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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Dying species 'endangering' Earth
Golden toads BBC
Recently succumbed to extinction: The golden toads of Costa Rica
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A distinguished conservationist has rekindled the dispute about how many species are becoming extinct.

He is Dr Richard Leakey, formerly head of Kenya's civil service and earlier of its wildlife service.

Dr Leakey, speaking in South Africa, said the world was losing between 50,000 and 100,000 species every year.

He said this rate of extinction, twice the estimate he gave four years ago, was imperilling the planet.

Speaking in Cape Town, Dr Leakey said it was only the five earlier mass extinctions in the Earth's history, the last of which saw the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, that had shown the same rate of loss.

"At that rate we are probably approaching a point similar to mass extinction", he said.

Dr Leakey argued that the environment must be seen as a basic human right, and preserving land and conserving its wildlife was an "absolute necessity".

Lower estimate

People had to decide exactly how much land should be given over to conservation.

In 1997, at a meeting of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), Dr Leakey gave a much lower estimate of the extinction rate.

Tiger cub in zoo AP
Some species may survive only in zoos
He said then: "Most of you know as well as I do that biologists and conservationists are operating from a position of ignorance.

"We don't actually know how many species there really are on the planet, let alone on the African or any other continent.

"The rate of extinctions is also unknown. Scientists suggest that there are somewhere between 10 and 100 million species on the planet."

Dr Leakey told Cites that it was the acceleration of species loss through human activities that was significant.

Unless the present trend was reversed, he said, the world could lose about 55% of its species over the next 50 to 100 years.

"Such rapid catastrophic losses to biodiversity have happened before, and these catastrophes have always had far-reaching consequences for the surviving species."

Last May, a report by the Swiss-based IUCN-World Conservation Union and Future Harvest, a Washington DC agricultural research group, said global wildlife faced the greatest extinction risk since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

Estimates challenged

A 1998 survey of 400 scientists commissioned by New York's American Museum of Natural History found that nearly seven out of 10 of the biologists polled said they believed a "mass extinction" was under way.

Nearly all attributed the losses to human activity, especially the destruction of plant and animal habitats.

Some scientists say the actual extinction rate is almost certainly far lower than Dr Leakey is suggesting, and well below any cause for concern.

The evidence that species are disappearing is often circumstantial, but many experts believe it is gradually painting a clearer picture.

Caucasus beetle AP
Many threatened species are little-known
Craig Hilton-Taylor of IUCN told BBC News Online: "It's quite possible that we're approaching a sixth extinction, but it's hard to say for sure.

"In October 2000 IUCN published its Red List of threatened species, which also lists those known to have died out.

"The number listed as extinct doesn't tally with the predictions of people like Richard Leakey.

Continual increase

"But what may explain that is that there's a time-lag in the process. Some species are very hard to find.

"It may take several years of fieldwork before we can say whether they really are extinct. You have to wait to be sure.

"But the number of threatened species is growing all the time, and that shows there's a problem.

"Some of them could disappear quite rapidly. They're right on the brink."

See also:

20 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
UN call to save key forests
08 May 01 | Sci/Tech
World wildlife warning
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