07 November 2008

Extinction: Science and advocacy

Species may be vanishing faster than they are found, at a rate of three per hour, the fastest in millions of years, estimates the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

But how do you prove something is extinct? With great difficulty. Some experts liken the difficulties to "proving" that the mythical Loch Ness Monster does not exist. Searches have to be rigorous, at the right seasons, and in nearby habitats, with the correct equipment. "Scientists want to be cautious" because of the finality of extinction.

The Red List's rigorous demands for evidence means that it probably underestimates the pace of extinctions. This therefore suggests that lifeforms on the Red List are truly those to be concerned about.

In an interview with the New York Times, conservation zoologist Dr Stuart L. Pimm shares:
I realized that extinction was something that as a scientist, I could study. I could ask, “Why do species go extinct?” and “How fast does it happen?” Once armed with that information, one might do something about it.

I now spend a fair amount of time in Washington, working for laws to protect species. I train young people to do the same.

I often tell my students that if they want to become environmental biologists, they have to be prepared to go out into the field at dawn to collect their data and then dress up in a suit in the afternoon to meet the visiting politician.


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