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Extinctions Past And Present

5 minute read
Richard Leakey

I spent some of the most exciting days of my life working on the eastern shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, searching for the fossilized remains of our early ancestors. We did not always find what we wanted, but every day there was much more to discover than the traces of our own predecessors. The fossils, some quite complete, others mere fragments, spoke of another world in which the ancestors of many of today’s African mammals roamed the rich grasslands and forest fringes between 1.5 million and 2 million years ago. The environment was not too different from the wetter grasslands of Africa today, but it was full of amazing animals that are now long extinct.

One in particular I would have loved to see alive was a short-necked giraffe relative that had huge “antlers,” some with a span across the horns of close to 8 ft. (almost 3 m). There were buffalo-size antelopes with massive curving horns, carnivores that must have looked like saber-toothed lions, two distinct species of hippo and at least two types of elephant, one of which had tusks that protruded downward from the lower jaw. We may never know the full extent of this incredible mammalian diversity, but there were probably more than twice as many species a million years ago as there are today.

That was true not just for Africa. The fossil record tells the same story everywhere. Most of life’s experiments have ended in extinction. It is estimated that more than 95% of the species that have existed over the past 600 million years are gone.

So, should we be concerned about the current spasm of extinction, which has been accelerated by the inexorable expansion of agriculture and industry? Is it necessary to try to slow down a process that has been going on forever?

I believe it is. We know that the well-being of the human race is tied to the well-being of many other species, and we can’t be sure which species are most important to our own survival.

But dealing with the extinction crisis is no simple matter, since much of the world’s biodiversity resides in its poorest nations, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Can such countries justify setting aside national parks and nature reserves where human encroachment and even access is forbidden? Is it legitimate to spend large sums of money to save some species–be it an elephant or an orchid–in a nation in which a sizable percentage of the people are living below the poverty line?

Such questions make me uneasy about promoting wildlife conservation in impoverished nations. Nonetheless, I believe that we can–and should–do a great deal. It’s a matter of changing priorities. Plenty of money is available for scientific field studies and conferences on endangered species. But what about boots and vehicles for park personnel who protect wildlife from poachers? What about development aid to give local people economic alternatives to cutting forests and plowing over the land? That kind of funding is difficult to come by.

People in poor countries should not be asked to choose between their own short-term survival and longer-term environmental needs. If their governments are willing to protect the environment, the money needed should come from international sources. To me, the choice is clear. Either the more affluent world helps now or the world as a whole will lose out.

Of course, we must be careful not to allow the establishment of slush funds or rely on short-term, haphazard handouts that would probably go to waste. We need a permanent global endowment devoted to wildlife protection, funded primarily by the governments of the industrial nations and international aid agencies. The principal could remain invested in the donor nations as the interest flowed steadily into conservation efforts.

How to use those funds would be a matter of endless debate. Should local communities be entitled to set the agenda, or should outside experts take control? Should limited hunting be allowed in parks, or should they be put off limits? Mistakes will be made, the landscape will keep changing, and species will still be lost, but the difficulty of the task should not lead us to abandon hope. Many of the planet’s natural habitats are gone forever, but many others can be saved and in time restored.

A major challenge for the 21st century is to preserve as much of our natural estate as possible. Let us resist with all our efforts any moves to reduce the amount of wild land available for wild species. And let us call upon the world’s richest nations to provide the money to make that possible. That would not be a contribution to charity; it would be an investment in the future of humanity–and all life on Earth.

Leakey, a paleontologist who forged his reputation as a conservationist during two stints as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, now oversees Kenya’s civil service

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