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Not dropping like flies

I get paid to write the occasional article about environment issues. One story which intrigues me is the often repeated claim that “Half of all living bird and mammal species will be gone within 200 or 300 years”. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the source of much of this garbage.

Because half of all the world’s mammal species are supposedly in Australia, this equates to five species of mammal becoming extinct every year, or one mammal extinction every 2.4 months.

Not only can I find no reports of five mammals becoming extinct each year in Australia, but in 2003 a previously extinct species of wallaby was re-introduced to Australia from New Zealand. The UNEP media releases site contains no references to species becoming extinct, concentrating on announcements about hiring bureaucrats and how they spend money on studies. At least UNEP is honest about its priorities.

Are there really no mammals becoming extinct in Australia these days?

14 comments to Not dropping like flies

  • Verity

    I don’t see that it matters. This is ‘greenhouse gasses’ with paws. Animals have always become extinct. If they can’t survive, they become extinct. It’s not exceptional or a crime against nature.

    I read that the last person who could speak some arcane language died the other day. There was a pang of sadness when I read it, knowing that love and pain and hope of a whole people would have been expressed in that language for centuries, or perhaps thousands of years, but things die out.

    It’s like “climate change” and “global warming” (or, 25 years ago “global cooling”). At exactly what point in time do those doom mongers want change stopped? June 1975? September 1780? When, in their heads, was the perfect climate to capture in amber for all time? Oh, and in what country? And what sea level is the acceptable sea level for all time? Number of days of rain?

  • Dan

    You don’t have to work very hard to find disappearing or declining species. Take up bird watching. Start hunting for quail. It will become very clear very quickly that wildlife numbers are mostly headed down. Some very adaptable species like gulls, coyotes, and catfish are doing great. Many of the ones that people pay huge bucks for, like pheasant, salmon, rare birds, or trout, are vansihing.

    Go out fishing in California, and look at the silted-in streams, get a feel for how few wild fish there are, and talk to the old-timers and look at their journals.

    Most of California’s salmon runs have been beaten down by bad logging practices, or dams that were basically government giveaways.

    Actually enforcing downstream owner rights — such as “I have the right to not have my house disappear under a mudslide because of your bad logging” — or allowing water rights holders to dedicate water rights to fish and wildlife — would add immeasurably to the quality of life.

    My greatest frustration with libertarianism is that it seems all decisions must always be made on dollars. That seems like a small way to live. Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean that it is ethical and just to do so.

  • Nick Timms


    While I agree that the number of species, the climate etc etc have always been in a state of change, and always will be, it would be foolish to state categorically that humans are not affecting these things. Just as foolish as the greenies are in stating categorically that humans are affecting these things so badly that it will lead very shortly to our doom.

    There is too little evidence, or too much conflicting “evidence”, for us to be sure, but it seems prudent to take care that we are not irreparably harming our planet. I have tremendrous faith in the ability of humans to find solutions to so called impossibilities but our ignorance is massive. For example: it is only in recent human history that doctors found out about bacteriological and viral infection. Just over one hundred years ago surgeons started disinfecting their instruments.

    As a keen yachtsman I see a tremendrous amount of pollution in the sea. Not just the occasional oil spill but masses of small pieces of plastic. Apart from being very unsightly I am sure it cannot be doing the marine environment, and the creatures that we eat, any good.

  • John

    “Because half of all the world’s mammal species are supposedly in Australia…”

    Where does this estimate come from? Is it reliable?

  • Julian Taylor

    Seemingly contrary to INEPT or UNEP, or whatever it’s referred to as, this [LINK] story popped up about Koala bears being put on the pill in order to cut down on their numbers.

  • Recoil

    It’s not extinct yet, but the Northern Hairy-nosed variety of one of my favourite animals (the wombat) is critically endangered. At the last count there were only 113 left (all confined to one small area of the Epping Forest in Queensland), though their numbers are up from the early eighties thanks largely to the efforts of the people trying to save them. Surprisingly (and sadly) though, this state of affairs does not seem to be widely known.

  • Antoine Clarke

    Thanks Recoil for that example.

    It is obviously the case that there are pressures on wildlife habitats from human development. I am also sure that climate changes occur that lead to mass extinctions.

    I think it is fair enough to point out that a particular piece of territory contains the last of the long eared wombats so please don’t concrete it over. I oppose compulsory purchase orders and support private property rights. The two together would mean that the land where the endangered species lives could be auctioned. I am confident that the global environmentalist movement could outbid any multinational corporation for ecologically significant tracts of land, and without compulsory purchases, could hang to them against developer pressure. Perhaps it is ironic that I am more confident than environmentalists are of their ability to use property rights to beat off the competing interests of businesses.

    Where I take issue is unsupported claims that “one species is gone every 20 seconds” and “half the mammal species will go”. Ultimately this tends to create what I would call “crisis fatigue”: we get used to hearing about the horrors of environmental catastrophe and become hardened to it, rather like listening to casualty figures in a war, which one knows are exaggerated.

