Goodbye cruel world

Radford, Tim

2003 Oct 10

Book ID 750

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Radford, Tim Goodbye cruel world, 2003 Oct 10
Extract Author: Tim Radford
Extract Date: October 2, 2003

Goodbye cruel world

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

Lion numbers have dropped by 90% in 20 years. The other big cats are going fast. How long before all the Earth's 'mega species' disappear from the wild?

. . .

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 6 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 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres) to provide water, food, energy, housing, transport, commerce and somewhere to tip the waste. (Americans on average take up almost 10 hectares 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. That 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 biol ogist 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.

. . .

Lions won't be extinguished, he [Robert May - Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society] 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.

. . .

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 enough resources in. In a world which is prepared to spend an extra 55bn on a war in Iraq, we are talking about peanuts."

Extract ID: 4432
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