Editorial: To save endangered species, don’t kill them

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2002:

“About 19% of native animal species and 15% of native plant
species in the U.S. are ‘imperiled’ or ‘critically imperiled,’ and
another 1% of plants and 3% of animals may already be extinct–that
is, they have not been located despite intensive searches,”
declared the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the
Environment on September 24, in a purported landmark report formally
titled The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems.
“When ‘vulnerable’ species are counted, about one third of
plant and animal species are considered to be ‘at risk,'” the report
Most U.S. newspapers gave The State of the Nation’s
Ecosystems just one paragraph.

Only last May the United Nations Environment Program warned
that 25% of all living mammal species may be extinct in 30 years.
Yet that more dramatic prophecy did not win much attention either.
News media and the public alike seem inured to the idea that we are
in the midst of The Sixth Extinction, as Richard Leakey termed his
most recent book, borrowing the phrase from Greenpeace U.K. science
director Jeremy Leggett.
“The sixth major mass extinction is just beginning,”
Leggett told the readers of New Scientist in June 1989. “Never
before in the three-billion-year history of life on Earth will so
many species have disappeared,” Leggett predicted, as within the
lives of most living humans. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in 1993
put the present rate of species loss at 30,000 per year. Many others
weighed in with similar numbers, especially after 1994, when
“wise-use” Republicans won control of the U.S. House of
Representatives with an unfulfilled pledge to dismantle the
Endangered Species Act.
Observed New York Times science writer William K. Stevens in
July 1995, “In recent years estimates of the magnitude of the
extinction crisis have flooded forth: A million species gone by the
year 2000. A quarter of all species by 2015. Three every hour.”
That was still just the start. The World Conservation Union
reported in October 1996 that 25% of all mammals and half of all
monkeys and apes are at risk of extinction, and in April 1998 said a
third of all U.S. plants are at risk.
ANIMAL PEOPLE began to see holes in the data. From July 1997
through January 2000, we found, just eight species worldwide were
confirmed extinct. Twenty-four species once reported to be extinct
were rediscovered, six species once reportedly extirpated from their
native habitat reappeared, and 298 species, exclusive of
microorganisms, were newly identified. Including microorganisms,
the newly identified species were in the thousands.
The case for a high current extinction rate rests upon the
presupposition of high rates of extinction among huge numbers of
unknown species, mostly insects and microorganisms. Yet the
existence of huge numbers of unknown species was cast into doubt by a
study published in the April edition of Nature which suggested that
the total number of insect species appears to be four to six million,
not the 31 million that E.O. Wilson postulated.
The presupposition of high extinction rates presumes that
although species discovery exceeds verified extinction by at least
37-to-1, not counting microorganisms, most newly found species are
already near extinction, since their habitats tend to be remote and
Yet there seems to be little reason to suppose that most
highly specialized niche species were ever very numerous or broadly
distributed. Indeed, the global redistribution of microorganisms
and insects as accidental stowaways aboard jet aircraft may be moving
many of them ever farther from extinction, by introducing them to
new habitats, beyond reach of natural disasters which might
otherwise annihilate thousands of niche species overnight.
The survival of as many niche species as now exist may be
just luck. Then again, even most niche species may be better at
adapting to change than has been supposed. If life has evolved to
meet any one condition, it is the certainty that extinction can be
avoided only by adapting in response to disaster–coming as slowly as
an ice age, or as abruptly as a comet.
No one has clearly established the parameters necessary to
form a credible estimate of the flux of species, among them the
total number of existing species, with more than 200,000 species now
identified in the U.S. alone. “Normal” rates of species appearance
and disappearance are a complete mystery. Neither is there any clear
definition which distinguishes the evolution of one species into
another from the “extinction” of the ancestor.
High estimated extinction rates, in any epoch, inevitably
include guesstimates about the numbers of microorganisms, aquatic
species, flowering plants, and insects. Yet the fossil record
offers little to guess from about the abundance, diversity, and
evolution of any of them. About all we know about the evolution of
microorganisms, for example, is that they thrived after the
extinction of dinosaurs, producing the gypsum fossils from which
humans make wallboards and cement. Whatever happened to large
species during that extinction event was very good for the
smallest-who presumably evolved quite rapidly to take advantage of
the altered conditions. This enhanced biodiversity, as measured by
numbers of species, even though every land animal larger than a cat
was killed.
We further know that microorganisms, flowering plants, and
insects are easily distributed by wind and waves. Thus abundant
populations of almost identical species can be separated by hundreds
or even thousands of miles, with no linking populations in between.
And of course it is difficult to observe microorganisms,
grains of pollen, and insects, who mutate and hybridize with
notorious speed.
Therefore, presupposing that these most inconspicuous yet
adaptable species even approach the extinction rates among large
species seems altogether backward.
Large species require more habitat, mutate less rapidly,
and often eat higher on the food chain. Yet documented extinctions
of even “large charismatic megafauna,” as conservation biologists
call animals big enough to be recognized on sight, are very rare.
Among the higher primates, for instance, only Miss Waldron’s
Colubus has been confirmed extinct in the past 100-odd years–but at
least five monkey species were discovered within the past decade.
When extinctions of large charismatic megafauna do occur,
they tend to result from a combination of occupying quite restricted
habitat with sudden, severe habitat change, compounded by intensive
human hunting or trapping. But merely occupying restricted habitat
is not a recipe for extinction, no matter what happens to the
original habitat, if humans translocate the species to other
suitable habitat. Thus Arabian oryx, extirpated from the Arabian
Peninsula, thrived at White Sands, New Mexico, and were eventually
Intensive human use of habitat is not necessarily detrimental
to species survival, contrary to common perception. The wooded
suburbs of major U.S. cities are among the richest and most
biologically diverse wildlife habitat in the world, while India,
with the second largest human population of any nation, may have
lost only three native species in the past 100 years–two of them
birds known only in sparsely occupied parts of the Himalayas.
The Walt Disney influence and Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist
teachings, among other cultural factors, tend to protect animals in
the U.S. and India. Lacking similar culturally mitigating traits,
the human population of China is precipitating a regional extinction
crisis. Traditional teachings about the purported health benefits
and prestige of consuming wildlife have combined with rising
affluence to put pangolins, bears, tigers, snakes, turtles,
slow lorises and seahorses in jeopardy wherever they can be poached
and smuggled.
Conservation biologists will accomplish little to save
wildlife in China until the utilitarian attitude toward animals
inculcated by rural poverty and Maoism yields to an ethic of respect
and appreciation–perhaps parallel to the U.S. or Indian models, or
perhaps in another form yet to evolve out of other aspects of Chinese
We meanwhile need to ask what cultural currents underlie the
U.S. obsession with excessive estimated rates of extinction which
mostly plunge caring people into deep despair.
Senior staff from the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon
Society, and Environmental Defense co-authored The State of the
Nation’s Ecosystems. Like other recent reports from all three
groups, The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems stokes the panic rising
in recent years about “alien” and “invasive” species–which coincides
with much public anxiety about “alien” and “invasive” human
Springing from the same dung heap, xenophobia and
bio-xenophobia significantly serve the interests of government
agencies seeking more budget for policing the Mexican border,
killing nuisance wildlife on behalf of agribusiness, and doing
almost anything in the name of protecting endangered species other
than designating legally protected critical habitat.
Promoting the notion of an “extinction crisis” helps to
rationalize protecting spotted owls by killing barred owls,
protecting sea otters by killing sharks, protecting abalone by
killing sea otters, protecting salmon by killing sea lions, and
protecting blackfooted ferrets by killing all other predators for
miles around, while allowing hunters and ranchers to continue
killing the prairie dogs whom the ferrets depend upon as prey. A
crisis, after all, calls for drastic action, and may even
rationalize suspension of the usual rules of moral behavior.

