The 2010 International Year of Extinction


Extinction in Our Times: Global Amphibian Decline . Collins, J. P., and M. L. Crump . 2009 . Oxford University Press , New York , NY . 273 pp. $29.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-19-531694-0 .
Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin . Turvey, S. 2008 . Oxford University Press , New York , NY . 234 pp. $29.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-19-954947-4 .

In 2010 most of the world's governments will meet at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to assess whether commitments made in April 2002 “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” have been successful. A recent paper in Science (Butchart et al. 2010) provides a preview of the status and trends of biodiversity and associated threats, demonstrating that signatories to the Convention will have little to celebrate in what has been declared the International Year of Biodiversity. Existing indicators of species’ population trends and probability of extinction show no signs that the rate of loss of biological diversity has decreased, and threats to biological diversity are increasing in number and magnitude. If these conditions continue, Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin and Extinction in Our Times: Global Amphibian Decline are likely just the beginning of a wave of books to document contemporary extinctions.

In addition to documenting an extinction process, the authors of these two books detail the response of the scientific community, conservationists, and society at large. Although the structure and content of Witness to Extinction and Extinction in Our Times are similar, the styles could not be more different. Witness to Extinction by Samuel Turvey describes the personal journey of a passionate conservationist witnessing the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), or baiji. Although Turvey focuses on the baiji, he draws on an impressive number of recent case studies of both conservation successes and failures to explore actions necessary to ensure that other extinctions do not occur. Turvey effectively engages the reader on both a personal and intellectual level by integrating an emotive first-person narrative with intriguing anecdotes and extremely well-researched overviews of contemporary extinction.

Extinction in Our Times, by James Collins and Martha Crump, is a systematic description of the process of discovery by the scientific and conservation community that the world's amphibians are declining, how the causes of decline were investigated, and the conservation actions taken. The majority of the book focuses on the exciting journey of discovery undertaken by the scientific community to determine the cause of amphibian decline, but the overall message is that the conservation and science community can work together in new ways to address global-scale conservation challenges. It reads in parts like a textbook, but in keeping with this structured approach it will be easy for readers to identify and focus on sections of most interest to them.

Despite their divergent styles, the books complement one another very well. Turvey demonstrates the devastating results when conservation is consumed by politics and poor coordination, and Collins and Crump show what is at least initially possible when the scientific and conservation community focus on results and make an effort to coordinate at a global level.

The loss of the baiji is of particular interest because it was the first documented extinction of a large vertebrate in over 50 years, and, like many extinctions, it was avoidable. The baiji is also interesting from an evolutionary perspective because it is the only member in a family that is thought to have diverged from other cetaceans about 20 million years ago.

The amphibian story is also unique because it is the first time an entire class of vertebrates has experienced rapid declines in recent history. It is also the only group to have experienced major declines that are clearly linked to disease, although amphibians are also highly threatened by habitat loss. Amphibians are by far the most threatened group of vertebrates (32% threatened), and most recent documented extinctions are from this class.

Both books would make excellent choices for an undergraduate or master's course in conservation biology because they introduce much of extinction theory and in many cases explore its practical application. For example, they both discuss the dynamics of small populations, inbreeding depression, and the role of captive breeding and reintroduction in conservation. In addition, concepts such as the Allee effect and the functional redundancy hypothesis are discussed. They also deal with practical challenges, such as deciding when it is appropriate to take conservation action when information on the cause of decline is imperfect or incomplete. In this regard, Turvey quotes Don Merton, who led the successful recovery effort for the Chatham Island Black Robin (Petroica traverse): “Do not wait until you have all the facts before you act—you will never have all you would like. Action is what brings change and saves endangered animals … .”

A number of themes emerged from both books that are essential for the success of any large-scale conservation initiative. These include the importance of early action, effective coordination and collaboration, reliable and sufficient funding and institutional capacity, and an interdisciplinary skill set or team. In the case of the baiji, these pillars of success were largely absent, but for the amphibians, they are either in place or being obtained.

We are likely to see a growing number of extinctions of species and in some cases entire communities and assemblages over the next century, and publications such as Witness to Extinction and Extinction in Our Time will continue to be extremely important in providing insight into the extinction process and the potential conservation response. These books help summarize the current situation with respect to extinction, raise the profile of the issue of extinction, and provide a platform for action to prevent extinctions. Future case studies will be essential to further build the evidence base so that the conservation community can better identify what is working to prevent extinctions of species and what is not.

A good book or movie often leaves one with recurring questions that pop up in one's mind for days, months, or even years. When governments meet later this year at the Convention on Biological Diversity it will be clear that society has failed to meet the 2010 target and that the number and intensity of drivers of species extinction are rapidly increasing. The question that runs through my mind is whether the conservation community can adapt fast enough, rapidly building institutional capacity, interdisciplinary networks, and sustainable financing mechanisms to respond to these growing challenges. The success or failure of work to prevent amphibian extinctions and the future of the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), now the world's most threatened cetacean, will be good indicators of the answer to this question.