An elephant herd in Kenya.

An elephant herd in Kenya. Pieter Ras / 500px / Getty Images

Psychic Numbing: Keeping Hope Alive in a World of Extinctions

The litany of lost species can be overwhelming, leading to what has been called “psychic numbing.” But as the recovery of species from bald eagles to humpback whales shows, our actions do matter in saving species and the aliveness and beauty they bring to the world.

In June of 1976, as an undergrad, I drove all night to New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park, arriving shortly before first light. Whip-poor-wills filled the pre-dawn with their name while I awaited two people and a cardboard box. We boated to a marsh island where my companions finally opened the box and I locked eyes with three slightly bewildered, downy young birds. They were peregrine falcons, part of the first captive-bred peregrine cohort scheduled for release in a grand attempt to reverse their species’ DDT-induced disappearance across the United States. DDT and related pesticides had been banned four years earlier, making the environment less fatal for these and many birds. We placed the chicks in a specially erected tower. My job: tend them during their weeks till fledging. None of us knew whether re-wilding would work out. Or whether I would.

Things have gotten better, and things have gotten worse. A United Nations panel last year released a summary of an upcoming report, roughly extrapolating — based on the proportion of species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed as “threatened” or “endangered” — that a million species face extinction in this century. A million deaths, Stalin reputedly said, is just statistics. Even Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” This emotional overwhelm, this paralyzing tsunami to the soul, has been termed “psychic numbing.” Mother Teresa had added, though, “If I look at the one, I will.”

If conservation and the environmental movement are remiss in anything, it is the inability to remember that mass statistics obscure real tragedies, and numbers numb us. Each species, individually, has scant voice to vocalize its tragic opera. But as troubles rise in chorus, they sing the woes of living things large and humble, no matter whether they darken skies or rustle grass or keep their peace among underwater boulders. Everywhere, trouble rumbles.

The number of “Sophie la girafe” baby toys sold in France in 2010 exceeded the number of real giraffes still alive in Africa.

Monkeys, elephants, tigers, lions, giraffes — the ones in every painting of Noah’s Ark deemed worthy of salvation two by two — we send them to perdition one by one. Their flood is us as, in our billions, we rise to engulf the world.

Conservation’s most troubling paradox is that the “most popular” species are heading toward extinction. All 10 of the “most charismatic” animals — pandas, elephants, lions, tigers; the ones we paint on the walls of our babies’ nursery rooms — are at risk of extinction in the wild. Popularity in the developed world even imbues the endangered with a false public perception of security. The number of “Sophie la girafe” baby toys sold in France in 2010 (800,000) exceeded the number of human babies born there and was more than eight times the number of real giraffes still alive in Africa.

Animal populations are declining so broadly and rapidly that scientists have invented the term “defaunation.” In the last four decades, population abundances in vertebrate species have declined about a third on average. Because species don’t get onto endangered lists until they are rare, it is imperative that we wake up to the broad across-the-board declines that are happening.

Statistics are inescapable, but we can at least begin breaking down the numbing round statistic of a million species now imperiled, to more angular chunks of numbers. One-fifth of mammals are threatened with extinction. Of bird species, more than 1,450 — one in eight — are threatened. The highest number of threatened birds in any group is awarded to parrots; about half of roughly 400 parrot species are declining due to agriculture, logging, capture for the cage trade, killing for food, and killing as crop “pests.” Free-living African grey parrots face extinction in the wild and are down to one percent of former numbers in parts of their range. North America has lost nearly 30 percent of its birds since 1970, a trend likely to be roughly mirrored in Europe. Five birds extinct in the wild persist in captivity; but what can be their fate?

Author Carl Safina holds a peregrine falcon being reintroduced to the wild in 1976. The species was removed the Endangered Species list in 1999.
Author Carl Safina holds a peregrine falcon being reintroduced to the wild in 1976. The species was removed the Endangered Species list in 1999.

