The Sixth Extinction A conservationists crusade 6-1-97
There have been five mass extinctions in the Earth's history. Richard Leakey talks to Sam Kiley about his crusade to halt the sixth.
THERE was nothing subtle about the yellow- eyed Special Branch officer Earth assigned by Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi to watch Richard Leakey. Lounging, in a white saloon car outs de Dr Leakey's office, he brushed crumbs off his belly and sat up to fix any visitor with a long stare. Since the palaeo-anthropologist and conservationist tumed to opposition politics in 1995, phone tappings, thrashings from police armed with rubber whips, and stonings by the ruling party's rent-a-thug youth wing have become occupational hazards. Why, having lost both kidneys (his brother gave him one of his) and then both his legs below the knees in a plane crash, doesn't Dr Leakey, 51, pull up a safari chair and, enjoy the view from his eyrie overlooking the Rift Valley? Having been the much-admired head of Kenya Wildlife Services, and credited with saving Kenya's elephants from ex- tinction, he could make a handsome living and enjoy celebrity on the American lecture circuit. Or why doesn't he take up numerous offers to run the national parks systems in other African countries? "Perhaps it's the missionary genes that brought my family here three generations ago," he says. "Sitting back and being quiet isn't in my blood." That crusading zeal, which impelled him to form the Salina (The Ark) Party last year and act as a political magus in uniting Kenya's fractious, tribally divided opposition parties, has also driven him to write his latest book, The Sixth Extinction: Biodiversity and Its Survival (with Roger Lewin). "I want to end the arrogance of our species and introduce some humility," he says. His previous six books have dealt with human evolution, based in large part on the findings of his parents, Louis and Mary, and his own discoveries in the sedimentary rocks around Lake Turkana, Kenya's most remote and inhospitable desert area. This seventh book has a bolder agenda, to explode the commonly held theory that evolution has been a gradual progress to- ward perfection, leading inevitably to the human species as its crowning glory. Dr Leakey has nailed his colours to the mast of "catastrophism"; the idea that the species which inhabit the Earth today are here not because their ancestors had the best genes, enabling them to survive among the fittest, but by good fortune, because their ancestors were able to survive mass extinctions. Those catastrophes carried away up to 95 per cent of other life forms, leaving the survivors to.evolve in their own time. . According to Dr Leakey, our planet has been shaken by five major extinctions in the last 4000 million years. The first, 450 million years ago, occurred shortly after the evolution of the first land-based plants and 100 million years after the Cambrian Explosion of animal life beneath the seas.
Wipe-out number two came in 350 million BC, causing the formation of coal forests. Then the Earth received a double whammy during the Triassic period, between 250 and 200 million years ago, and a fifth, ending the reptilian dominance of the Earth, in 65 million BC, at the end of the Cretaceous period. This has led to the current mammalian domination of Earth. Leakey writes: "If the history of life is seen as a drama staged on planet Earth, then it can be seen as having repeated intermissions [mass extinctions], after each of which the cast on stage changes: some characters previously important disappear entirely, or assume minor roles; others, in the wings, now move to stage front in major roles; new characters sometimes appear, too, producing a constantly shifting effect." The causes of the extinction are a matter of heated debate. But Dr Leakey favours the view that they have been set off by collisions between the Earth and massive asteroids and comets.
So what is the Sixth Extinction? When is it coming? And what is its cause? "It's the next annihilation of vast numbers of species. It is. happening now, and we, th'e human race, are its cause," - explains Dr Leakey. Every year, between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet, he says. For the sake of argument, let's assume the number is 50,000 a year. "Whatever way you look at it, we're destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies." The statistics he has assembled are alarming. Fifty per cent of the Earth's species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to ten billion inside the next half-century. "Anyone who has the least intelligence should he concemed about this. It affects the generations that immediately follow our own," Dr Leakey, says. But he shie ' s away from offering a prescription for what should he done to slow down the Sixth Extinction. 'I used to have prescriptions for everything. Now, I see the world ag a more complicated place. I'm older and wiser, and less prone to lecture. "The aim of the book is to make peo- ple aware that, because we are the asteroid or comet heading for Earth, we can at least try to control its size and trajectory." But surely Dr Leakey must have identified what it is that is causing mankind to foul its own nest? "Well, yes. The underly- ing cause of species loss is poverty. Until we improve the living conditions of all people so that they have jobs and leisure, the pressure on land and species will re- main very strong." It is this conclusion, not spelt out in The Sixth Extinction, which in large part prompted Dr Leakey to enter the brutal world of Kenyan politics, where less troublesome opposition figures have been tortured, or die in inexplicable car crashes. "There is very little point in getting involved in any kind of conservation if the political and economic environment is not right. One's hard work to save animals will come to nothing if the human population is suffering under mismanagement and corruption. So that is my new crusade." - The Times