot the last one seen in the wild.

So how does the passenger pigeon relate to coins? No one has yet issued a coin with its likeness, but there is a coin that honors another famous but extinct bird. The 10 rupee coin of Mauritius, issued in 1971 to commemorate the island's independence, shows the dodo (Figure 1), a large flightless dove that has been extinct since 1680. The dodo was nearly tame and its meat was tough and bitter, but it was slaughtered by the sailors and settlers who came to the island.

It's too late to help the passenger pigeon, the dodo, or the other species that have already vanished. But we can try to assure that the dodo remains the only extinct animal on a coin. This is more difficult than it seems. As with US coins, conservation has a Red Book of things that are worth saving; the Red Data Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 900 species that are in danger. Many of these animals appear on coins. There have been over 300 extinction’s since 1680, 1 species per year, compared to the great dinosaur extinction, with a rate of 1 species every 1000 years. The wildlife population of Africa has dropped by 70% since 1900 and animals everywhere are threatened by the actions of man.

Perhaps the most famous endangered species is the giant panda (Figure 2). It lives in the remote mountain areas of China and is related more closely to a raccoon than to a bear. The panda was unknown to the western world until it was discovered by a French missionary in 1869; the first live panda to leave China went to the Chicago Zoo in 1936. There are less than 40 pandas in zoos today and no one knows how many remain in the wild. The panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, an international organization dedicated to conservation, and is also pictured on the China gold bullion coins. These have been made in 1/10 to 1 ounce sizes since 1982 and feature a different panda design each year.

The Andean condor has appeared on many Chilean coins since 1836, including the one centesimo from 1960-63. The condor was an object of worship for hundreds of years and is the largest bird of prey in the world. With its 10 foot wingspan it cruises at up to 80 miles an hour. Although less persecuted than the California condor, it is rare because of hunting for its feathers.

The 1/2 sol from Peru, minted from 1966-75, pictures the vicuna, a wild relative of the Ilama. It first appeared on Peruvian coins in 1823. The vicuna lives in the Andes of western South America and is said to have the finest wool in the world. The Incas rounded up the vicunas, sheared, and released them, but the Spaniards found it easier to kill them first. This smallest and most graceful of the South American Ilama is now protected and is increasing in numbers.

Gibraltar's first decimal crown, the 25 new pence minted in 1971, pictures the Barbary ape (Figure 3), the only wild non-human primate in Europe. It is also found in North Africa and is actually a monkey; it's called an ape because it doesn't have a tail. Legend says that the British will maintain control of Gibraltar for as long as the apes remain. One hundred years ago only 3 of the apes were left on Gibraltar, so several were imported from Morocco. These multiplied to over 100 and became a nuisance; all of those left today are tame and in private keeping.

The 1980 Canadian silver dollar (Figure 4) commemorates the centennial of the transfer of the Arctic Islands from Great Britain to the Dominion of Canada. It features the polar bear, the most completely polar of all animals. This huge white bear has no enemies but man and rarely attacks humans unless it is attacked first. Hunted for fur and sport, there are less than 20,000 left in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. Russia has led the way in protecting these bears, but they face additional problems from changing climate; the Arctic is warming and the ice cap where the bears live is shrinking.

Why we should care about these animals? There are practical reasons why we should. One is ecological; all life on earth is interdependent and relies on a balance many factors. Wildlife can be a warning to man that a world no longer fit for wild creatures to live in might also become unfit for people. Another reason is economic; animals which are used for food or medicine or even sport can continue to provide these things only if their use today is controlled. Controlled hunting of the passenger pigeon could have provided meat in the 1800's and allowed the species to survive to provide meat today. To me, however, the inherent moral value and the beauty of these animals are reason enough to care. Perhaps some examples closer to home will help

The Bay Bridge 50 cent commemorative, minted in 1936 in honor of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, pictures a California grizzly bear, as does the California 50 cent commemorative, issued in 1925 for the 75th anniversary of California’s admission to the Union. The Red Book lists the model for the Bay Bridge grizzly as Monarch II; he was surely in a zoo as the last report of a wild grizzly in California was in 1922. I realize that no living person is to appear on a U.S. coin, but must this be true of animals as well? The grizzly is a type of brown bear; its name refers to its grizzled coat. In 1830 there were 5000 grizzlies in California alone, but by 1937 there were none in that state and less than 1200 in the lower 48 states. The grizzlies that escaped destruction to protect man and his herds are now restricted to the remote forests and mountains of Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, and western Canada. Subspecies, including the Mexican silver grizzly, are already extinct. This bear was the largest native animal in Mexico and the smallest subspecies of brown bear. It was hunted, trapped, and poisoned to extinction in the southern United States by 1937, but survived in Mexico until 1960 when, with less than 30 left, ranchers intensified efforts to destroy it. None have been seen since 1964; a 1968 survey showed no evidence of survival.

