Here’s How to Avoid Losing Half of Earth’s Species

Basically, don’t stop trying to halt extinction

white rhinos
White rhinos are considered a conservation sucess after near extinction in the 19th century, their numbers now classify them as Near Threatened Staffan Widstrand/CORBIS

The creeping, crawling, flying, growing, flowering life on this Earth is going extinct at least 1,000 times more rapidly than if humans were absent from the scene. Some call this the sixth mass extinction.

The causes of the crisis are many: climate change, ocean acidification (it has triggered extinction before), habitat loss, deforestation, invasive species and even odd fungal diseases. Many of these factors are intertwined and complicated. So with creatures both adorable and ancient on the brink of disappearing from the Earth, and with countless, even nameless, others already gone, it could seem like now is the time to start accepting the idea of mass extinction. Or feel depressed.

But some think we don’t have to accept this extinction. One of the main researchers on the Science study that quantified that death rate, mentioned above, is one such visionary (or Pollyanna, depending on your bias). Stuart Pimm, of Duke University, recently told Brad Plumer at Vox why he’s not despairing. Plumer writes:

By assembling data on exactly what species are endangered and where, he said, scientists can now do more than ever to help conservation groups fend off extinctions. One example: more detailed research on Brazil's rainforests can give people an idea of which tracts are actually most cost-effective to protect.

The full Q&A is worth reading, but here are some quotes from Pimm that point toward a way forward that might have a little less death:

  • "We have really good maps now showing where a lot of species are, on land and in freshwater and the oceans. We can identify the key places that matter."

  • "What my NGO, Saving Species, does is we take our data and identify exactly where we think the most important fragments are. And then we raise money from Brazilian conservation groups to buy up the land between the fragments and reforest it. So we reconnect it — stitching habitat fragments to form much bigger habitats."

  • "Do we need more resources? Yes. Do we need to focus more on the places that matter? Yes. But it's not as if we're blundering around not knowing what to do. I think the conservation profession now is very sophisticated, very clever, and has a lot of different techniques. We just have to be smart; we have to focus our energies. We have to solve difficult problems."

It’s all about strategy, Pimm explains. Some conservation efforts might have their heart in the right place but their resources in the wrong place. "But those conservation efforts aren't always the places that are optimal. Some places are bad," he says. "We need to encourage people to protect the places that matter — using scientifically informed decisions."

Focusing on individual species, like the Endangered Species Act does, can be most useful when the organism in question is recognized as an icon whose threat comes from a disrupted ecosystem. Fix the habitat issues; help the "poster child" species. Pimm also emphasizes the use of smartphones to document biodiversity and the importance of local conservation actions.

Of course, slowing climate change would also make a big difference. Pimm closes the interview with:

We're also still struggling with the overarching political question of what sort of planet we're going to hand to our children and grandchildren. That's a difficult one — it's obvious on global warming, but it's broader than that. I think this is a global debate about how we shape our global future — whether we want to have a planet that will continue to get hotter and hotter and hotter, whether we're going to use resources on land and oceans unsustainably, whether we're going to allow this wave of extinction to deplete the diversity of life on earth. That's a global issue, and I do worry about how poorly we are grasping this.

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