Extinct arguments

Will another species be extinct by the time you finish reading this article - or are extinction rates blown up out of proportion?

Kirk Leech

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I recently returned from Gujarat in India, where I carried out research on a wildlife sanctuary designed to protect animals. But the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary was created around the homes of 40,000 local people who were not consulted, compensated or given any say in the sanctuary’s management – and now, imprisoned in a wildlife sanctuary, the locals have lost all their rights.

Most of the Western travellers I met in India thought that wildlife sanctuaries were essential for protecting animals – and said we needed more of them to conserve the world’s fauna and flora that are apparently being wiped out by man’s destructive impact. Some travellers said that locals who live in and around sanctuaries should realise they are the guardians of the world’s natural heritage and should make some sacrifices.

The message was clear: it is apocalypse now for the world’s fauna and flora, and just about any measure can be justified to conserve them. But is this fear justified?

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg shows how figures for species loss are thrown about like confetti. In 1998, Greenpeace’s official biodiversity report said that half the world’s species ‘are likely to disappear within the next 75 years’ (1). But Greenpeace International removed this claim from its website when Lomborg challenged the organisation to cite some scientific evidence.

The real guru of imminent species loss is Norman Myers, whose book The Sinking Ark was published in 1979. Myers argued that 40,000 species were being lost every year – 109 a day – so that by the time you finish reading this article at least one more species will be extinct. But the most remarkable thing about Myers’ book is that references are as rare as the dodo.

But evidence and referencing don’t seem to be important to those who warn of widespread species loss. Professor Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and Extinction, said in 1981 that up to 250,000 species a year could be becoming extinct, with half the world’s species likely to be wiped out by the year 2000 – and the other half by 2025 (2). Obviously, half the world’s species have not disappeared since 1981.

Species loss is nothing new – but rates of extinction have varied throughout history. The periods when species loss was at its highest were 65million years ago, when most dinosaurs became extinct – and 245million years ago, when it is thought that half of all marine animals and four-legged vertebrates and two-thirds of all insects were wiped out (3).

According to the 1995 United Nations Environment Programme Global Biodiversity Assessment, over 95 percent of all species that ever existed are now extinct. Even figures for the number of species known to have existed vary greatly, ranging from between two million and 80million – while some scientists estimate that only about 1.6million species have ever been recorded. And of these, the vast majority are not the animals we are most familiar with – like elephants, tigers, dolphins and whales – but insects, algae, viruses, bacteria and fungi.

It is true that man has been the cause of much extinction – but what is often forgotten is that man has also helped many species and species families to extend and thrive. Take the dog: thousands of different breeds of dog exist today thanks to human intervention in their breeding and domestication. And the same can be said for cows, horses, pigs and a host of other animals.

In 1990, the World Conservation Union commissioned a report to investigate rates of extinction, the findings of which can be seen in Tropical Deforestation and Species Extinction by T Whitmore and A Sayers. The report found that the recorded rates for extinction remain ‘very small’, believing it to be about 2300 species, or 0.8 percent, per decade. Bjørn Lomborg, after studying a number of reports and extinction estimates – including the UN Global Diversity Report – reckons an extinction rate for all species of about 0.7 percent per 50 years is pretty accurate.

This figure might still disturb some people, while putting other’s minds at ease – but what is clear is that it is nowhere near the figure of half the world’s species being under threat, that is bandied about by some environmentalists.

Predictions of forest loss are also blown up out of proportion. The Worldwatch Institute claimed in 1998 that the ‘world’s forest estate has declined significantly in both area and quality in recent decades’ (4). But, as Lomborg points out, long-term data prepared by the United Nations shows that ‘global forest cover’ has increased from 30.04 percent of the global land area in 1950 to 30.89 percent in 1994.

Lomborg also questions the findings of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), arguing that its claims of widespread global forest depletion do not stand up to scrutiny. When he challenged the WWF’s Global Annual Forest Report in 1997 – which estimated that two-thirds of the world’s original forest cover had been lost – the WWF in England had to admit that no report existed and these were estimated calculations.

Of course, the world’s biodiversity should be conserved – whether in situ or in designated areas – but it should be conserved for people’s benefit, not at their expense. Conservation should be for aesthetic pleasure, forward-planning, improved crop and food productivity. As I discovered in India – where sanctuaries created to ‘protect’ species have virtually turned people into animals and animals into the kings of the jungle – there are dangers when species protection is put before human interest.

Buy Bjørn Lomborg‘s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Kirk Leech is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

Read the following pieces by Bjørn Lomborg:

The environmental litany and data (.pdf 61.9 KB)

Running out of resources (.pdf 56.7 KB)

Global warming – are we doing the right thing? (.pdf 51 KB)

Visit Bjørn Lomborg‘s official website

(1) Quoted in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, p18.
(2) Quoted in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, p249.
(3) United Nations Environmental Programme Global Biodiversity Report, 1995

(4) Quoted in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, p13.

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