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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Scientist Fear 21st Century Could Bring Mass Extinctions

Aired January 2, 2000 - 7:35 p.m. ET


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: When we hear about extinction, many of us think of the dinosaurs. But as a new century begins, many scientists fear a significant number of plant and animal species could vanish at an alarming rate.

CNN's Gary Strieker has this report.


GARY STRIEKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The tiger, the rhinoceros, the blue whale and the giant panda -- familiar endangered species, their numbers now so small, they seem destined for extinction and could soon vanish from the Earth. While losing these unique creatures would be a tragedy, scientists tell us it is nothing compared with the mounting crisis of extinction threatening all life on our planet.

STUART PIMM, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Nothing humanity has ever done has been as dramatic as this. If this rate of extinction continues, we will lose perhaps 40 percent, 50 percent of all life on Earth.

STRIEKER: It might sound incredible, but as many as half of all plant and animal species face extinction in the next 50 to 100 years. And this is no wild theory. There is no disagreement among experts.

THOMAS LOVEJOY, THE WORLD BANK: There's unanimity in the community of biological scientists that this is happening. There really is no biologist who disagrees with this imminent crisis. There just isn't one.

STRIEKER: Extinction is said to be necessary in the process of evolution. Old species vanish, new ones take their place. During hundreds of millions of years, scientists say, mass extinctions have periodically wiped out most forms of life. The causes are unknown, possibly huge volcanic eruptions or climate change. Sixty-five million years ago, a collision with an asteroid is believed to have caused a global die-off that included all dinosaurs. Scientists recognized five such mass extinctions in history, and they say we're now at the onset of the sixth.

ANDREW KNOLL, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: These are rates of extinction that can only really be compared with these brief moments in the past when biological diversity has come crashing down. STRIEKER: Biological diversity is the web of life on the planet, the total variety of plant and animal species, all living things. And like the others, this sixth mass extinction is a biological diversity crash.

EDWARD O. WILSON, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Not just big animals, but little animals, down to insects and -- and plants, too, are disappearing. And we're in the middle of a species extinction crisis that is unique for the last few tens of millions of years.

STRIEKER: But there is a big difference between this mass extinction and those in the past.

PIMM: In the past, the causes of extinction were unavoidable -- perhaps a collision with an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption. This sixth extinction has only one cause, and it's us.

STRIEKER: Mass extinction caused by an expanding population of humans, industry and agriculture consuming natural habitats, contamination poisoning the food chain.

KATHARINE FULLER, WORLD WILDLIFE FUND: It's happening everywhere. It's happening in our own backyards, and it's happening in the most far-flung corners of the planet, from Antarctica to the depths of the seas, from the tropical rain forests of Brazil to the deserts of Chihuahua.

LOVEJOY: The loss of biological diversity is essentially the bottom line of what we're doing to the planet. It can -- you can fix physical problems like pollution, but you can never replace the massive number of species lost to extinction.

STRIEKER: Most extinctions are now concentrated in a few critical areas around the world. Scientists call them hotspots.

WILSON: And a hotspot is a place where there are large numbers of animal and plant species that are found nowhere else, and where that entire area of natural environment is itself endangered, so that when that environment is destroyed, a lot of species go extinct. There's a mass extinction.

STRIEKER: A new study has investigated hotspots like the forests in Indonesia and Madagascar. The study shows 25 major hotspots covering less than two percent of the Earth's land area shelter nearly two thirds of all plant and animal species.

PIMM: Mother Nature has put her eggs in a very few baskets.

STRIEKER: And most of those baskets are hotspots of tropical forests where vast areas are chopped down or burned every year.

PIMM: The rate at which we're destroying rain forests worldwide is such that almost all of the rain forests will be gone within 50 years or so. And it's that more than any other factor that leads us to believe that we could lose so much of biological diversity. STRIEKER: Mass extinction in habitats as rich as these sweeps away not only more familiar species, like the orangutan in Southeast Asia and many endangered birds in Hawaii, but also hundreds of thousands of others, many still undiscovered.

KENTON MILLER, WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE: It's subtle. We can't put the dead bodies of species extinction on the table and look at them because most things don't even have names yet. But we know it's happening, and we can see the forest being reduced.

JANET ABRAMOVITZ, WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE: We are losing, in essence, pages and volumes from nature's library before we've even had a chance to know the titles of these books, much less to know their contents and their importance.

WILSON: Unglamorous as these creatures -- these weeds and creepy-crawlies -- may seem at first glance, in the aggregate, they are what sustain us. They really make up the bulk of the biosphere that our very lives depend upon.

MILLER: That's what we depend upon as people for our life support system. That's what puts food on the table, water in the tap, and lets us breathe. This is a massive industry of many component parts, all doing different things to make life possible on this planet.

Those are the things that keep the planet alive and humming.

STRIEKER: And that is the real threat from the sixth extinction. We rely on all other species around us for food, for medicines, for clean air and water. How would our future be affected by such a massive loss of life on Earth?

FULLER: We face a planet that is despoiled and impoverished. We face the threat to all life on Earth, including our own, if we continue to destroy species at the rate that has been occurring. This is an interrelated, intricately woven web of life, and at some point, when you pull out one too many threads, the whole fabric disintegrates.

STRIEKER: But before that happens, say the experts, there is still a chance to stop mass extinction.

PETER SELIGMAN, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL: There's a period today that perhaps is -- it's a window today perhaps of 50 years in which we are going to have to be wise enough and smart enough to protect these hotspots, these place where life is concentrated.

PIMM: It requires us to double -- merely double -- the amount of land that we have in protected areas. If we do that, we can prevent the sixth extinction from taking place.

STRIEKER (on-camera): But that kind of urgent action requires cooperation at local, national and international levels, and that can only happen if there's widespread recognition that something critical is at stake, not just a few unique endangered species. (voice-over): Some believe there's a powerful moral argument that could bring all nations together in this crisis.

WILSON: There's just something I think everybody has a gut feeling about, that it's wrong to carelessly wipe out a large part of the remainder of life on Earth.

STRIEKER: It could be the biggest challenge of the next millennium, reversing the course of the sixth extinction, a catastrophe that could eventually make even the human species extinct.

Gary Strieker, CNN.



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