As unfair and sad as it may seem, we often tend to forget that species extinction is a natural process like any other. While such a question may seem arbitrary coming from a nature lover, I have since come to appreciate that nature works in mysterious and (in our eyes) often cruel ways.
Extinction has been a process that has existed in tandem with evolution since the beginning of life. One process cannot exist without the other, and there is no way around this argument. In fact, the human race has evolved as a result of the mass extinction of reptiles millions of years ago, which allowed our ancestors and other mammalian species to flourish. It would be quite an unfathomable scenario in which we had cockroaches the size of side plates, sharks four times the size of great white sharks and pigeons that stood at 1m in height – not to mention to fast moving predatory dinosaurs with a mouth full of flesh ripping teeth.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has recently raised questions around issues of extinction. Such is the result of decades of declines in the number of ‘high profile’ species such as rhinoceroses, elephants and tigers, which albeit showing promising rises in numbers for some species, are still exhibit critical rates of decline. These figures are imparting a sense of ‘hatred’ towards the process of extinction. It is argued by many that the attention given to these ‘high profile’ species is not contributing to an educated understanding of this process.
When we think of extinction, one associates this with the mass extinction event of dinosaurs, which wiped out around 90% of living species at the time. As mentioned, extinction is a natural process which in fact occurs on an annual and sometimes daily basis.
There are ‘background’ extinctions that are recorded, with species fading out annually at the expense of other. This is a relatively routine occurring but it generally passes as undetected since the species lost are not as high profile. Only a handful of individuals in the world would be bothered if a species of plants, insects or worm would go extinct. Scientists estimate that mammalian species survive the least in the world, for an average of one to two million years, with leatherback sea turtles being the most persistent at over ten million years. The hard fact is that nothing is infinite, and every single species recorded so far has either gone extinct or will eventually suffer the same fate – this including humans!
So why is there such hype about extinction? The reasons are purely selfish and stem from an economic agenda. Taking the decline of fishery stocks of tuna as a recent example, an eventual extinction spells losses for companies that run in the tens of millions. Furthermore, that is why conservation bodies tend to focus on charismatic species like big cats, elephants, pandas and other mammals – these species bring in considerable income from animals enthusiasts who are willing to spend money to see them. Efforts are also focused on the preservation of ‘keystone’ species, which keep in check certain food chains which if unregulated could mean losses for governments (example, the Thai government does not want to lose Tigers since these act as a control for deer populations which would otherwise decimate natural vegetation).
There is also a moral reason why we are aware of extinction. We have thankfully reached a stage where we feel obligated to conserve nature after neglecting it for so long. It is well known that extinction rates are occurring at an accelerated rate as a result of human interference. So we can find some comfort in the fact that we have finally understood our impacts on the environment, and we are ready to mitigate these to restore some much needed order to the natural process of extinction.