Why Don’t We Hear About More Species Going Extinct?

Panamanian golden frog. Brian Gratwicke / CC BY 2.0

By John R. Platt

We've been hearing it for years: The world is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, with species going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster because of human impact on the environment.

Most recently a report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that as many as a million species risk extinction in the coming decades due to human-related activities.

All of which raises the question: If so many species are going extinct, why don't we hear about new extinctions every day?

The answer to that question is more complex than you might think.

1. It Takes Time

Once in a while, the last known individual of a species dies while on display in a zoo or other institution — for example, Martha the passenger pigeon or Toughie the last Rabbs' tree frog. But in the vast majority of cases, the existence of the final representative of a species — the "endling" — is unknown. The norm is a species disappearing in the wild, one by one, far from human eyes. No one witnesses it die out. It declines silently until one day it's just … gone.

And when that happens, it's not easy for researchers to show that a species has vanished forever.

"Proving the negative is always impossible. Getting close to the demonstration that something must not exist anymore requires a lot of effort," said H. Resit Akçakaya, professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. "It's not sufficient to say that we didn't see it. You need to have searched for it. Because that takes a lot of time and effort, usually species are not listed as extinct until long after they have actually gone extinct, or we think they were extinct, because we can never know, except for a very few exceptions."

You'll find examples of this when searching through the listings on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which details the extinction risk for about 98,500 species. Many listings for rare species include the last time that particular plant or animal was observed by scientists, and that date is often decades in the past.

Take, for example, a Hawaiian bird known as the poʻouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma). The IUCN lists the species as "critically endangered (possibly extinct)." The bird hasn't been seen in the wild since 2004, but it still hasn't been moved into the "extinct" category. Right now there are 68 other species in that "possibly extinct" category. Hundreds more are still listed as "critically endangered" despite a lack of recent sightings.

The Endangered Species Act takes its time, too. For example, the Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) was removed from the endangered species list last year, 80 years after its last confirmed sighting. Biologists spent decades looking for signs of the animal before confirming its extinction.

Biologist Bruce Wright poses with the body of the last known eastern cougar in 1938.


"We in the conservation field never want to wipe a species off the books until it's really absolutely solidly, solidly positively dead, dead, dead," explained Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and the founder of SavingSpecies. That's a slow process. "For a long time, there was a rule that said it has to have been unseen for 50 years before you could declare it extinct."

There are other criteria for declaring a species extinct. For example, a 2005 paper by Stuart Butchart and other conservation experts identified several types of evidence to be used before a species could be considered "possibly extinct." From the paper:

  • The species' population decline must be well documented.
  • It must face "severe threatening processes" such as habitat loss or intensive hunting.
  • It must possess attributes known to predispose similar species to extinction, such as a small range or inability to migrate.
  • And surveys have failed to detect it, with due consideration given to how easy or hard it is to observe the species.

Similarly, the paper considers four types of evidence against extinction:

  • Surveys to find the species have been inadequate, perhaps because they were at the wrong time of year or the species lives in hard-to-reach areas.
  • The species is difficult to see, hear or otherwise detect.
  • It's been reasonably sighted by locals, even if those sightings are unconfirmed.
  • And suitable habitat still exists.

With all of this in mind, it's likely we've lost a lot of species over the past few decades, but scientists are hesitant to formally shift them into the "extinct" category quite yet.

There's an important reason for that.

2. Mistakes are Costly

"There are costs associated with listing a species as extinct, so biologists, understandably, don't want to declare a species extinct before they are pretty certain," said Akçakaya.

The biggest cost: Declaring a species extinct too early can actually lead to its extinction.

That's called the "Romeo Error," named after Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." In the play, lovestruck Romeo mistakenly thinks his beloved Juliet is dead, so he takes his own life. That's not exactly how it would play out in the wild, but when humans incorrectly think a species is extinct when it's not, the error can lead to the removal of any legal protections for the species or its habitat. That means if the species is later rediscovered, protective measures have to start over at step one — assuming there's anything left to save at that point.

One of the most well-known cases of the Romeo Error took place in the Philippines, where the island of Cebu experienced so much deforestation that several of its native species were declared extinct early in the 20th century. That included a bird called the Cebu flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor), which was later rediscovered in 1992 in a tiny fragment of remaining forest. Today the bird is still critically endangered, but its populations could have been much healthier if efforts to protect it had not been abandoned decades earlier.

Of course, to experience the Romeo Error, you need a Romeo (or a Juliet) in the first place.

In other words, you need a name.

3. You Can’t Declare Extinct What You Don’t Know

The world has about 1.7 million described species. Many scientists estimate the total level of biodiversity on the planet at about 8 million, while others say it's much higher. That means there are a lot of species yet to be identified, named, studied or assessed for their extinction risk.

"Most of the species we know must exist are not yet described," said Akçakaya. "Since we don't know most of the species that exist, we don't know most of the species that are going extinct."

We find out about some of these unnamed extinctions after the fact — sometimes long after. Two of the four extinctions I've reported on so far this year were species that disappeared decades ago but have only just been scientifically identified and named.

But those species were only identified because museums had samples in their collections. Otherwise no one might have noticed that they were gone, let alone known if they had lived at all. We find out about dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric species through fossil evidence, but most plants and animals degrade and decompose pretty quickly after they die, leaving few signs that they ever existed.

It's difficult to estimate the numbers of these unknown species, but we do know how many can exist inside intact habitats, and how many rely upon incredibly small, specific microhabitats. And we know that when those habitats disappear, so does what lived in them.

Even for species we've identified, we can't assess their extinction risk if we don't know much about them. The IUCN Red List includes about 15,000 species in a category called "data deficient" — in other words, we don't know if they're at risk or not, or even if they still exist. A 2016 paper by biologist Chris Parsons argued that all of these "data-deficient" species, which are often hard to find and study, should be considered "assumed threatened," a step that would encourage policymakers to treat them as at risk rather than just "out of sight, out of mind."

The same could probably be said for the hundreds of thousands of identified species that haven't even made it to the IUCN Red List.

4. The Last Reason We Don’t Announce Many Extinctions: Successes

The Cebu flowerpecker, like so many other critically endangered species, continues to survive. Much as humans are to blame for so many extinctions, we're also to be credited for helping to prevent some of these species from disappearing altogether.

For examples, look at the California condor, black-footed ferret and Mexican gray wolf. These are just a few of the species that humans nearly drove extinct that have since been saved due to modern and ever-improving conservation techniques.

California condor 87.

Michael Quinn / National Park Service

"When we do find species that are hanging on by their toenails, we are in a better position to save those species from the brink of extinction," said Pimm. "People find them and they can begin to bring them back."

These species don't always bounce back to safe levels, but avoiding extinction is still an achievement. "If a species is critically endangered, and has been critically endangered for the last 20 years, is that a conservation success?" asked Akçakaya. "Perhaps it is, if we can demonstrate that without conservation it would have gone extinct 10 years ago."

Of course, saving a species requires finding out that it's endangered early enough to do something about it — not to mention finding the last individuals. "Finding three individuals is not going to get you much," said Pimm. "The best you can hope for is a male and a female, and there's a possibility you'll find that all three are male."

That, it turns out, is another reason why some species haven't been declared extinct yet — they're alive, but unlikely to persist. The most notable example is the northern white rhino, which has just two females left in the world. The species still exists, but for all intents and purposes, it's a walking case of extinction.

Given all of this, we know that many more species are going extinct than get reported. But how do we know how many are going extinct? We'll address that question in part II of this article, coming soon.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

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An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

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