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National Zoo, Portugal. The Man invent ‘endangered song’ to raise awareness about endangered tigers

Sumatran tiger (Courtesy Smithsonian)

Creating music that will self-destruct after too many listens might sound like a completely backwards idea. And yet, that’s precisely the point of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s latest outreach campaign, designed to teach a lesson about an animal species that is disappearing before our eyes.

Called the Endangered Song Project, the Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute have teamed up with rock group Portugal. The Man to help people grasp the idea of extinction in a new way –through music. As of Tuesday, the Zoo shipped out 400 records containing one brand new, unreleased song by Portugal. The Man called “Sumatran Tigers” — mirroring the fact that there are currently only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, making them a critically endangered species.

The twist: The special polycarbonate records are custom-made to stop working after a certain amount of spins — effectively making it the first song to become extinct unless it’s reproduced and shared. So the Zoo is encouraging the lucky 400 who received the record (activists, musicians, actors, bloggers, etc.) to digitize and post the track on Twitter, Facebook or any other site to ensure the tune won’t die out. They’re also urged to use hashtags #endangeredsong and #sumatrantiger so others can find the song and share it.

The members of Portugal. The Man hail from Wasilla, Alaska, and love the metaphor of the campaign; growing up near the wilderness, they all appreciate the conservation message. Lead singer John Gourley recalls that he didn’t see big, wild animals often when he was younger, and when he did, it was only after they had been killed.

“I mean, the only time you see these things is when your friend’s dad goes hunting and brings back a grizzly bear. That always made me really sad,” he said. “They’re not just out there walking around. People have to go out and find them — this massive, amazing creature and shoot it and bring it back for, in most of my friends’ cases, what reason other than saying, ‘I killed a bear’?”

The campaign came at a great time for the band; even before the Zoo approached them, they had written an untitled song inspired about Alaska’s culture and wildlife. The cut didn’t make it on their last album — and it wound up fitting almost perfectly for this project, though they had to re-work and tweak some of the lyrics. (Plus, they had to call the song “Sumatran Tiger,” probably unlikely on a regular album.)

Gourley is grateful for the project, as the song likely wouldn’t have been released otherwise. “It’s funny, this seemingly goes against everything that the music industry is about: ‘The music just disappears, you gotta put it online!'” Gourley said. “But I think there’s something really amazing about this, it really forms a community.”

And, he added, he hopes people take away more than a record that magically degrades: “The project in itself is really fun, but the situation with the tigers is much more serious…I really hope people can put in that extra time to look into and understand what’s happening with these tigers and all animals.”

That’s the goal, as Zoo staffers also set up a Web site to keep track of the number of times the tune has been shared, which also features an option to donate money to the tiger fund. The site also tells users to look for the song on SoundCloud, MySpace, Reddit and YouTube, among others, and offers a step-by-step guide on how to digitize songs on a record player.

With the catchy project and easily shared hashtags, they’re hoping it can fuel more awareness (and money) to help the critically endangered tigers. The species, which counts an additional 200 living in zoos in addition to the approximately 400 in the wild, lives in forests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and is increasingly threatened by habitat loss and deforestation.

“We have to find new and different ways to inspire the next generation of conservationists,” said Pamela Baker-Masson, the Zoo’s associate director of communications, said in a promotional video. “If we can get people to think about and care about saving the Sumatran tiger, that’s just the beginning.”

Here’s the song:

Endangered Song Project How To from Michael Kushner on Vimeo.