Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

2 September, 2011 - 15:08 -- John Burton

Statistics can be used to prove almost anything,  and they are always open to abuse.

Once upon a time (well, the mid sixties actually), Sir Peter Scott invented the Red Data Books (RDBs), which were to be an inventory of all the world’s endangered species, and they were to be classified according to degrees of threat.  It was a pretty straightforward process. The data sheets contained a summary of what was known about the species, and a consensus of the world’s experts on the species decided how threatened the species was. Mostly the experts consulted were the biologists studying the species in the field, so they knew what they were talking about.  But by the end of the century, number crunching had become the order of the day, and complex systems for  analysing ‘scientifically’ the degree of threat were developed, and with it workshops to evaluate all the species.

Comparing Apples with Pears, or rather Whales with Ants.

A great idea in theory: standardise everything, but the problem is that wild animals and plants cannot be standardised. Colonial insects cannot be compared with wide ranging carnivores, and parthenogenetic reptiles cannot be compared with polygamous mammals. Not only can they not be compared, the same criteria for evaluating population trends should not be used for another. Species, and comparisons are odious (to (mis) quote John Donne).

So we end up with classifications of threat, that fly in the face of the obvious conclusions of evidence. Jaguars are classified only as near threatened, despite the fact that the species is already extinct over vast areas of its former range, as well as being listed as endangered in the RDBs of  practically every country it is found in (many areas supported by WLT funding).

The Southern Right Whale is paradoxically listed as of least concern, despite the fact that is came pretty close to being wiped out by whaling, and were whaling to recommence, it could be just as easily wiped out again. So why no concern for the species? Surely it is conservation dependent? And then there is the Arabian Oryx. Once, not so long ago, (1970s) it was actually ‘Extinct in the Wild’; it was then retintroduced into the wild,  it flourished for a while, then crashed again because of poaching. The population has now climbed to 1000 individiuals, but only with strict protection so to down-list this from Endangered to Vulnerable is patently wrong. It is totally dependent on extremely strong conservation measures, and were those measures to be weakened, or worse still dropped, it would probably become extinct in the wild again within months.

Evaluating species status has become a business, and huge amounts of money are actually being spent on the process. It provides jobs for numerous scientists, and is so deeply embedded in the system that it would now be difficult to go back to the old way of simply asking a knowledgeable field naturalist. There are far too many vested interests in maintaining the present system. Meanwhile it is the wildlife that may suffer.

A classic example of the foolishness of relying on number crunching for evaluating a species status occurred recently when the Pale-headed Brush finch (protected by the WLT supported Yunguilla Reserve in Ecuador) was downgraded from Critically Endangered to endangered, purely on the basis of numbers, rather than the possible risk it could still face of rapid extinction, and the opinions of those funding its conservation (including the WLT).

The fact that should any of the recent conservation measure cease, it could be wiped out in a couple of years, does not seem to have influenced the statisticians. And the fact, that the very act of downgrading could influence funders into withdrawing funds, does not seem to be taken into account. Unfortunately, the two most critical factors involved in conservation are not often taken into account by number crunchers: politics, and availability of cash. And as for well-informed wildlife conservationists who are dealing with the species in the field, these are only of value if they provide statistics…..their opinions are not regarded, it would seem.

It would seem that the motive for ‘downlisting’ was more to do with wanting to demonstrate conservation success than to demonstrtae the actual status of species in the wild, and their conservation needs. Otherwise, as any practising conservationist would probably agree, the precautionary principle should always apply.

Just as no family has ever had 2.4 babies in England, we should beware of any classification system that takes number crunching too seriously.


Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

There clearly is quite a lot of political jiggery-pokery going on with these listings and statistics.

But I’d like to see the concept extended to the other extreme, namely ours!

There are way too many humans alive right now for ecological, and indeed, our zoological health. With our overall numbers spiralling upwards, WE should be listed as ‘Critically Endangered’.

WE are now rendered extremely vulnerable to viral pandemics and environmental shocks and changes by virtue of our expanding billions.
No other land mammal would be “allowed” to balloon out and subsume so much ecological capital. If there were 6 billion bears knocking around, we would immediately take steps to reduce their numbers and decry their depredations on the vegetation and other biomass.

Maybe we need a fresh look at what are ‘healthy’ numbers, both too small AND too big!

Submitted by Robert Burton on

As usual, I agree with John’s ‘pearls’. As I recall, the original RDBs allowed some prioritisation of conservation resources and presumably helped fund-raising, and were a general ‘concentrating the mind’ on what needed to be done. So they had a pragmatic use which seems to have evolved into “angels on pinheads” dsicussions.
When, about 30 years ago, I was employed to compile RDB sheets for an obscure collection of little fishes living in the Colorado River, the scheme had developed well beyond the original ‘rule of thumb’ summaries that John describes. I can’t remember how many weeks I was employed to research the history, biology and conservation, with full bibliography dating back a century, for these fishes. Apart from moving my fincancial standing from Vulnerable to Least Concern, I didn’t see that anything was achieved that was not already known to the American ichthyologists/conservationists who were were directly concerned with these species.
However, I rather disagree with John’s comments about the southern right whale. Since the covert hunting by the Soviets ended, it has bounced back quite well. So it is of Least Concern compared with some other cetacean species or populations which are in a bad way. If whaling were to resume without adequate safeguards, then surely it should be easy to change the species’ listing to help draw attention to its plight.
There again, we forget just how enormously abundant many animals once were – see “The unnatural history of the sea” by Callum Roberts. My own favourite example is the 18th century farmer who emplyed a man to extract sticklebacks from the River Welland to spread on the land as manure. The man earned 4 shillings a day at a rate of 1/2 penny a bushel. Translated, this is 500,000 sticklebacks a day. I would like to know how many days he was employed for! The three-spined stickleback is listed as of Least Concern but this anecdote gives a new perspective.
However, being able to downlist (yuk) a species does show that sometimes conservation efforts are not in vain and so raise the morale of the troops.

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