LITTLE DO WE KNOW

Scientists are meant to know everything there is to know about life on Earth. But what if we don’t know everything? What if we are just scratching the surface of ecological knowledge, asks Penny Banham, Born Free’s Conservation Projects Officer? 

The job of a conservation scientist is to answer questions about population sizes, species geographic locations and habitat types, animal behaviour, threats, feeding ecology, movement patterns and even the genome of species. Whilst these questions may seem simple or basic, they are incredibly difficult to answer. 

In November 2017, scientists revealed the significant discovery of a new species of great ape – the Tapanuli orangutan living in a single high-elevation forest called Batang Toru on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. There are only as few as 800 individuals remaining in three to four populations.

But what if scientists hadn't made this discovery? If researchers had not studied the genome of the Tapanuli orangutan and recognised their distinctiveness, the loss of the population could have spelled a silent extinction. With this discovery, these orangutans can be afforded greater protection.  

Similarly, a joint expedition organised by Born Free and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, led by lion biologist Dr Hans Bauer, confirmed the presence of a lion population, previously unknown to science, in a huge remote and hardly ever visited area.

The discovery, in 2016, found that approximately 100-200 lions may live in the area, which stretches across Dinder National Park in Sudan, and Alatash National Park in Ethiopia. This ground-breaking discovery has bolstered conservation efforts for lions in this area, providing much needed funds and resources where none had been previously. 

But these two discoveries were for large, charismatic species, which are relatively easy to find and study. What about the seven to eight million species that are still unknown to science? These are mostly the little things; rare lepidoptera, hydrothermal bacteria, exotic amphibia, tiny crustacean, and so on. Just under two million species are known to science.

Furthermore, scientists can only approximate the likely total number of species in the world, which means estimates of the number of species still waiting to be described could be way off. Put simply – we do not know what we do not know. Our knowledge about the majority of life on Earth is surprisingly limited, even for the large and charismatic species such as the Tapanuli orangutans or the lions in Ethiopia and Sudan.

But why are our knowledge systems somewhat lacking? Ultimately, the dearth comes back to a lack of funding and expertise. Where investment goes, knowledge follows. For example, space exploration programmes have been immensely well funded historically, which means, as NASA scientists have previously stated, the surface of Mars is better mapped than our own oceans. Additionally, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to build these knowledge systems. Discoveries such as the lion population in Dinder-Alatash require many boots on the ground and hours of painstaking work. This work can then be hampered by the elusiveness of the study species and the challenging conditions of being in the field. The technology required to collect and analyse data can also be prohibitive. 

The world is a vast and understudied place, but scientists are ever inching closer towards filling the gaps in our knowledge. With approximately one million species threatened with extinction in the next few decades, it is a race against time to make these discoveries before it is too late. 

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