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Optimism in the Face of Species Extinction

Dr. Stuart Pimm delivers Global Conservation Lecture

ESF was honored to host one of the world's most influential environmental scientists-Dr. Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at Duke University-for an on-campus event Thursday, April 21. He presented the Global Conservation Lecture in the Gateway Center. Earlier in the day, Dr. Pimm spoke with the ESF Office of Communications and Marketing about the issue of mass species extinction and the role he believes ESF can play in finding solutions to save species.

Q: Can you tell us about your vision for conservation?

A: I'm particularly concerned with the loss of biological diversity because it's massive and irreversible. If you look at where we are losing species, we can map out those places. And we know they're concentrated in certain biodiversity hotspots, which are generally in poor countries.

In addition, when we look at those landscapes, they're fragmented. The species can't survive in small fragments. If you have a habitat patch over there with two males and a habitat patch over there with two females, you're not going to get any babies. So I work to help local conservation groups reconnect with nature, and I do that because it's a cost-effective way of preventing species extinctions. It's practical, driven by science, and remarkably easy to effect. So it's part of my optimism, my enthusiasm, that this is a problem we can solve.

Q: Looking beyond the particular species that are affected, what are the ripple effects of extinction?

A: Once you lose one species, you tend to have a lot of changes. You lose the top predators in the ocean. And that can lead to a loss of coral reefs because you've lost the intermediate species; there are trophic cascades that reshape nature. I see it in my own garden in Durham, North Carolina. I've got more whitetail deer than I know what to do with because we have no wolves. So with more whitetail deer, we have more ticks and Lyme disease. So when species go extinct, we reshape the balance of nature.

Q: Other than the rate at which extinctions are happening, is there a particular reason why this is such a critical issue now?

First, I think it is an ethical issue. Pope Francis a few years ago came out with Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment, which has a marvelous chapter on biodiversity and its loss. Toward the end, he says we have no right to do this. I mean, what ethical, moral, religious, right do we have to destroy creation?

The second reason is the aesthetics. Who wants to tell their children that lions and tigers and bears have gone extinct? They are such a part of our culture; they are part of what we enjoy. People go to zoos to see these animals.

And a third reason is a very basic economic issue. By destroying the world's forests, we are putting a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, with all the devastating economic consequences of that. When you chop down forests and those hillsides wash away, that's a loss of economic income. When we destroy fisheries, we lose value. So by doing harm to nature, we cause economic harm.

Q: Why did you choose to visit ESF for this presentation?

A: This is actually my second visit to ESF. This is a school that's got a very strong tradition in environment and wildlife. This is a major center for environmental programs, with a long tradition of work in that area. This is a place that's going to be training the next generation of leaders to tackle these issues.

Q: You will have an audience here of scientists, including many who are the next generation of environmental leaders. What is your message to them in particular?

A: The message is that our generation has handed them a planet that is wounded. We have inflicted a lot of harm, and there are an enormous number of things that we need to do and know. Those challenges require a diversity of skills and approaches. This is both an intellectual challenge and a challenge as an activist. So, the questions are: How do we do the science? How do we address the social and economic issues? And how do we speak truth to power? How do we engage our political leaders so that they begin to care about these issues? The reason we are wearing masks is that we're dealing with a zoonotic disease. COVID spread from horseshoe bats, through wet markets in China. A million Americans have died, probably 5 million people worldwide have died.

How are we going to get politicians to realize that we need to invest in stopping tropical deforestation, stopping wildlife trade, closing down wet markets? We've got to get out there and tell politicians that we need to think about how we re-evaluate our relationship with nature. So we need good science. We need a good understanding of the interactions with local communities. We need to understand how we get our science out to the public and how to make appropriate decisions. I hope it will be an exciting challenge for the younger generations who are faced with this mess.