29 February 2012

Humanity goes humongous

Q: What do 700 gorillas look like? A: Much smaller than us.


2011 will be a big year for the human race; a real whopper in fact. In a couple of months, world population will reach 7 billion. A bumper crop, as never before seen in history.

It's a sign of our species' hubris that the term “world population” refers to just the population of Homo sapiens, as if the world were populated by us alone.

Human population figures are familiar to us – I can reel off Cape Town's (3 million), South Africa's (50 million), USA's (300 million), China and India's (2.5 billion), and that monster 7 billion total.

But I'm ashamed to say I had to look up the population stats of other species, even of Earth's most iconic animals.

It was a dismal exercise. Here's a sampling of what's left of some of our best-beloved beasts:

  • Mountain gorillas 700+
  • Tigers (all species): 3200
  • Giant pandas: 2500-
  • White rhinos: 10 000+
  • Blue whales: 10 000-25000
  • Polar bears: 20 000-25000

At first glance, these figures don't seem all that desperate. 25 000 polar bears seems like a fair whack of polar bears. 

But consider that, on my desolate little list, there are no figures in the millions. There is no great nation of blue whales, no city of tigers. All the mountain gorillas left in the world would only populate a small town.

Some of our fellow-creatures have no such diminished numbers. Take a look at these by comparison:

  • Pigs: 1 billion+
  • Sheep: 1 billion+
  • Cattle: 1.4 billion+

And the winner is....

  • Chickens: 19 billion+

I am very fond of all the abovementioned domesticated species, and long may they endure – but preferably at rather more modest levels of increase.

They are flourishing (in numerical terms), through no fault of their own, because of their utilitarian value to the master species. These grotesquely swollen livestock populations are an extension and function of our own unchecked propagation.

Such numbers also illustrate an important aspect of human overpopulation: it's not just that there are too many of us, but that some of us demand and over-consume too many resources.

The figure that struck me with greatest force, however, was one of the smallest: those 700-odd extant mountain gorillas. Not only because their number is so painfully low, but also because it is more or less divisible into ours:

700 gorillas
7000 000 000 humans

So if there were to be a war between these two great ape species (one might easily argue it's already being waged), we'd outnumber them on the battlefield by 10 million to 1.

If, like me, you're a reasonably intelligent, literate person who doesn't work with stats on a daily basis, you're probably also woefully innumerate. Most of us have only the haziest sense of what 10 million people means, never mind 7 billion.

To better numerically comprehend the dwindling ranks of other species compared with the terrifying expansion of ours, I wanted to know what 7 billion against 700 looked like, and then depict it effectively, somehow, here for you.

After some fiddling on the calculator, and an ambitious but foolish project that involved copying and pasting thousands of full-stops on Word to represent members of the human race, this is my best effort: 

Have a look at the full-stop at the end of this sentence. The full-stop represents 700 mountain gorillas. Now imagine a novel (one of those fat airport bestsellers), with every page printed full of full-stops, row after row of them. The novel represents the 7 billion of us of course, and I'm not at all sure it's going to have a happy ending.

Unless we change it. Given half a chance, conservation does actually work. Bloodied and beleagured by poaching though they may be, white rhinos, for example, are still one of the success stories, wrenched back from the abyss of extinction in the 1900s, when they numbered a paltry few hundred.

And as for that lonely small town of mountain gorillas, with intensive conservation care their numbers are now reported to be inching towards 800.

But if we want their stories and all the unique, extraordinary, irreplaceable others to continue, it'll take more than writing and reading and talking about them. So I'm going to shut up now, and leave you with a few links, for Doing:

Mountain gorillas
Polar bears

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, August 2011

Apologies if your favourite animal isn't on the list. That doesn't mean it's any less valuable, to me or the world. Some ecologists may say I've focused too much on the "big cuddlies" here, but these naturally appealing, charismatic creatures help keep us emotionally engaged with environmental issues. In a poll conducted by Animal Planet, tigers topped the faves list, with elephants, dogs, horses, lions, chimpanzees, orangutans, whales, dolphins and snakes also voted into the top ten by thousands of adoring human fans.

Read more
Nature: who needs it?
How many kids are too many?
Hello, 7 billion


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