Environmental Failures: Endangered and Extinct Species

Our environmental failures are the reason there are so many endangered and extinct species worldwide, includes a list of extinct and endangered animals.

| March/April 1988

The rate of extinct species may now be as high as one per day. 

Environmental Failures: Endangered and Extinct Species

June 17, 1987, is not a date most people will remember for long. On that day, the last dusky seaside sparrow in the world was found dead of old age in its cage in Florida. His species had fallen victim to the space program, a mosquito-abatement project, fire and Walt Disney World. It is the latest species to be declared officially extinct. It won't be the last.

There's nothing quite so final, so irrevocable, as extinction. There's no appeal, no rematch, no instant replay to see who should be penalized. And driving thousands of species from the face of the earth is as big a crime as we could possibly commit against the future.

Besides—and ultimately more important than—the loss of directly exploitable economic benefits when a species becomes extinct, the continuing smooth operation of our planet is threatened. Biologists sometimes liken the diversity of species on earth to the numerous rivets in a piece of equipment. The dispersion of the load through the rivets makes the machine flexible and durable; a few of the rivets can be lost without disaster. Once a certain number pop out, however, massive failure occurs. The diversity of species in the earth's ecosystems provides this flexibility and serves humans by stabilizing the climate, processing wastes and returning nutrients, generating and maintaining soils and controlling pests and diseases. (See the photos of endangered and extinct species in the image gallery.)

Cataloguing the Species Morgue

In the 108 issues (and 18 years) since MOTHER began her life, several thousand species have been extinguished worldwide. The number is unknown and unknowable. Estimates vary widely. Norman Myers, an Englishman who has spent his life studying the wildlife in East Africa, estimates that we may be losing a species a day at present. That extinct species rate could increase to a species per hour by the year 2000.

We do know some facts about extinction rates, thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. That law set up an elaborate system for listing various species worldwide as endangered or threatened. Species are added to the list after a review by officials in the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Office of Endangered Species.

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