The U.S. Vermont 50 cent commemorative was issued in 1927, the 150th anniversary of the battle of Bennington and the independence of Vermont. The reverse shows an eastern cougar, an odd choice since by 1927 there were hardly any left in the northeastern United States. The cougar was believed to be extinct in Pennsylvania by 1891. The cougar, also known as a puma or mountain lion, once roamed from Alaska to Cape Horn, but in the U.S. it's now found mainly in the deep canyons and steep cliffs of the west. The cougar's ability to adapt to a wide range of habitat and diet probably saved it from extinction, despite the efforts of man, who cleared its territory for domestic animals, then tried to destroy it to protect his herds. The cougar seems to be returning to the northeastern United States, but is still extremely rare in this part of the country.

The national symbol of the United States, the bald eagle, is shown on the Eisenhower dollar (Figure 5), minted from 1971-78. The eagle appears on many of our coins, including the very first, the 1792 half dime and dime. All coins of 20 cents and larger since 1794 have had an eagle on them except for the 1976 bicentennial pieces. There have been many coin designs honoring this bird. The bald eagle, once widespread throughout North America, has been endangered by illegal hunting and made infertile by accidental DDT poisoning. Although protected since 1940, they have lost many of their nesting grounds to humans and most of the 800 remaining are in Alaska. The eagle is, however, making a comeback in Florida, the Great Lakes states, and Canada. It seems incredible that we could nearly extinguish our national symbol.

Why are so many animals in danger? Extinction usually requires a combination of factors. There are natural causes like climate change and disease, but they account for only 15 to 30% of the danger. The other causes are associated with man and include overhunting for food, sport, or fur, made easier by our improved transportation and weapons. Animals are captured for medical research or for pets and they are caught in the middle of human wars. But the greatest danger to wildlife is habitat destruction. As the human population increases, man needs more and more space, leaving less for other creatures. Draining marshes, cultivation, or timbering may destroy the habitat of many species. Animals are also affected by pollution and even domestic animals, which may spread disease, reduce food supplies by overgrazing, or even kill the native wildlife.

My next example will show what can be done to save these animals. The buffalo nickel, minted from 1913-38, shows the American bison, over 50 million of which once roamed most of North America. The bison was modeled after Black Diamond, who lived at the New York Zoological Gardens. This organization rescued the plains bison from sharing the fate of the eastern bison, which was even larger than the plains bison and was exterminated by the early settlers. The last bison in Pennsylvania was killed in 1802 and the last eastern bison was killed in West Virginia in 1825. The plains bison provided food, clothes, teepees, and canoes for the Indians, but was a nuisance to settlers who killed it for sport, hides, and tongues. At one time the government and the military actively sought the extinction of the bison as a way to destroy the Indians. In 1889, with less than 600 left in the United States, hunting was outlawed, but by 1900 only 300 remained, 250 in Canada and 50 in Yellowstone. The Yellowstone herd was rounded up, bred in zoos, and released into parks and reserves. There are now about 40,000 plains bison, enough to guarantee survival and to allow controlled harvesting of the surplus.

Much is being done by governments and international organizations to protect endangered animals by setting up refuges and by educating people. The Wildlife conservation coin series has been such an education for me. Twenty-four countries issued 48 silver and 24 gold coins from 1974-79, with each coin featuring an endangered species from that country.

The 2000 rupiah coin from Indonesia was minted in 1974 and shows a Javan tiger (Figure 6), the smallest surviving tiger subspecies. It is probably destined to become the next extinct animal on a coin; there were only 5 Javan tigers left in 1981 and there can be no real hope for survival with so few remaining. It may already be extinct, as is the Bali tiger, previously the smallest tiger subspecies. Dutch colonists and Bali natives began hunting the cats in 1920 and shot the last Bali tiger in 1937. The other six tiger subspecies are also endangered, with their population in India dropping to 2000 from the tens of thousands that were there 60 years ago. These largest of living cats have been hunted for sport and fur, captured for zoos, and had their habitat destroyed by settlers. Their prey has become scarce, leaving them to kill livestock, which brings the farmers and their guns after the tiger itself. There are fewer than 200 Siberian tigers left, but this largest subspecies in now protected by China, Korea, and Russia.

