Florida Keys News
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Extinction expert works to save species

It's 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon and conservation biologist Stuart Pimm has already had a very eventful day. From his condominium in Key Largo, he has recently wrapped up an interview with the BBC. That followed on the heels of an early morning commute to Miami, where he sat with Al-Jazeera America for his first-ever interview on live TV.

What has brought so much attention to Pimm, a Duke University professor, is his groundbreaking study on extinction, which was published on May 30 in the prestigious journal Science. Through three years of rigorous analysis, Pimm and his co-authors determined that species are going extinct more than 1,000 times as rapidly as was the case before man industrialized.

Standing apart from the many other scientific studies on extinction, Pimm's team formed their conclusions by determining the modern rate of extinction per year and comparing that number to the natural extinction rate as discerned from fossil records. Out of every 1 million species on the planet, the study postulates, 100 go extinct each year.

The Science study, titled "The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution and protection," is just one of approximately 300 papers that Pimm has authored through the years, mainly related to extinction. To some, it may sound like a bit of a depressing career emphasis, especially for a man who is passionate about the environment and biodiversity. Not for Pimm, though.

"First, I'm too bloody busy to be depressed," he said last week as he sat in his living room, surrounded by books that pay homage to Florida Bay, Colombian hummingbirds and prairies around the world, among other subjects. "Second, I know I am making a difference."

Indeed, Pimm, 65, wears many hats related not only to extinction, but to its primary antidote, conservation. This week, for example, the Oxford University graduate departed for southern Africa, where he will spend five weeks assisting National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Over that time he'll be in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa working with ranchers to foster a peaceful solution to raids against their cattle by lions and other imperiled big cat species. Pimm and the rest of the National Geographic team assist ranchers in designing cat-proof corrals, then pay for half of the overhaul.

Closer to home, Pimm has spent 25 years studying the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Along with former Everglades National Park biologist Sonny Bass, he has documented the way in which bad water management practices have resulted in the flooding of the sparrow's foraging grounds during the Everglades' traditional spring dry season. He continues to lament the practices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, but says he has won small victories. Due to his work, the agencies had to reduce water releases into the southwest Everglades from March through May in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Though Pimm is enthusiastic as he talks about the Cape Sable sparrow, he becomes almost boyish when he discusses Saving Species, his nonprofit organization that stitches together fragmented habitats.

As his recent study in Science notes, species that tend to be the most imperiled are ones that depend upon a very specific ecosystem for survival. Over time, many such ecosystems have become fragmented by ranches, farms and development. At Saving Species, Pimm and his cohorts identify places where the purchase and restoration of relatively small areas can have a major effect on the viability of an endangered species.

Sitting at his office computer, which, ironically, looks out over one of the many subtropical hardwood hammock fragments that remains in the Florida Keys, Pimm pulls up 2007 Google Earth imagery of the first major project that Saving Species' undertook. He pans in on an area of the Brazilian coastal rainforest, about an hour from Rio de Janeiro, where two tracts of protected habitat were separated by a cattle ranch.

The forest is home to a charismatic endangered primate called the golden lion tamarin. In order to have enough feeding and mating ground to secure a sustainable population, the tamarin needs to roam both areas of protected forest. But in 2007, it couldn't get across the cattle ranch.

Next, Pimm brings up imagery of the same patch of Brazilian rainforest, but in 2013. Just after the date of 2007 Google Earth image, Saving Species purchased approximately 1,000 acres of that ranchland -- a small acquisition in conservation terms -- and began replanting the forest. The difference is obvious on Pimm's computer screen. Brown, denuded hills have turned green and the forest has begun to fill in. By purchasing those 1,000 acres, Saving Species stitched together an ecosystem nearly 20 times that large.

Pimm and Saving Species are working on similar projects to protect the bamboo lemur in Madagascar and several orchids and hummingbirds in the Andes of Colombia.

Pimm says it's not just scientists who can help stave off the current man-made wave of extinction. Everyone, he explained, can work to slow global warming, a major cause of extinction, by reducing their carbon footprint. One can also attempt to tread lightly on the Earth through consumer choices, such as eating only at restaurants here in the Keys that purchase sustainably-caught fish.

Citing the fish counts undertaken by volunteers for the Key Largo-based nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Pimm said the public is also increasingly positioned to use crowdsourcing technology to assist scientists in keeping tabs on how species are faring.

Asked about the legacy he wants to leave, Pimm has no hesitation

"I want to bring the best science to practical use to avoid extinction," he said.


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