Author Carl Safina holds a peregrine falcon being reintroduced to the wild in 1976. The species was removed the Endangered Species list in 1999. Johann Schumacher / Alamy; Courtesy of Carl Safina

About that ark: It doesn’t have enough beds. New diseases fell the formerly plentiful. Of the 6,300 amphibians, a third are declining, with 165 gone since 1970, many from chytrid fungus — which researchers have called the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates. Another new fungus, white-nose, (discovered in New York in 2006) has killed millions of bats.

Freshwater mussels (despite fun names like fatmucket, heelsplitter, monkeyface, snuffbox, whose pearly shells gave us buttons prior to plastics) constitute America’s least-known, worst-off animal group. Over 200 of the nearly 300 North American species are endangered by waterway deterioration, some already extinct.

A quarter of the world’s thousand-or-so sharks and rays are considered “vulnerable” to “critically endangered,” with just 23 percent considered safe — the lowest proportion in any vertebrate class. Hammerheads, makos, blue sharks, so abundant when I first began going to sea — I’ve watched them fade, for soup-thickener.

Increasingly, “mass mortality events” kill thousands. In 2015 in Kazakhstan, 200,000 saiga antelope — 60 percent of the world population, died in a week when abnormal heat and humidity turned a harmless bacteria lethal. In Australia, the overall wildlife toll from the recent fires will likely prove entirely awful as iconic species like the koala and platypus decline sharply. In the last several years diminished food tied to warming water has mass-starved puffins, shearwaters, fulmars, kittiwakes, auklets, gulls, and hundreds of thousands of murres from Alaska to the U.S. West Coast. Scientists have documented well over 700 mass mortalities since the late 1800s, affecting more than 2,400 animal populations including mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and ocean invertebrates. Many likely go undocumented.

The formerly common are becoming rare. In North America, 20 common bird species declined more than 50 percent in the last 40 years.

The formerly common are becoming rare. In North America alone, 20 common bird species — more than half a million individuals each — declined more than 50 percent in the last 40 years. Bobwhite quail (common in every woodlot in my youth) have declined more than 80 percent, even in good habitat. Nineteen American shorebirds have halved since the 1970s. Puffins and other seabirds worldwide have declined 70 percent since 1950. Whip-poor-wills like I heard in 1976 have dropped 70 percent.

Many of us easily remember summer streetlights holding halos of moths, often with bats dipping through the illuminated buffet. Last summer on Long Island a friend said, “Look at the street light.” There was not a single insect visible. In Germany, scientists have documented flying-insect declines of roughly 80 percent, and in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest researchers noted an astonishing 98 percent decline of ground insects and an 80 percent loss of tree canopy insects, with accompanying crashes of insect-eating birds, frogs, and lizards. Scientists are just now compiling documentation of steep declines in butterflies, bees, and insects generally worldwide due to farming and warming, with an extinction rate eight times faster than mammals and birds. With unusual urgency, scientists have called the implications, “Catastrophic to say the least.”

Deep within the loss lists are the few main causes: habitat-shrinking agriculture, logging, mining, sprawl, introduced species, pollutions ranging from pesticides to lighting, dams, and the three overs: overhunting, overfishing, and overpopulation.

A Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

A Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Steve Bloom / Alamy

All this sums to something profoundly disturbing: At this point in the history of the world, humankind has made itself incompatible with the rest of life on Earth. We’re too much of a good thing. I don’t think that’s how we’d want to be remembered.

Unless we see the big picture and care about our role in maintaining or destroying the miracle of living existence, we will continue to do the latter. But the big picture is exactly what can be numbing.

Fortunately, none of us has to tackle the big picture. For the last 40 years I’ve had a quote from Gandhi pinned somewhere in my office through several moves. He said that “what we each do seems insignificant, but it is most important that we do it.” It can be something little and local, or maybe something big. You can maybe help do something like putting falcons back into the skies or be head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; one woman — Jamie Rappaport Clark — eventually did both. In the humblest beginnings of individual effort, big things can incubate.

