Thursday, May 6

The Extinctions according to Richard Leakey

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Richard Leakey began his talk with “this is going to depress you” and he didn’t disappoint. Leakey described his house on Lamu island, where the water’s edge remained several feet away from the gate, even at the highest spring tide for years. Nowadays, it comes up one feet up the gate. The polar ice sheets are melting due to warmer temperatures, raising sea levels. All habitats have changed, perhaps only in the very deep sea, will creatures not be affected. Most of the world’s sea ports will go. So effective has the manipulation of information been that even when Al Gore lost the US presidency and made the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, governments and corporations were unable to halt the cogs that they had put into place.

The horticulturists in Kenya were already telling us to plant succulents as an adaption to long droughts that were eminent. Even today, some important people are still denying climate change. Which Leakey said was just “stupid”.

Leakey went on to say that in his book “The Sixth Extinction”, he got the blame wrong, missing out climate change caused by humans as the major cause. An extinction being when a massive amount of biodiversity is lost in a very short time.

In the Earth’s 4.6 billion year history, there have been five major extinctions.

The first was the Ordovician mass extinction, about 440 million years ago, of the Paleozic Era when 85% of species were eliminated due to continental drift and subsequent climate change.

The second – Devonian Mass Extinction came next in the Devonian period of the Paleozoic era, some 375 million years ago. 80% of all living creatures were eliminated by a lack of oxygen in the oceans, fast cooling of air, volcanic eruptions and maybe meteor strikes.

The Permian mass extinction of the Paleozoic era was third and happened 250 million years ago, killing off 96% of earth’s species. The cause is thought to have been asteroid strikes, volcanic activity, climate change and microbes.

The fourth was the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction of the Mesozoic era, which took place about 200 million years ago. 50% of species were lost. Major volcanic activity, basalt floods, climate change, changing levels and pH of sea water is thought to be the cause.

Finally, the fifth K-T mass extinction, which is known best of all, for wiping out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period of the Mezoic era, about 75% of all species were eliminated due to extreme asteroid or meteor impact.

We are in the midst of the Sixth mass extinction, the Halocene or Anthropocene extinction right now known to be caused primarily by human population growth and increasing per capita consumption. All our modern needs, emit carbon and other and green house gas emissions into the atmosphere and into the seas, which are suffering due to over fishing and from massive plastic pollution as well.

Food on land, Leakey claims has been affected by excess atmospheric carbon the most, with tubers storing and becoming the most toxic. Yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, taro, carrots are all affected. And, the toxins cannot be got removed even by boiling.

In a moment of dark humor, he looked around the room and said “I see prominent conservationists in the room, Cynthia Moss and Paula Kahumba …“are they just pissing in the wind?”

He did offer a glimmer of hope when he said education was the key to arresting further disasters even though it will not get us out of trouble in the near term. Educate you staff, use electrical cars, solar and wind power, he urged. Then he brought up a controversial idea that most environmentalists believe will change the social behavior of animals. He said to conserve wild species, parks should be intensely managed. That would mean fencing, watering plants and perhaps even feeding living things to ensure their survival.

Richard Leakey was instrumental in ensuring that the new train tracks that run through Nairobi National Park were elevated to provide corridors for animals to continue grazing, hunting, breeding and avoiding collisions.

The other problem Leakey highlighted was corruption. The locust infestation is being treated with pesticides that are making the food crops that are being sprayed inedible. There is an organisation, known as the Desert Locust Control Organisation of East Africa, which was unable to do its work due to lack of funding.

If the correct pesticide had been sourced in time, the second stage, when the nymphs hatch, would have been controlled and the effects of the swarms, would be much less devastating.

This last information I get from Cynthis Moss with whom I’m sharing a morning coffee.

I also pick the brains of Delta Willis, conservationist and travel writer, who has attended both Leakey’s Nairobi lectures. And she tells me that it is possible for people to change their attitudes towards consumption and invest in renewable energies. The government of Kenya has floated a green bond.

Richard Leakey started out as a safari guide then became director of Kenya Wildlife Services where he is known for his reforms. He was also Cabinet Secretary, having founded the Safina party in 2007.

The Leakey’s including Richard’s parents Louis and Mary, and Richard’s wife Meave, worked as archaeologists and fossil hunters in Olduvai gorge and the Lake Turkana basin in the 1960s and 1970s, their work cemente d Africa as the cradle of mankind.


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