Leakey Warns of Mass Extinctions

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, August 23, 2001 (ENS) - The world is losing between 50,000 and 100,000 plant, insect and animal species a year, Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey said Wednesday at a lecture. This is much higher than a similar estimate Leakey gave in 1997. "Human activities are causing between 10,000 and 40,000 species to become extinct each year," Leakey said then.

Speaking at the South Africa Museum in Cape Town, Leakey said the current rate of extinction of species has placed the planet in serious danger, the South African Press Agency reported.

Leakey

Dr. Richard Leakey of Kenya (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Son of world famous palaeontologists Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard Leakey was director of the National Museums of Kenya from 1968 to 1989. He directed the Kenya Wildlife Service from 1989 to 1994, where he was successful in fighting elephant and rhino poaching and overhauling Kenya's troubled park system.

He resigned as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1994 following a dispute over political control, but was later reappointed. He was Secretary General of the Kenyan opposition party Safina, and in December 1997, he was elected to an opposition seat in the Kenyan Parliament.

After serving for two years as head of the Kenyan Civil Service, Leakey resigned in March.

In 1993, a crash caused by a malfunction in the airplane he was flying resulted in the loss of both his legs below the knee.

It was not his own health but the health of the planet Leakey spoke of in Cape Town. "The environment must be seen as a basic human right," he said.

Leakey said preserving land and conserving its wildlife are an "absolute necessity" and people have to decide exactly how much land should be allocated to conservation.

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Florida Panther, nearly extinct (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Only the previous five periods in history of mass extinction - the last being the death of the dinosaurs - showed the same rate of loss. "At that rate we are probably approaching a point similar to mass extinction," he said.

At the 1997 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Leakey said, "Most of you know as well as I do that biologists and conservationists are operating from a position of ignorance: we don't actually know how many species there really are on the planet, let alone on the African or any other continent. The rate of extinctions is also unknown."

"Scientists suggest that there are somewhere between 10 and 100 million species on the planet," he said.

"It is the acceleration of species loss through human activities today that is significant and unless the present trend is reversed, the planet could lose approximately 55 percent of today's species over the next 50 to 100 years. Such rapid catastrophic losses to biodiversity have happened before, and these catastrophes have always had far reaching consequences for the surviving species," Leakey warned the CITES audience.