On the Extinction of Threatened Species

Like many others, I suppose, I have assumed that the pressure of the expansion of humanity has indeed caused the extinction of once thriving species, like the dodo and the thylacine. And I have also assumed that we should be careful to conserve land where it is known, or at least believed, that there exists the only surviving colony of whatevers.

Canberra, where I live, is given to such consideration, and we are caring for the habitats of the mouthless moth, the legless lizard and the nutless gnat (I’m not sure about the last one). Our Chief Minister is supposed to have questioned her officials on this subject: ‘I know that we have to look after these species, but why do all of ours have to be deformed?’

My old question, which still hovers about the back of my mind, is how the officials know that there does not exist another colony of whatever somewhere else. Australia is a big place, and some of these threatened species are pretty small. And that reminds me of J.B. S Haldane’s remark about the mind of God: ‘He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles’, given that there are about 400,000 known varieties, and they constitute about 40 per cent of the insect world. I once lived in the house in Oxford where he grew up, so I have a feeling for Haldane, an interesting and funny man, as well as a fine scientist.

We don’t seem to be all that interested in conserving insects, including beetles, let alone flies and mosquitoes, or even smaller forms of life, like bacteria. Indeed, we engage in a bitter war with viruses, and even with some mammals, like the rabbit, families of which seem to have colonised City Hill in Canberra, and the fox. All this is a precursor to a quick reference to a Quarterly Essay by Tim Flannery, ‘After the Future. Australia’s New Extinction Crisis’.

His focus is on the extent to which national parks and other reserves actually do preserve biodiversity. It’s worth reading, because the mammal, not climate change, is his field, though I found it hard to get past throwaway assertions that tell you more about the author than they do about the world. His essay is a good example of how judgments contain within them implicit comparisons, about which I wrote the other day. Flannery’s judgment is that we are doing very badly, but compared with whom , what and when? He says that we are ‘one of the most environmentally aware cultures on earth’, but plainly our mark in the exam is an F. Too much heart, and not enough head, is my assessment, both of this Quarterly Essay itself and of its author.

It is coincidental that I came across another essay about extinctions not long after I had finished Flannery’s. This one is by Willis Eschenbach, who writes entertainingly on Watts up With That?, a website that often has some real gems. This is one of them.

Eschenbach, like Haldane, is someone who loves data and good counting. He once decided to find out whether or not E. O Wilson, biologist who was an authority on ants, was right in perceiving a new wave of extinctions, did the work, argued that Wilson was wrong, and tried to have his paper published, without success. But it was picked up by others, and eventually found its way past peer review. A recent article in Science has argued that the rate of extinctions has indeed declined, though it is still about 1 per cent, and Eschenbach wonders why these alarming pictures of extinction go on being uttered.

‘There are about 3,300 mammal species living on the continents (excluding Australia). If we assume that one percent of them go extinct per decade, that would mean that we should be seeing about 33 continental mammal extinctions per decade. It’s worse for birds, a 1% extinction rate for birds would be about 80 continental birds per decade. We have seen absolutely nothing even vaguely resembling that…

Instead of 33 mammals and 80 birds going extinct on the continents per decade, in the last 500 years on the great continental landmasses of the world, we’ve only seen three mammals and six birds go extinct. Only nine continental mammal and bird species are known to have gone extinct in 500 years. Three mammals and six birds in 500 years, that’s less than one continental mammal extinction per century, and these highly scientific folks are claiming that 30 mammals and 80 birds are going extinct per decade?  … once again I’m forced to ask, where are the corpses?’

Where indeed, I repeat. I think Flannery should read Eschenbach — who does concede that the extinction rate is higher in Australia, because it has more recently been colonised by ‘foxes, cats, rabbits, dogs, humans, weeds, diseases, etc’. Even here, he argues, the rate of extinction is falling sharply.

Why is it that people so easily jump to end-of-the-world accounts of human progress? Flannery could so easily have written an upbeat, glass-half-full account of the national parks, nature reserves, conservation farming, and general human care for the environment. The story is there to tell. But no, his chosen role is that of Cassandra. I do wish he’d stop it.

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