We all remember learning at school about a massive asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out the terrifying T-Rex and the cunning Velociraptor, right? That was one of the ‘Big Five” dramatic changes that led to major mass extinctions.
Today we are about to witness the Sixth one.
The scientists of the UN Environment Programme estimate that 150-200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly a thousand times the “natural” or “background” rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs.
Anthony Barnosky, palaeontologist and professor of Biology at Stanford University, is quite straightforward about it: “Look around you. Kill half of what you see. Or, if you’re feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see. That’s what we are talking about”.
Tigers, polar bears or pandas are just the main symbols of endangered species, yet many more less known and less “cute” species are under threat. For example no group of animals has a higher rate of endangerment than amphibians. Their current extinction rate is forty-five times the background extinction rate. Basically they are set to go the way of the dodo and these losses are being recorded everywhere.
Biologists estimate that at this rate the vast majority of the species on earth today will be gone by the end of the century.
“If half the animals died in London zoo next week it would be front page news. But that is happening in the great outdoors.” Ken Norris
Edward O. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and professor emeritus at Harvard University, explains the agents of extinction are not only human-caused but also synergistic. This means that if one intensifies, the others intensify as well.
What are these agents?
Conservation scientists often use the acronym HIPPO to summarize in order of magnitude of impact the many threats to biodiversity today.
- Habitat destruction, including the one caused by climate change: the main sites of biodiversity loss are the tropical forests and coral reefs; the most vulnerable habitats of all are rivers, streams and lakes;
- Invasive species: some non-native plants and animals can take over the ecosystem, harming native wildlife and vegetation;
- Pollution: the discharge of harmful substances resulting from human activity into the environment can kill life, especially in rivers and other freshwater ecosystems;
- Population growth: reproduction is obviously necessary but, as Pope Francis I pointed out, it is not a good idea to breed “like rabbits”;
- Overhunting and overfishing: targeted hunting, gathering, or fishing as well as incidental harvesting can drive target species to extinction.
WE STOP IT?
Organisms around us are the results of 3.8 billion years of evolution and natural selection. This means that very few species can be eliminated without having any impact on the surrounding flora and fauna.
By causing the extinction of other species, “we are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on” states Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich.
We are not talking about something that will take place in a distant future. It is the future of today’s children at stake.
This should be enough reason to urge action, yet should you need more evidence consider the following. As stated by UN biodiversity Chief Ahmed Djoghlaf “the loss of biodiversity compounds poverty. Destroy your nature and you increase poverty and insecurity”. By way of example, US experts have calculated that a single colony of 150 bats in Indiana can eat each year nearly 1.3 million insects that are agricultural pests. Their value can be estimated around 23 million U.S. dollars a year and up to 53 million U.S. dollars in terms of savings coming from unused pesticides and saved crops.
WHERE SHOULD WE ACT?
The amount of suitable habitat left to a species largely determines its survival so if biodiversity is to be saved, the global conservation effort must be raised to a new level.
A reduction in the area results in a fraction of the species disappearing in time by roughly the fourth root of the area. Basically if we cut 90% of a forest, half of the species living there are bound to be lost.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the protected-area system in the world occupied less than 15% of the Earth’s land area and 3% of the ocean area. This is clearly not enough. As stated by a great number of renowned biologists the area covered by inviolable natural reserves needs to be increased to half the surface of the Earth.
Edward O. Wilson, who first suggested this, wrote to eighteen of the world’s senior naturalists asking them to name the best places in the world “on the basis of richness, uniqueness and most in need of research and protection”.
The results are on the right.
Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle has founded Mission Blue, a project that aims at raising public awareness about a number of places that are critical to the health of the ocean.
The Hope Spots, as they are called, “all provide hope due to a special abundance or diversity of species, unusual or representative species, habitats or ecosystems; particular populations of rare, threatened or endemic species; potential to reverse damage from negative human impacts; presence of natural processes such as major migration corridors or spawning grounds; significant historical, cultural or spiritual values; particular economic importance to the community.”
Thanks to the effort of many people around the world and the supervision of the experts of the Hope Spots Council, around a hundred ocean sites in need of protection have been identified. On Mission Blue you can find a direct link to Google Earth where each site comes with detailed explanations.
1. The Redwood Forests of California
2. The longleaf pine savanna of the southeastern United States
3. The Madrean pine-oak woodlands
4. Cuba and Hispaniola
South and Central America
5. The Amazon river basin
6. The Guiana shield
7. The Tepuis
8. Greater Manù region of Peru
9. Cloud and summit forests of Central America and Northern Andes
11. The Atlantic forests of South America
12. The Cerrado
13. The Pantanal
14. The Galapagos Islands
15. Bialowieza Forest, Poland and Belarus
16. Lake Baikal, Russian Siberia
Africa and Madagascar
17. The Orthodox Church Forests of Ethiopia
19. The Serengeti grassland ecosystem
20. Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
21. South Africa
22. Forests of the Congo basin
23. The Atewa forest, Ghana
25. The Altai Mountains
27. The Western Ghats of India
Australia and Melanesia
30. Scrubland of Southwest Australia
31. The Kimberley region of Northwest Australia
32. The Gibber plains
33. New Guinea
34. New Caledonia
35. McMurdo Dry Valley
WHAT CAN WE DO?
This problem is too large and complex to be tackled as individuals, it needs to be addressed collectively as members of a community. It is not enough to simply worry about it: we need to take concerted action.
The first and main step is to stop thinking that the protection of the flora and the fauna is somebody else’s responsibility.
How to get started:
Creating pressure groups and communities for the creation of protected areas;
Spending own time to assist in existing local projects supporting fauna under threat in your area;
Donating to trustworthy associations;
Raising your voice against governments’ inertia in creating new protected areas;
Considering creating new natural reserves wherever the land offers good potential for the local flora and fauna. Streams and small-to-medium size bodies of water, as well as reproduction and wintering areas are especially vulnerable.
Can Elon Musk endorse this incredible challenge?
Will he help us reach the goal of creating new reserves and sanctuaries across the land and the sea?
There’s only one way to find out: #askelon
As a matter of fact history shows that many large conservation programmes have arisen from a personal battle.
It often starts with just a few individuals, or even only one, placing the biggest bet of their lives and risking failure in order to follow their calling. And finally making their vision reality.
Among them are M.C. Davis, who restored to life the Florida Panhandle or Gregory C.Carr, who devoted his life to restoring the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. And Stephen Mather, thanks to whom the National Park Service was created in the U.S in 1916.
The scale of the challenge is huge: new messengers, as well as new messages, are needed.
Become one of this messenger: help us reach him.