Goodbye cruel world

Collectively, the householders of the world could be about to put the cat out.

African lion numbers have fallen by 90% in the past 20 years, according to a recent report. There are only about 23 000 alive today.

The tiger is also an endangered species. At the highest estimate, there are fewer than 8 000 left.
There are probably only 15 000 or so cheetahs in the whole of Africa. The Iberian lynx is down to about 600.

And it’s not just the cats that we’re putting out. The Cross River gorilla subspecies, for example, which lives on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, is down to about 200 at the most. There are fewer than 50 Chinese alligators surviving in China.

Most books give an estimate for sperm whales of one to two million, but a paper published last year gave an estimate of 360 000. The most recent estimate for southern hemisphere minke whales is about half the total estimate of 760 000 derived from surveys in the late 1980s.

Lions, cheetahs and lynxes share certain characteristics with many other threatened creatures: they are large, they are carnivores, they are fussy about where they live, they need a large range, they have small litters and a long gestation period, and they are hunted.

This makes them natural candidates for extinction in a world in which human numbers have soared from 2,5-billion to more than six billion in 50 years. The planet’s population grows by more than 80-million every year. There are roughly 240 000 extra mouths to feed every day.

Each of these humans has a personal ecological footprint: that is, each appropriates an average of 2,1ha to provide water, food, energy, housing, transport, commerce and somewhere to tip the waste. (Americans on average take up almost 10ha each.)

Even though the rate of growth in human numbers is beginning to decline, the wild things are being pushed towards oblivion at an ever faster rate. This is because the numbers of individual households - empty nesters, yuppies, singletons and one-parent families - is exploding, even in those countries with low population growth. That means yet more pressure on the wild to provide timber, gravel and lime, plant fibres, food and water.

Survivors in an increasingly human world need a different set of characteristics. They must be small herbivores that produce large numbers of offspring very swiftly, adapt happily to concrete, tarmac and fossil-fuel pollution and are prepared to live anywhere. So the typical wild animals of the 21st century, as one American biologist predicted more than 30 years ago, ‘will be the house sparrow, the grey squirrel, the Virginia opossum and the Norway rat”. The lion, denied the lion’s share, could slope off into the eternal night.

The big animals are merely the most visible of endangered species. One-eighth of all bird species is at serious risk of extinction. At least 13% of the world’s flowering plants could be about to perish.

One-fourth of all mammals is to some extent endangered and around 30 species are down to their last thousand members. There are 19 critically endangered primates, and 16 species of albatross could be about to fly away forever.

These are sober estimates from the IUCN-World Conservation Union about animals that are already well studied. But biologists simply do not know how many species there are on the planet. The big ones are easy to spot, the smaller ones are literally beyond counting. About 1,8-million little birds, beasts and beetles have been named, but there could be seven million or even 70-million.

Five years ago, John Lawton, a population biologist and now the chief of Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council, tried to take the measure of biodiversity in the Cameroons. He and colleagues marked out a few plots of forest and started trying to count the species in eight taxonomic groups. They spent 10 000 hours on the research and then abandoned it - the job would have kept 1 200 taxonomists busy for years.

‘We surveyed birds, butterflies, ants and then all the way down to itsy-bitsy nematode worms,” he says. ‘The percentage of species we found that were actually known and described by taxonomists was inversely related to their body size.

‘In other words, we didn’t discover any new birds. We found a new subspecies of butterfly. And 90% of all the nematode worms had never been seen by a scientist before. It was just a huge effort: the number of scientist days it took to identify the things was again inversely related to their body size - the smaller the critters were the longer and longer and longer it took to sort them out.”

The Earth’s most heart-rending problem comes with a catch-all title - biodiversity. These six clumsy syllables sum up the totality of life on Earth, from subterranean fungi to wind-borne spores, from cloud-forest beetles to Arctic bears, from ocean algae to tubeworms in the abyss.

Many of these creatures quietly underwrite human economic growth: they oxygenate the atmosphere, cleanse drinking water, fix nitrogen, recycle waste and pollinate crops. A team at the University of Maryland once calculated that nature delivered goods and services worth $33-trillion to the global economy every year. The gross national product of the whole world at the time was only about $18-trillion.

One school of thought argues that if the big, beautiful beasts - the charismatic megavertebrates - are going, then thousands of small, nondescript creatures could go with them, with unpredictable consequences.

There are almost apocalyptic predictions about rates of extinction. Edward O Wilson, one of America’s most distinguished biologists, once calculated that 27 000 species of creature went extinct every year in the tropical forests alone. A few years later, a team of biologists at Stanford University suggested that populations of plants and animals were being wiped out at the rate of 1 800 an hour.

These may be wild overestimates, but even the most conservative biologists tell a bleak story: this, they say, is the sixth great extinction of life in the history of the planet.

The first five extinctions, recorded in the ancient rocks, were all natural - caused by volcanic catastrophe, climate change, asteroid impact, or even deadly radiation from an exploding star. But this one, they all agree, is the unwitting work of humankind.