    If an Australian mammal species really became extinct in 2004, why haven’t we heard about it? What are the environmentalists doing if not bringing real case extinctions to our attention? The suspicion must be that they are either too busy peddling fabricated and embellished propaganda or that the days of human-caused extinctions are mostly behind us.

  • R C Dean

    Dan, I dunno where you get your info, but in North America game animals of all kinds – including quail, pheasant, wild turkey, bear, deer, elk, moose, antelope, etc. are in the midst of a decades-long resurgence.

    Bird populations in particular tend to fluctuate according to weather – quail were down in North Texas the last few years due to a drought, but this year you can’t park the pickup without running over one of the little buggers.

    Libertarian koan for the day: The reason game animals are doing so well in North America is because of hunting.

  • Jim

    As John Quiggin says, whoever pays you to write stuff like these should really ask for their money back. I am not an expert on this issue but even I can spot some glaring flaws in your argument/screed.

    Firstly, you imply that the UNEP is the source for your quote that “Half of all living bird and mammal species will be gone within 200 or 300 years”, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s Donald Levin, a botany professor in Austin, Texax. Presumably you thought it would be more fun to have another kick at the UN because they’re obviously evil, m’kay? At least, as you say, the UNEP is honest.

    Secondly, your calculation about the mammalian extinction rate appears to assume equal distribution of extinctions across time and space, and apparently leaves out birds altogether.

    Thirdly, you seem to think that as long as a species doesn’t actually go extinct, i.e. even if its numbers fall to a couple of dozen pairs, there’s simply nothing to worry about. Which is just stupid.

    You’re just taking an argument you have an ideological problem with but no expert knowledge of, misrepresenting it and making specious counter-arguments based on anecdotal evidence and comically shallow research.

  • Dan W


    Do you hunt? Yes, a lot of game animals are doing quite well. Turkeys in particular are our big success story here in Kansas. We also have a world-class deer herd — small but full of big bucks.

    But quail, pheasants, and prairie chickens are on a decades long nose dive. I haven’t talked to one western Kansas or central Kansas resident who hasn’t seen a dive in the numbers of those birds. That anecdotal evidence is supported by the KDWP’s biologists and by KSU biologists.

    Ditto with wild trout and salmon runs in California.

    Hunting can be good for the critters, absolutely. My point is that if you take up hunting, fishing, and birdwatching, you’ll see with your own eyes and ears how we’re losing habitat and how that’s turning into a loss of some species.

  • Dan-

    Mississippi quail populations are going strong. Due to some careless farmers, we now have wild pheasants in Mississippi. Which is absurd, if you think on it.

  • Gordon

    My default position on all statements by environmental activists is to classify them between the (broad) range between “shameless lie” and “hysterical exaggeration”

  • nick mallory

    Only breeding vultures in captivity can prevent the bird of prey from extinction in South Asia, conservationists are warning.

    Unless they act now it will become impossible to find enough vultures to establish stocks for captive breeding.

    The alert comes in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, written by groups including the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Bombay Natural History Society.

    They are seeking funds for six captive breeding centres in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

    A vulture care centre was opened in the Indian state of Haryana in February 2003. It can house up to 35 vultures and plans to start breeding vultures soon.

    Scientists have proven the cause of the rapid decline in three species of vultures to be a drug given to cattle.

    When vultures eat the cows’ carcasses they consume traces of the pain killer, known as diclofenac. Even minute doses are deadly to the birds.

    The Indian government is considering banning diclofenac, but the fear is it will soon be too late.

    The animal husbandry department last month insisted research into affordable alternatives needed to be carried out before a ban could come into place.

    “We’re putting as much pressure as we can to get a quick reaction to prevent to the birds going extinct,” said Chris Bowden, the RSPB’s vulture programmes manager.

    “But it’s so urgent even if we could get the drug banned straight away they would very likely still go extinct, so hence we’re instigating the breeding programme.”

    He estimated vulture numbers have fallen dramatically – from 30m to 40m a decade ago, to about one percent of that number today.

    If the vulture breeding programme is a success, the birds would be reintroduced to the wild – but not for at least 10 years, he said.

    The near extinction of vultures has a far wider impact than just among conservationists.

    The birds used to play a vital social role by scavenging the carcasses of dead animals in the countryside and cities.

    “In earlier times vultures used to come down to these dead bodies and they used to finish them off in 15 or 20 minutes and the bones were totally clean,” explained Kushal Mookherjee, secretary of Prakriti Samsad, the West Bengal Nature Society.

    “But now this function is not being done by these vultures.”

    Feral dogs have now taken the vultures’ place – causing a rise in diseases including rabies.

    India’s Zoroastrian community – known as Parsis – also use vultures to dispose of their dead.

    Parsis in Bombay have already looked into the possibility of breeding vultures themselves, although the high cost has so far prevented them.

    But as the stark warning shows, without captive breeding the vulture may soon be no more in South Asia’s skies.

  • nick mallory

    I found the above story at the BBC wildlife page. Vulture numbers collapsing from 30 – 40 million to 1% of that in a decade seems pretty serious to me. Nature can rebound quickly, as Peregrine numbers did here after DDT was banned and persecution reduced, but to completely ignore problems like this is no solution to them.