There are between 5 and 15 million species of animals, micro-organisms and plants on the planet Earth and only 1.5 million species have been identified, named and described yet. We have around 300,000 species of plants, 4-8 million insects and approximately 50,000 vertebrates- of which 10,000 are birds. Three-quarters of the total land of Earth has been significantly affected by human activities while 300 mammal species have been “eaten into extinction” by humans. According to the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN), about 23% of mammals and 12% of birds are threatened that refers to 1,130 species of mammals and 1,194 species of birds respectively. Freshwater habitats have been hit the worst with the population collapsed by 83%. The urbanization and development of human beings have been nourished and fueled by gluttonous and selfish deeds like unsustainable use of natural resources, land conversion, hunting and poaching of animals for valuables causing pollution, natural habitat loss, invasive alien species, and wildlife population decline or extinction.
In this huge, diverse and complex world, where scientists have a better understanding and information about the number of stars in the galaxy than the number of species on the planet, the absolute understanding of the degree of loss that we are facing in terms of biodiversity is beyond our capability. Almost all of us have seen images depicting prairies with massive herds of bison that have gone extinct, flocks of birds that are dramatically declining in number and beautiful intimidating animals like giraffes, elephants and whales who are still in danger of getting extinct. We have cherished the memories of sounds of frogs croaking at night, birds chirping and visiting the backyard, bats flying around at dusk and the signal of an abundance of insects in the form of the windshield of cars covered up with dead insects that is a rare phenomenon now. The beaches are now witnessing dead whales, dolphins and other fish that once used to school and shoal together. The driving process of the extinction is a combined effort of habitat loss, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation (roads and dams), habitat degradation (pollution and invasive species), overexploitation of species, climate change, cultivation of crops, overfishing and many more in the list.
Nature contributes to the wellbeing of human beings both culturally as well as spiritually through the production of the food we eat, the clean water we drink and the energy that drives our lives. The climate is regulated and the atmosphere and temperature are suitably balanced on only Earth and it is shocking how badly we are taking all of it for granted without thinking twice.
An eye-opener fact for a better perspective of the matter, illustrating the degree of loss found through scientific analysis by the experts is that the loss of species we are facing in the present time is estimated to be 1,000-10,000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction and a single species- ours- is almost wholly responsible for the current extinction challenge unlike the “Big Five” known mass extinction events or waves in the geological history- Ordovician-Silurian extinction events (450-440 million years ago) that killed 60-70% of all species, Late Devonian extinction (375-360 million years ago) that killed 70% of all species, Permian-Triassic extinction event (252 million years ago) that killed 90-96% of all species, Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (201.3 million years ago) that killed 70-75% species that became extinct and Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (66 million years ago) that killed 75% of all species that became extinct. Many scientists believe that the sixth mass extinction has begun and is being led by Homo sapiens. It is heart-wrenching but a fact that since the dawn of the civilization, the humankind has destroyed 83% of the mammals, the wildlife crash is alarming and almost half of the plants on the planet. Even if the destruction is brought to end, the severe damage has been done and if given chance, it would take almost 5-7million years for nature to recover now.
“Humanity wiped out about 60% of the total animal population, since 1970”
Annihilation of the wildlife is an emergency threatening the civilization as warned by the world’s foremost experts. Human society depends on the web of life for water, clean air, shelter, food etc. yet the huge massacre of wildlife because of the growing needs and consumption of resources and food by billions for so many years is an obstacle caused by humans that is standing in their way now.
Mike Barrett, an executive director of science and conservation at WWF said that it is devastating that we are jeopardizing our future because nature is not an option or a “nice to have” alternative, it is our necessity that supports life. The scale of the destruction we have caused for the wildlife in our terms is equivalent to emptying Africa, Europe, China, North America, South America and Oceania as in 60% decline in the human population, which is alarmingly disastrous.
The industrialization and chemical pollution caused by human activities have resulted in the doomed population of the world’s killer whale because of the contamination. The worst affected regions are South and Central America with 89% of the drop in the population of vertebrates driven by the massive deforestation in the wildlife-rich forest. There is a direct link between the depletion of wildlife and our food system and requirements- the meat we eat, the pollution caused by our activities in the name of development, our overflowing population, the enormous thirst of building more and more dams and acquiring land for agriculture pushing nature to the brink.