“Here be dragons”

The most remarkable part of The State of the Nation’s
Ecosystems is that the authors admit how little they know. “About
three-fourths of forest indicators have some or all data” needed to
answer the questions they asked, they wrote, “contrasting with
grasslands, shrublands, and urban and suburban areas, where only
about 40% have data.” Concerning “landscape pattern and
fragmentation” and “biological communities,” the authors found that
“fewer than a third of the selected indicators have adequate data for
national reporting.”
Flash back to medieval cartography, when maps customarily
postulated edges of the world that unwary mariners might fall off of.
Margin notes sometimes admitted that the map features were based on
the tales of illiterates, most of whom had never actually visited the
places they talked about. To evade blame for failing to warn of
unknown perils, the mapmakers would inscribe on the least known
regions, “Here be dragons.”
Ancient mariners believed in dragons, and a 2001 Harris Poll
found that 70% of scientists believe in high rates of
extinction–mainly, however, because their peers do, not as result
of their own research. Similar methodology might deduce an
extinction crisis by asking kindergartners about the status of
animals they can name, including T-rex, woolly mammoth, and dodo.
Knowing little about most birds, fish, reptiles, insects, and
most living mammals, many will cheerfully identify as “extinct” any
animal they have never heard of.
Unlike conservation biologists, however, kindergartners
will readily understand that the first rule needed to save animals is
“Don’t kill them.”
Funded by wildlife agencies and advocacy groups traditionally
allied with hunters, conservation biologists typically seek to
prevent extinctions by gamekeeping methods: captive breeding,
killing predators, and chasing poachers. The notion that species
would be best protected by an ethic that forbids hunting of any kind
is rejected as allegedly sentimental and unrealistic, even though
complete prohibitions of hunting are accepted as part of the recovery
strategy for species which have been hunted and poached into imminent
Ethologist Marc Bekoff, in his new book Minding Animals
(reviewed on page 21), quotes California sea otter conservation
biologist Jim Estes as suggesting that the attitudes and ethics of
species recovery efforts need to turn a corner. Estes calls
traditional hunter/conservationists “populationists,” meaning that
their emphasis is on ensuring the abundance of animals, while
terming “individualists” those who hold that each life has moral
Their differing views, Estes argues, “should be a real
concern to conservation biology because they are taking people with
an ostensibly common goal in different directions. Can these views
be reconciled? I’m not sure,” he says, “although I believe the
populationists have it wrong in trying to convince the individualists
to see the errors of their ways. The challenge is not so much for
individualists to build a program that is compatible with
conservation, but for conservationists to somehow build a program
that embraces the goals and values of individualists, because the
majority of our society has such a deep emotional attachment to the
welfare of individual animals. As much as many populationists may be
offended by this argument, it is surely an issue that must be dealt
Generations of humane workers were frustrated throughout much
of the 20th century by the failure of publicity about the then
ever-rising shelter killing rates to get Americans to sterilize their
pets. Rapid progress was made, however, after the emergence of the
animal rights movement encouraged activists to respond to the cats
and dogs around them as needy individuals, not just parts of a
problem too big for anyone to deal with.
As recently as 1987 many leading national animal rights
groups denounced ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett for
“trivializing” the cause by urging activists to sterilize dogs and
cats, by way of giving the animal rights philosophy a positive
tangible form, yet the “individualist” approach cut shelter killing
by 75% in 10 years, and continues to push the toll down.
The same emphasis on helping individual animals can save
endangered species. The first requirement is accepting that the life
of any sentient being is of moral concern.

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