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Mammal gamble

A quarter of the world's wild mammals face extinction. But decline is not inevitable.

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The world's most comprehensive study of mammals in the wild reveals that at least a quarter of species risk extinction. A staggering 79 percent of apes and monkeys in regions of Asia, for instance, face such danger. But while this study may be alarming, it need not come across like an alarmist.

True, hundreds of mammal species could disappear "within our lifetime," according to Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the Geneva-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which last week released a study of 5,487 species identified since 1500.

In the intervening centuries, 76 mammal species have become extinct, according to IUCN estimates. But the stepped-up pace of habitat loss (through human settlement, logging, and agriculture) – plus overhunting, overfishing, and pollution – are accelerating the decline among a swath of species, from hippos to bears to tapirs. Regions of Asia, Africa, and South America are especially affected.

Complicating the picture are the unknown effects of climate change on land and ocean habitat. Will species adapt? Or will global warming simply prove too much for some?

And yet, extinction is not inevitable. At least 5 percent of the IUCN's currently "threatened" species now have stable or rising populations – the result of conservation efforts. African elephants are rebounding, for instance. In the United States, the black-footed ferret has become a poster animal for successful intervention and cooperation between government and scientists.

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