Each species that goes extinct, causes the world around us to unravel a little. The extinction of wildlife makes our home planet lonelier and a colder place for us as well as the future generations and the tangible consequences of the same are profound for all of us in the form of crop pollination, water purification and the cultural or spiritual loss. The deafening noise and rush of the modern lifestyle has made people retain the emotional connection to the world out there.
Every taxon in trouble
Of the (roughly estimated) 6,300 known Amphibian species, a third or more of the total population is at the risk of extinction. Amphibians have the highest rate of endangerment. The extinction rate may range from 25,039 to 45,474 times the background rate. The salamanders, toads and frogs are all disappearing with time because of the loss of habitat, water and air pollution, exotic species and many more reasons. They are sensitive to the change in environment and the vanishing amphibians signal the radial ecosystem changes.
Birds are the most familiar and visible wildlife across the globe, occurring in all the habitats across the planet. The decline in the bird population is a wake-up call that all the habitats are now confirming the profound environmental changes occurring in the world and its effect. According to Birdlife International, an estimated 12% of the known 9,865 bird species are threatened while 192 species (2%) are facing “extremely high” extinction risk as a result of degradation and habitat loss.
The increasing number of dams being constructed by humans, accumulating pollutants, invasive species and the never-ending demand for water- a non-renewable resource, has made aquatic ecosystems one of the most threatened ones on the planet. In both marine as well as freshwater habitats, several fish species are endangered. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 21% of all fish species that is 1,851 fish species were at the risk of extinction in 2010. In North American marine waters alone, around 82 species are already imperiled and so are the 700 freshwater species.
Notably, significant invertebrates are estimated to account for almost 97% of the total species of animals on our planet, along with a lot of diversity ranging from butterflies to earthworms and their total number is still not known. According to IUCN, about 30% of the species out of the 1.3 million known species of invertebrates are at a risk of extinction. A large number has already become endangered or extinct because of the destruction of the tropical rainforests. Moreover, the reef-building corals are declining at an alarmingly high rate and a third of them are threatened as told by the 2008’s comprehensive global assessment.
The majority of the primates, that consist of lemurs, monkeys, lorids, apes etc., 90% of whom are living in the quickly disappearing tropical forests, are severely endangered. According to IUCN, an estimated 50% of the total number of primate species are at extinction risk. Around 5,491 mammals that are half of their global population, are going through a decline in their populations, a fifth are at risk of vanishing forever and 1,131 mammals are classified as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. Marine mammals- dolphins, whales and porpoises- are quickly slipping toward extinction.
IUCN estimated that 21% (594 species) of the evaluated reptiles were deemed vulnerable, threatened and endangered. In the United States itself, about 32 reptile species that constitute about 9% of the total, are deemed to be at risk. Since 1600, around 28 island reptiles have died out thus the island reptiles have been hit very hard. The main threats are habitat destruction, invasion of alien or nonnative species preying on the reptiles by competing for habitat and food and the island-style extinction that is the result of human activities like creating “virtual islands” by fragmenting continental habitats thus isolating species hindering interbreeding and thus their population.
The foundation of our life on the planet, the source of food, oxygen, medicines and many more valuables are also threatened. Unlike fauna, the flora cannot move or migrate as their habitat is destroyed and that makes them even more vulnerable to the danger. Global warming is also contributing its share in substantially exacerbating the problem as increasing temperatures cause dramatic changes in the distribution and range of the plants. There are more than 300,000 species of plants all around the globe and IUCN stated that 68% of the evaluated plant species- 12,914 species, were found to be approaching the level of extinction. The backbone of ecosystems and food chain is at risk therefore our food, shelter and survival is at risk as well.
The beautiful creatures in need of our help
Mountain gorillas and Cross River gorillas are critically endangered animals since 1996 and only 200-300 Cross River Gorillas and 900 Mountain Gorillas are left in the wild. Amur Leopard is classified as critically endangered since 1996 with less than 70 left. It is killed for the beautiful fur and its habitat has been destroyed by human settlement. Sea turtles, Orangutans, Sumatran elephants, Saola, Vaquita, Pangolin, Tiger, Rhinos and many more are on the list of endangered species. While West African Black Rhinoceros, Baiji White Dolphins, Pyrenean Ibex, Passenger Pigeon, Tasmanian Tiger, Great Auk, Dodo, Saber-toothed cat, Woolly Mammoth and many more are nothing more than a memory now as they got extinct and almost all of us know who is to be blamed.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) did a global assessment and presented an overwhelming ominous picture that the health of the ecosystem is deteriorating very rapidly eroding the foundations of economies, health, livelihoods and quality of life all over the world yet it is still not too late to buckle up and make a difference. The report was compiled by around 145 expert authors from fifty different countries and the inputs were made by 310 contributing authors, assessing the changes over five decades and the relationship between the pathways of economic development and their impact on nature. The life-supporting safety net of humanity has been stretched to almost the breaking point.
