HAINAN gibbons sing to each other every morning; but these days they do not have much to sing about. The species (pictured) is endemic to a Chinese island that is not just a fruitful producer of rice and rubber but also a golfer’s paradise. Most of its forests have been destroyed to accommodate these activities, and the gibbon population is down to a couple of dozen. If the species disappears, it will be the first ape to go extinct since the beginning of the Holocene era 12,000 years ago.
The Hainan gibbon is only one of 4,224 species listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Attention tends to focus on mammals and birds, but amphibia, such as frogs, are even more at risk.
Over the past few centuries mankind’s economic growth has caused many of the problems that other species face. But as our special report this week argues, greater human prosperity now offers other species their best chance of hanging on.
What did for the dinosaurs
There have been five great extinctions in the history of Earth. One killed off the dinosaurs; another wiped out up to 96% of species on Earth. All were probably caused by geological events or asteroids. Many scientists think a sixth is under way, this one caused by man.
From the time that he first sharpened a spear, technological progress and economic growth have allowed man to dominate the planet. He is reckoned to be responsible for wiping out much of the megafauna—giant elk, aurochs, marsupial lions—that once populated Earth. When he paddled across the Pacific he exterminated 50-90% of the bird life on the islands he colonised. Technology allowed him to kill creatures and chop down forests more efficiently and to produce enough food to sustain 7 billion people. As a result, over the past few centuries extinctions are thought to have been running at around 100 times the rate they would run at in his absence.
Yet when people start to reach middle-income level, other species start to benefit. That is partly because as people get richer, their interests begin to extend beyond necessities towards luxuries: for some people that means expensive shoes, for others a day’s bird-watching. Green pressure groups start leaning on government, and governments pass laws to constrain companies from damaging the environment. In the West, a posse of pressure groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Fund started up in the 1960s and helped bring about legislation in the 1970s and 1980s...MORE