Robert May - president of the Royal Society, a former British government chief scientific adviser and once a research partner of Edward O Wilson - reckons that at the very least, the rate of extinction is now 1 000 times faster than the ‘background” rate of extinction over hundreds of millions of years, recorded in fossils from Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic rocks.

Should people care? Most conservation action by bodies such as the World Wide Fund for Nature concentrates entirely on the charismatic big vertebrates such as the panda and tiger, rhino and lion.

Could we live without them? ‘Maybe we can, but if people aren’t going to care about them disappearing, who is going to give a stuff about the insects and fungi until the consequences emerge?” May says. ‘A stronger argument is that we are not sure how much we can simplify the world and still have it deliver all the services we depend on.”

Lions won’t be extinguished, he says. ‘They will be kept in reserves and zoos. But the question is, whether you are keeping a lion or whether you are keeping a Latin binomial, Felis leo, and that is a question that is awkward to ask.”

The lion, according to Georgina Mace, director of science at the Zoological Society of London, was the one animal conservationists had not been worried about. Until recently it had been widespread in Africa, though it had all but disappeared from Asia.

There are two ways of alarming conservationists, she says. ‘One is that you are incredibly rare and you just sit on a remote island, being a species that is found nowhere else and there are just 50 of you, but you could have been rare for ever and ever: that is the nature of the life you have.

‘The other way of being of conservation concern is to decline very quickly, and we have been much better at spotting the former rather than the latter. But the latter is probably the one that is going to affect most species. If you are just sitting there being very rare, people are usually protecting you.”

The lion, as she sees it, is not an isolated case. The population of bluefin tuna had crashed by 95% before anybody noticed. The passenger pigeon once existed in tens of millions, but was wiped out. The American buffalo almost disappeared. There would once have been lions by the million.

‘Carnivore numbers fluctuate. If you are looking in one place, you’d see them come and go. Actually, what they are doing is moving large scale across the landscape, occupying areas where there is abundant prey and then moving somewhere else; they are quite hard to monitor. You think, oh, they are rare here - and then you suddenly realise that actually they are rare everywhere.”

The bitterest irony is that animal populations are dwindling and extinctions accelerating despite a 30-year campaign to establish parks and wildlife reserves in all the great wilderness areas of the world: the rainforests, savannahs, estuaries, deserts, mountains, grasslands, wetlands and so on.

These wildernesses cover 46% of the land surface, but hold just 2,4% of the population. More than 10% of these places are now protected by national and international edict. Yet ultimately they cannot protect the wild things.

Poachers look to make a killing in both senses of the word. Big animals stray and become a menace to small farmers, who drive them off or kill them. And the tourists turn up, bringing even more of mankind and its expensive ways into the wilderness.

A study of the Wolong Reserve in China - opened decades ago to protect the giant panda - revealed that the panda was still in decline and that more humans had moved in, cutting back the bamboo forest for roads, homes and tourist services.

The lions in Africa - and all the creatures in Africa’s national parks - are still being hunted, hounded or harassed by humans.

There are some who argue that some species will only be saved in zoos (indeed, London Zoo played a big part in saving the almost-extinct Arabian oryx and restoring it to its native wild). But Mark Collins of the United Nations world conservation monitoring centre in Cambridge says he cannot accept the idea that the lion might survive only in safari parks, or that zoos could be the last resort as the saviours of species. The big wilderness reserves exist, and they could be made to work.

‘I feel we have sufficient knowledge of how to manage these key habitats. It is just a matter of political will,” he says. ‘I do not accept that the doors are closed. We have parks, and even outside parks we have the technology and the knowledge to manage most of these habitats, like forests and so on, properly. It’s just that we are not actually doing it.”

Life’s richest places are also those where humans are poorest. Africans are already struggling against hunger, poverty, Aids, malaria, cattle diseases and, in many cases, civil war. Nobody knows how this one is going to end.

‘It is all very well for you and me, but if I was some poor farmer, I am not so sure I would look kindly on the elephants that trample my crops,” says May.

Nor have Europeans and Americans held up much of an example. When Western governments began pressing African and Asian nations about the fate of the elephant, developing nations retaliated by suggesting that the Atlantic cod, too, should be protected. The point is well made. Developed nations with sophisticated fishing technology have knowingly put cod and tuna at risk, and had begun to wipe out the barn door skate and great white shark as their nets swept through the seas. ‘There is a real irony,” says Mace.

The lions of Africa - and the wild creatures further down the food chain - can only be saved by money and political will from both national and international communities. The developing nations do have an incentive to protect their biodiversity. It represents potential wealth, one way or the other.

Some extinctions of already rare creatures are inevitable. But spend on the lions, says Lawton, and you could save a lot more besides. Committed spending saved the black and white rhino - targets of poachers, as well as victims of human pressure - but the sums of money invested were critical.

‘If you create big, effective reserves for these charismatic guys at the top of the food chain, huge numbers of other creatures we don’t even know exist could just slip through to the end of the century on the coat-tails of the lions,” Lawton says. ‘So it is a matter of putting in enough resources. In a world which is prepared to spend hundreds of billions on a war in Iraq, we are talking about peanuts.” -

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