The authors, based on available evidences, have ranked in descending order, the five culprits or the drivers of changes in nature as changes in the sea and land use, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. Yet, as the emission of greenhouse gas has double since 1980, and average global competition has elevated by 0.7 degrees Celsius (approximately), the report states that the impact due to climate change is likely to increase over coming decades and may surpass the impact of sea and land use also. The report also speculated that the global goals for conserving the nature are very difficult to be met by the current level and trajectories. Apparently, the goals of 2030 could only be achieved by a transformative change across social, economic, political and technological factors. The negative trends are on their way to undermine the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals about hunger, poverty, health, cities, water, climate, land and oceans. Thus, it is not only an environmental issue but also a security, social, moral, developmental and economic issue.
Notable findings of the report-
- Human actions alter and influence 66% of the marine environment and three-quarters of the land-based environment.
- 75% of the freshwater resources and more than the third portion of the land on the planet is devoted to livestock or crop.
- US$577 billion are at risk due to the pollination loss and reduced land productivity (23%) and between 100-300 million people are on the verge of becoming victims of hurricanes and floods due to the loss of coastal habitat.
- Urban areas are more than doubled as compared to 1992.
- Plastic pollution increased tenfold since 1980, between 300-400 million tons of solvents, heavy metals, toxic sludge and waste from industries are annually dumped in the water.
- In coastal ecosystems, fertilizers have produced more than 400 oceanic ‘dead zones’.
- The native species population has fallen by 20% in major land-based habitats, since 1900.
- Since 1970, the alien invasion species number, across 21 countries, has risen by 70%.
- The loss of wetlands is three times faster than forest loss in terms of percentage- more than 85% of wetlands present in 1700 have been lost by the year 2000.
- Reduction in global terrestrial habitat integrity by 30% due to deterioration and habitat loss.
- 300% increase in the production of food crops since the year 1970.
- Since 1990, 290 million hectare of native forest cover has been lost by 2015 due to wood harvesting and clearing.
- Since 1970, a 105% increase has been seen in the global human population.
- More than 80% of global untreated wastewater is discharged into the environment.
The report also presented several illustrative wide range of actions for achieving sustainability highlighting the importance of adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approach- the trade-offs of the energy and food production, freshwater, infrastructure, biodiversity conservation and coastal management. The evolution of the global financial and economic system is the key element of sustainable future policies.
The initiatives, policy tools and practices emphasized in the report
- Raising awareness by societal initiatives about the impact of human activities on nature and promoting sustainable development by working together at various levels to expand and strengthen the network.
- In agriculture, multifunctional landscape planning and cross-sectoral integrated management that provide food security, maintenance of species and sustainable livelihood opportunities. It also points out the importance of deeper engagement of producers, consumers, civil society, the public sector; better watershed management, reformed supply chains, market transparency and reduced food wastage.
- For marine systems, protecting the key marine biodiversity areas, reducing pollution and spatial planning with consumers and producers working closely.
- For freshwater systems, collaborative water management, reducing soil erosion, increasing water storage, addressing the fragmentation of water bodies and investment in water projects.
- In urban areas, improving access to green spaces, promoting nature-based solutions, ecological connectivity, sustainable consumption and production.
Amidst all the horrific facts, lies the ray of hope and sunshine as well. The silver lining lies in the fact that far-reaching, selfless and courageous conservation efforts work if we are determined enough. The number of tigers has risen by 20% in India while the otters in the UK, the Giant pandas in China are also doing better than before now as human beings started protecting the habitat.
The wildly successful Endangered Species Act
It is the strongest law passed by any nation for the protection of the biodiversity and to prevent the extinction of the wildlife at risk by eventually removing them from the list of endangered species after full recovery. It protects 1,600 plant species and animal species today in the US and its territories and is keeping hundreds of species protected from extinction and many are under-recovery.
- This act has prevented extinction for almost 99% of the species under its protection between 1973-2013.
- More than 90% recovery rate shows by the act in more than 100 species throughout the US.
- Poll proven strong support from people- 2 out of 3 Americans want the act to be strengthened or not altered.