The West Indian manatee is on the 1974 Costa Rican 100 colones coin. This 13 foot long, shapeless and lumpy aquatic mammal was once widespread along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies. Hunting for food, hides, and oil has been outlawed, but it is often injured by motorboats and pollution. Steller's sea cow was a huge manatee, 20 to 30 feet long, that was discovered in the Bering Sea in 1741. Its meat and fat supplied many Arctic expeditions, but warnings of its dwindling numbers were ignored and the last one was seen in 1767, only 26 years after it was discovered.

The Venezuela 25 bolivares coin, minted in 1975, shows the jaguar, the largest cat in the western hemisphere. The jaguar ranges from Mexico to Argentina and will attack anything from alligators to monkeys. It is hunted for its fur and to protect cattle. In 1905, the Arizona jaguar, the largest subspecies, was hunted to extinction in the southern United States. The beautiful snow leopard (figure 7) is pictured on the 1978 Afghanistan 250 afghani coin. It was first photographed in the wild in 1970. Less than 1000 of these medium-sized cats remain and the high price of their coat with its dark spots on gray fur attracts poachers despite protection.

The black rhinoceros, which lives in the mountains and dry plains of Africa, is on the 50 shilingi coin of Tanzania (Figure 8), issued in 1974. This two-horned rhinoceros weighs over two tons and is aggressive and unpredictable. It lives 50 years if left alone in its habitat, but it is hunted for its horns, which are sold as an aphrodisiac and medicine for $75 an ounce. These animals once ranged through all of east and south Africa, but are now mostly in parks and reserves. In 1966 there were 20,000 in Kenya alone, but today there are only about 1000 because of extensive poaching. They are also threatened by expanding settlements and drought. An even rarer rhinoceros, the Sumatran rhinoceros, is featured on the Thailand 50 baht coin, also from 1974. This is the smallest of the rhinos and lives in eastern Asia. Its two horns bring it the same fate as the black rhinoceros, with only 100 to 170 surviving today.

The Indonesia 5000 rupiah coin (Figure 9) from 1974 features the orangutan, "person of the forest" in the Malay language. These primates have brains that are very much like man's. Reserves have been set aside for the 5000 orangutans that remain on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The orangutan lives in lowland forest swamps and has seen much of its habitat destroyed as forests have been cut down. Many have also been captured for pets and zoos.

Oman honored the Arabian Oryx with its 1977 five rial coin (Figure 10). This is a small, white antelope with long curved horns. It lives in the deserts of northern Africa and, although always hunted for food, it could escape and survive until cars allowed man to pursue across the desert. Less than 200 remain in the wild, all in Oman, where they are protected by the Sultan's personal interest. In 1962 a small breeding herd was established at the Phoenix Zoo and is doing well. Other captive herds have been formed since then and it's hoped that some day it will be safe to return them to the wild.

What can we do to help these endangered animals? There are organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, which has helped to create or maintain 260 national parks on five continents. It is the world's largest private international conservation organization and supports research, education, and wildlife preservation projects. Founded in 1961, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is its president.

The 50 rupee coin of Nepal, issued in 1974, brings me to my friend here, the red panda (Figure 11). This two foot long animal is related to raccoons and to the giant panda; it lives in the mountains of Asia. Its long bushy tail has caused it to be hunted for hats, dusters, and paint brushes, but it is now protected. This stuffed red panda has a green World Wildlife Fund tag, which shows that a percentage of the sale will be donated to the WWF. The booklet attached to it gives information on the animal. Giant pandas, snow leopards, orangutans, and others are available. A coin series was issued by many governments for the 25th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund in 1986. Animals from the humpback whale to the Cyprian goat (Figure 12) appeared on these coins, in gold, silver, and cupro-nickel. The first issue was by China, with a gold coin of the wild yak and a silver coin of the giant panda. I have several of these coins in my display.

Educating people, as I'm hoping to do here tonight, is another way to support conservation. I've brought along one book that I found fascinating: "The Doomsday Book of Animals - A Natural History of Vanished Species" describes animals which have become extinct since 1680.

Finally, we can all practice conservation. Conservationists have rescued the bison, the pronghorn antelope, and the trumpeter swan. To continue such work, we must all recognize the value of these creatures. Are we willing to pay more for newspapers and furniture to protect the rain forests from timbering? Will we pay more for hamburgers to keep the forests of Central America from being cleared for grazing? Will we give up fur coats, recognizing that no one needs the coat of a snow leopard as badly as the snow leopard itself? It is the willingness of us in developed nations to pay for these things that encourages undeveloped nations to overuse their resources. To the poor of these countries, the rewards of poaching are still stronger than the laws designed to prevent it. We must be willing to share the costs of preserving their wild lands and animals. There is no easy answer; it is a global problem and seems beyond the power of any of us to solve. Yet only individuals can encourage their governments to address these problems. Any solution must be supported by all the people of the world to be effective.