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How Will We Live Without Them?

A quarter of the world's mammals may be headed toward extinction

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

Like most people, I've been looking at the numbers that measure the convulsions in the global financial markets. And as I do, I think about another frightening set of numbers—the ones that gauge the precipitous declines in the species that surround us. The financial markets will eventually come back, but not the species we are squandering.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Barcelona, Spain, recently released results of a global survey of mammal populations. It concluded that at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future. The first ones to go will be primates: Nearly 80 percent of the primate species in southern and southeastern Asia are immediately threatened.

The causes are almost all directly related to human activity. For example, the African elephant is threatened by the destruction of their habitat by land developers. Even in protected areas, elephants are killed by poachers who illegally harvest their tusks for the ivory trade.

The numbers are not much better for other categories of life. At least 22 percent of reptile species are at risk of extinction. In Europe, 45 percent of the most common bird species are rapidly declining in numbers, and so are those in North America.

Nature's Resilience

These numbers are shocking, but they don't tell the whole story. They are projections for the most familiar, most easily counted plants and animals—less than 4 percent of the species on Earth. It is reasonable to assume that many of the uncounted species are doing as poorly.

Everything is connected. No species goes down on its own, not without affecting the larger biological community. We emerged, as a species, from the very biodiversity we are destroying.

The good news here is the resilience of nature. Given even the slightest chance, declining species often recover. But the bad news is human irresponsibility: We often overlook the possibility of giving species the chance to recover.

We are seeing a global effort to stabilize the financial markets, and it will take a similar effort to slow the rate at which species are declining.

This effort should include protecting habitats and finding ways to reduce human pressure on other species. It also includes a concerted effort to slow climate change, which could have a devastating impact on the entire planet.

What we really need is the ability to think selfishly in a slightly different way.

Instead of saving the Sumatran orangutan or the Iberian lynx for itself, it may make more sense to think of saving them for ourselves—as essential elements in the biological complexity from which we arose and in which we thrive.

Without them, we are diminished.