Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
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.