When we, collectively, do decide not to let animals be driven into that eternal void, it works. More than three-quarters of marine mammals and sea turtles increased significantly after gaining protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Ospreys — nearly erased from the map in my youth because of DDT — now soar abundantly over our bays and rivers on their six-foot wings. Moths and butterflies increase when farms maintain bordering habitats. Conservation efforts have reversed near-certain oblivion for more than two dozen birds, various mammals — from rodents to whales — and dozens of others.

It would help the cause of the world’s species if we think more granularly and stay observant of the many beauties remaining.

Around the world conservationists are endeavoring to stabilize ostriches, rhinos, big cats, bears, apes, cranes, deer, antelope, otters, musk ox, parrots, butterflies — and many more.

Intensive protection of short-tailed albatrosses — once exterminated on their North Pacific nesting island for their feathers — has brought them from six rediscovered individuals to more than 4,000 birds. The Bermuda petrel, believed extinct for almost three centuries, now has about 100 breeding pairs, thanks to concerted efforts to keep them in existence. Rarest of all the world’s cranes, North America’s whooping crane hit a low of 15 adults in 1938. Today, following exhaustive conservation efforts, including captive breeding and restoration of several free-living populations, there are up to 250 mature individuals and a total population around twice that.

In 1985 I traveled from New York to California to see a California condor before they vanished; six remained in the wild. But condors breed well in captivity. Today there are more than 300 free-flying condors in California, the Grand Canyon region, and Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Captive breeding and management remain necessary for recovery, but a thousand condor eggs have hatched since the program’s inception.

No condor would yet corkscrew into the sky had the U.S. Congress not passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973. America’s bald eagles recovered from roughly 400 breeding pairs south of Canada around 1960 to about 14,000 pairs today; they’ve been off the endangered list since 2007. Brown pelicans have increased more than 700 percent in 40 years, and the American alligator, listed as endangered in 1967, is abundant today. American bison, subjected to perhaps the most profligate slaughter of any creature in history, collapsed from 60 million to just 23 wild bison by 1900 in Yellowstone. More than 30,000 exist today.

Adult and baby humpback whales in the Atlantic Ocean.

Adult and baby humpback whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Darren Jew / Alamy

Other recoveries, more painstaking, are less celebrated. The large North African antelope called scimitar-horned oryx fell from a population of tens of thousands in the 1930s to extinct in the wild by the early 1990s; they’ve recently been reintroduced in Chad. The Dzungarian or Przewalski’s horse of the Asian steppes went extinct in the wild in 1966 and has been reintroduced to native habitat in Mongolia. Père David’s deer also went extinct in the wild, but not before 18 were brought to England; from captive breeding, more than 600 of these deer again live free in their native range. The Mauritius kestrel, a small falcon that had fallen to one breeding pair by 1974, underwent an intensive program of captive rearing and management that has brought them up to several hundred. The black rhino had declined 98 percent from its 1960 numbers because of poaching; despite the loss of one subspecies, aggressive conservation has allowed their numbers to double to about 5,000. Gray whales were hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and hang on with perhaps just 150 in the Asian North Pacific, but they’ve recovered spectacularly along the West Coast of North America and are often seen from shore from Baja California to Alaska. Atlantic humpback whales have recovered so well that I often see them when I take our dogs to run on the beach on Long Island, New York.

No one worked on all of those successes. But someone worked on each of them, and that’s what made the difference. It would help all of us, and the cause of the world’s species, if we think more granularly; speak more specifically; focus on what can be meaningful; and stay observant of the many beauties remaining. As I was typing that last sentence, a flock of geese flew over the house, being loud, and I watched our dogs look up at them. Just as a small island in a wide sea is actual land and the tiny flame of a candle can truly burn you, it’s important to remember that even brief flickers of aliveness — and happiness — are the real thing.

Recently, fondly recalling that June evening of 1976, I went with a grad student to listen for whip-poor-wills where I used to hear many. We heard — one. But also recently, I’ve been seeing two peregrines patrolling the sky over the harbor shore. They bring to mind those three young falcons whose startled eyes met mine as we opened that cardboard box in that memorable moment in the summer of my youth. I wonder how the falcons overhead might be related to those chicks I cared for until they chose to fly away. I know they are. I know we helped.