Excerpts: ‘Some conservationists have effectively told him, “Damn the data, we have an agenda.”the difference between documented extinctions and predicted extinctions is so big that people are likely—and justifiably so—to question it.’
”Despite what might be precipitously dwindling numbers in the wild, only a handful of mammal species have been declared extinct this century.
In 2011, Hubbell coauthored a controversial paper that was published in the journal Nature under the bold title “Species-area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss.” It was a technical argument that questioned an equation commonly used to estimate extinction, but the implications were clear: Conservationists really had no idea what the extinction rate is, and were likely overstating their case. That notion had been bubbling up for several years; an earlier paper by two tropical biologists claimed that population shifts and forest regrowth would mean rain-forest extinctions would be lower than many predictions.Actual documented extinctions are vanishingly rare.President Nixon’s signing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 was a high point of public and political engagement on the problem.
Since then, pronouncements from conservation advocates have grown more and more dire. In 1979, Berkeley ecologist Norman Myers published a book called “The Sinking Ark,” which claimed 40,000 species were disappearing each year. The next decade, a biologist who worked for the World Wildlife Fund predicted up to 20 percent of all species would disappear by the turn of the millennium. That didn’t happen, but the drumbeat of alarms continues: A much-publicized paper in 2004 warned that by 2050, climate change could put 1 million species at risk of extinction.
There’s at least one problem with these predictions: Where are the bodies? Actual documented extinctions are vanishingly rare. “If you ask any member of the public to name 10 species that have gone extinct in the last century, most would really really struggle,” Ladle said. “Then you’ve got the world’s most famous conservationists telling you that 27,000 are going extinct every year. The two don’t tally up.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps the most definitive list of extinct and threatened species, has counted just over 800 total confirmed animal extinctions since the year 1600.