The Aleutian Canada goose was once driven extinct by fox in Alaska and hunting in Oregon and California- added as an endangered species in the list in 1967. Nonnative fox populations in Alaska, nesting habitat, migration habitat in Oregon and California were controlled and the population of these geese jumped from 790 in 1975 to more than 60,000 in 2005- declared recovered and removed from the list in 2001.
In the early 1900s the US was home to more than 5 million black-footed ferrets but they were almost wiped out in the early 20th century after prairie dog population-their meal, was devastated due to rodent poisons and a result of agricultural development. They were listed as endangered in 1967 and were thought to be extinct in North America yet a relic population was found in Wyoming in 1981 that was taken for captive-raising and now there are about 1,410 black-footed ferrets living there.
South Florida was the breeding ground for thousands of American crocodiles in pre-Columbian days yet by 1975, hunting for skin, sport and over-collection for museums reduced their numbers to almost 200. Eight years after the Endangered Species Act protection, the population returned to the historic range- 2,085 in 2005.
2020 UN Biodiversity Conference was scheduled between 15-28 October 2020 in Yunnan, China, but it stands postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The purpose of the crunch meeting was that new commitments are supposed to be taken for the protection of nature by the nations all over the world because we have a very narrow window of a couple of year tops, to get things back on track.
As the outbreak of the coronavirus unleashed havoc and COVID-19 started spreading across the globe putting the lives of thousands of humans at stake and locking the rest of them inside their homes, worried about themselves and their families, this outrage of nature seems like a payback for the thousands of lives that human beings took selfishly, leaving some endangered while some eventually getting wiped off the planet or extinct. Human activities like hunting, urbanization, habitat degradation, trade etc. facilitate close contact between human beings and wildlife, an association based on pure greed and selfish purposes. This brings us to a question- Can environmental change be connected to the infectious disease taking the lives of thousands of people? According to a new study funded by the National Institute of Health and the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threat PREDICT Program, published from the University of California, Davis’ One Health Institute, the answer is yes. The activities that have contributed to the declining wildlife population and extinction, are the same activities that assess virus spillover risk and enable transmission of animal viruses to human beings.
According to the lead author Christine Kreuder Johnson, the director of Epicenter for Disease Dynamics at One Health Institute, the spillover is a result of our activities affecting the wildlife and their habitats. The consequence of threatening them is that they are now sharing their viruses with human beings. Due to the unfortunate convergence of multiple factors, we are now stuck in this coronavirus mess that has been fueled by our actions. This study was done by the scientists working on a large sample of almost 142 known viruses that have spilled over from the animals to human beings and the underlying connection between the potential hosts. A pattern was examined in the extinction risks and causes for species declines in them. The findings of this study include-
- Domestic animals and livestock share (the highest) eight times more zoonotic viruses with human beings, as compared to the wild mammals, due to the close interaction for centuries.
- Wild animals like bats, rodents etc. living near homes, around farms and crops, have abundantly increased and adapted to the environment thus sharing a high number of viruses.
Moreover, the threatened endangered species, who are the victims of hunting, poaching, trade and deteriorating habitat quality, host twice the number of zoonotic viruses and transmit them into human beings. These species, being highly managed and monitored directly by humans, puts them in greater contact and easier measures to transmit the viruses. Bats have been implicated repeatedly as a source of the “high consequence” pathogen because of the multiple lethal viruses like SARS, Marburg virus, ebolaviruses, Nipah virus etc.
The coronavirus pandemic is having a dramatic impact on animals-
- Poaching of Black Rhinos in Botswana and wild cats in Columbia.
- A tiger turned out to be a confirmed coronavirus case in New York.
- Humans self-isolating and wildlife roaming free and taking on the streets.
- New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society urging government to ban live markets thus stopping trafficking and poaching of animals.
- Ban on farming and consumption of live wildlife expected to become a new law.
If we do not address both the ecosystem and climate, it is very difficult for us to have a sustainable future on the only planet where life exists- Earth; and coronavirus pandemic has shown us how our world and environment is supposed to be if the human beings and their greed don’t meddle- green, clean and animals wandering because it is their home as well.
The activities and interaction between wildlife and human beings need attention and are a matter of concern because of the alarming situation that we ended up in highlighting the need of finding ways to co-exist safely with the wildlife and not invite pandemics of this scale as there is no shortage of viruses.
“The current generation knows the severity of the destruction of our planet, its wildlife, and nature. We probably also might be the last generation that could do anything about it.”