The Species Numbers Game

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 22, 2011 9

Captive tigers, such as this one, outnumber those left in the wild. ©John T. Andrews

When it comes to environmental and wildlife issues, it seems that the more alarming the statistics are, the more likely it is that they will command our attention and move us into action. When we hear, for example, that there are more tigers in American backyards than there are left in the wild throughout the world, our hearts, hands and wallets are suddenly consumed by an urgent desire to help.

So with all of the news headlines and articles about the loss of biodiversity and global warming, we sometimes forget what’s still out there. Today, a conservative estimate is that there are 10 million global species of flora and fauna, only 1.4 million of which have been named. And new species—as many as 18,000—are being discovered every year.

There may be anywhere from five million to 100 million species on the planet, but we’ve identified only about 1.4 million. ©John T. Andrews

The gains

For example, a recent Antarctic expedition turned up four new octopuses—and along with them, the first known, subzero venoms, which the cephalopods use to kill their prey. And this past July, scientists discovered 11 new insect species; not in some remote place, such as in jungles or along the Amazon, but in the developed country of France. In 2009, an as yet unnamed rain frog was found in Ecuador’s highland forests. In fact, the frog was one of 30 unknown species discovered there by a team of U.S. and Ecuadorian researchers. In 1990, a new species of monkey was discovered on an island along Brazil’s heavily populated Atlantic Ocean coast.

On average, about three new species of birds are found each year. In South America alone, 40 percent of the freshwater fish have yet to be classified.

The losses

Sadly, however, at the same time that we are gaining species, the United Nations estimates that we are losing them at an ever-accelerating pace, with possibly more than 26,000 vanishing each year. Pollution, climate change, land development and disease are largely to blame. The spread of a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in the little brown myotis—once North America’s most common bat species—could wipe them out in the northeastern United States within two decades. And in 2006, University of Tasmania researchers found that pollution of our oceans is killing 10 to 20 times more whales than whale hunters were.

It’s often quoted that if the loss of species continues at its current rate, 20 percent of all species on the planet could be extinct within the next 30 years.

In 2006, researchers found that pollution killed 10 to 20 times more whales than whale hunters. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The percentage game

Some would argue that this is just the way of the world. Extinction is a fact of life on our planet; another part of nature—for verification, just look at the fossil record. Today’s surviving species constitute only about 1 percent of the species that have ever lived. For as far back as we can find evidence, species have come and gone; constantly dying while others take their places.

Too, dire future estimates are only predictions; predictions based on computer models. As such, some would argue, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. For starters, if we’re constantly discovering new species and we don’t really even know how many there are on Earth right now to begin with, how can we know the percentage we are truly losing? Perhaps that 20 percent is really only 10 or 5. And while some species are being adversely affected by our activities, others are actually benefiting from them. It could be argued that there are so many variables involved that assigning a percentage loss to biodiversity in the future is meaningless.

So, in the end, will our taking conservation measures, such as participating in assisted migration or working for any of a number of save-the-[insert your favorite species here] causes, be worthwhile?

I want to believe it is. As for that alarming statistic about the number of tigers in the wild versus those in captivity I first mentioned, I’m happy to say there’s even a hopeful, new discovery regarding that. Some of them have found refuge beyond our customary influence, reach and number crunching, far up into the mountains of Bhutan.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Jack February 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    On another note, I wonder how I would feel about tigers if I shared an environment with them. I’m in awe of them, and I spend a lot of time admiring them in captivity. But if one was coming at me I’d feel differently, and if I had to live in fear of them I’d feel differently. Here I am feeling confused and sad at myself.

  2. Art Hardy February 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    We can wring our hands and throw money at conservation organizations, but wildlife will always be in danger until local human populations are educated and given reasons not to wipeout their critters.

    • Jenelle Anderson October 18, 2011 at 10:14 am - Reply

      Art Hardy brings up a good point. I would relish a Wildlife expert to speak to the human/animal issue in the greater Seattle area. Lakes and view property is prime real estate, and human habitation now stretches all the way to the mountain passes in the Cascades. Residential development has taken over water sources and grazing areas for wildlife. Jogging and mountain bike trails through the forests encroach on habitat for deer, mountain lion (cougar), and black bear. The ‘home owner’ set traps and shoot the deer and complain about their safety by the INVASION of these animals. I’ve seen a fawn birthed next to the freeway, a mother bear hit by a driver while her cubs linger bewildered nearby in the rush hour traffic, Canada geese families obliterated in 25mph traffic. It is wrong. Educating the SUV drivers who want easy access to nature and shopping malls is so important. Is killing the animals the only solution?

  3. NineQuietLessons February 22, 2011 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Efforts at conservation are almost always worthwhile, so long as they are carried out with sufficient thought to the consequences. For example, assisted migration needs to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that moving a species to a new habitat does not result in the transferred species becoming invasive.

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