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No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species    by Richard Ellis order for
No Turning Back
by Richard Ellis
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Richard Ellis, author of The Empty Ocean, now brings us a comprehensive, and very disturbing, treatise on 'The Life and Death of Animal Species'. He begins way back in prehistory under the heading 'Where Did Everybody Go?', examining different theories for the cause of mass extinctions, such as those in the Pleistocene period. Ellis then moves forward to look at species lost in the last millennium, and those currently on the brink, on land and ocean. Interspersed through the book, and adding greatly to the interest, are black and white sketches of creatures mentioned.

Ellis introduces extinction as 'one of the most powerful forces on earth and one of the most enigmatic', and indeed there are puzzles a-plenty in this text. Why have mass extinctions happened every 26 million years? How did 'living fossils' like the cockroach and the coelacanth buck the system to survive through the eons? How strong is luck's role in whether a species goes down the drain or keeps on swimming? What killed off Pleistocene populations of large animals in N. and S. America, Eurasia and Australia - hunting, climate change, disease, or all of the above?

Theories of 'hyperdisease pathogens' as agents of destruction are especially chilling, given the speed with which they can spread. The author discusses evidence that tuberculosis killed the mastodons, and that disease is killing frog and toad species around the world today. He raises concerns about 'crossover pathogens' transferred across species boundaries through ecotourism and also via the eating of 'bushmeat' (the recent Ebola outbreak in Gabon and the Congo is mentioned as well as an Ebola scare at Heathrow in the year 2000).

Efforts to rescue endangered species are covered, including back-breeding (the result only looks the same) and cloning, which Ellis sensibly says 'might be a useful tool to forestall extinction, or it may be another wrongheaded attempt to meddle with nature.' Despite the seriousness of topics covered, the author often has a light touch, as in his quote of Fritz Kahn on dinosaurs, 'Grandeur comes and grandeur goes', or a discussion of the ten foot tall, carnivorous, Pleistocene 'demon duck of doom' (in Australia, naturally). He refers to the Dodo as looking like 'something that was supposed to be extinct.' (The accompanying sketch certainly supports that position!)

Ellis concludes with scientists' dire warnings of what all this means for humanity - the title, 'Everybody Off the Train' succinctly conveys the gist of the message. He ends by calling us 'the only species that knows there are such things as evolution and extinction.' I highly recommend No Turning Back to anyone concerned about the future of the planet, and can only hope that our knowledge of this subject is not too little, too late.

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