Scientists from Oxford University are providing a useful perspective on conservation and sustainability by classifying different types of extinctions. This allows for some positive approaches, instead of the prevalent doom and gloom of the sixth mass extinction scenario, which tends to turn people off the issue, as it is difficult to imagine individual responses to such a huge environmental challenge. The idea of ‘Lazarus extinction’ is actively being applied by the Rewilding Europe initiative.They are creating wildlife and wilderness areas by reintroducing ‘ancient’ species such as European bison and brown bears.
Another famous example is the controversial reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in 1995, seventy one years after the last one was hunted down within the park bounds. This project has been deemed a success with a wolf population of more than 300 by 2005 . The concept of rewilding also draws heavily upon the ‘local’ type of extinction, where a species has been wiped out from part of its range, but is not yet truly extinct according to the IUCN definition, which states that ‘there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual of the species has died.’ The notion of Local extinction is very important to better understand the state of global wildlife populations. For iconic species, such as the tiger, the overall number has been declining for decades, but individual range countries, such as India and Nepal, have managed to reverse the decline through an effective combination of political will and public support. This clearly shows the urgent need for the sharing of expertise and collaboration between conservation practitioners from different locations.
These regional differences should also be considered when it comes to admonishing or encouraging developing nations to act to protect key species, especially in so-called biodiversity hotspots around the world. Let us remember that similar animals, such as the Eurasian brown bear, Tasmanian tiger, Stellars’ sea cow, were systematically wiped out from large parts of the developed world for the usual reasons of commercial gain or human-wildlife conflict.
Finally, this method of categorising extinctions makes it easier to discuss the taboo topic of human extinction, which is implicit in the term Anthropocene, a proposed new designation for our current geological age to denote the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. From my own conservation experience with the threatened Batek forest tribe of Malaysia, it is apparent that ‘local’ human extinctions are on the rise. Not just due to deforestation, forced assimilation and other common factors, but also some unique to ‘homo sapiens’ such as the Chernobyl experience, where animals now rule in the exclusion zone 30 years after the nuclear disaster. This phenomenon is only likely to increase with the impact of continued climate change in the next decades. United Nations reports have predicted that desertification will become widespread. We are already witnessing the mass displacement of people, and this is expected to grow to about 200 million permanently displaced ‘environmental’ migrants by 2050. Under these circumstances, the concept of human extinction, local or otherwise, may become a more unsentimental topic of conversation and may trigger actions the human race can take to mitigate this extinction spectre.