The age of ex­tinc­tion

An an­i­mal die-off is an ex­is­ten­tial threat to hu­man­ity. Why are we ‘sleep­walk­ing to­wards the edge of a cliff’?

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - By Damian Car­ring­ton and Jonathan Watts

African ele­phant Vul­ner­a­ble

African wild dog En­dan­gered

Al­ba­core tuna Near threat­ened

Amur leop­ard Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Amur tiger En­dan­gered

Asian ele­phant En­dan­gered

Bel­uga Near threat­ened

Ben­gal tiger En­dan­gered

Big­eye tuna Vul­ner­a­ble

Black rhino Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Black spi­der mon­key Vul­ner­a­ble

Black-footed fer­ret En­dan­gered

Blue whale En­dan­gered

Bluefin tuna En­dan­gered

Bonobo En­dan­gered

Bornean orangutan Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Bor­neo pygmy ele­phant En­dan­gered

Chim­panzee En­dan­gered

Cross river go­rilla Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Du­gong Vul­ner­a­ble

East­ern low­land go­rilla Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Fin whale En­dan­gered

For­est ele­phant Vul­ner­a­ble

Galá­pa­gos pen­guin En­dan­gered

Ganges river dol­phin En­dan­gered

Gi­ant panda Vul­ner­a­ble

Gi­ant tor­toise Vul­ner­a­ble

Great white shark Vul­ner­a­ble

Greater one-horned rhino Vul­ner­a­ble

Greater sage-grouse Near threat­ened

Green tur­tle En­dan­gered

Hawks­bill tur­tle Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Hec­tor’s dol­phin En­dan­gered

Hip­popota­mus Vul­ner­a­ble

Hump­head wrasse En­dan­gered

In­dian ele­phant En­dan­gered

In­dochi­nese tiger En­dan­gered

In­dus river dol­phin En­dan­gered

Ir­rawaddy dol­phin En­dan­gered

Jaguar Near threat­ened

Ja­van rhino Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Leatherback tur­tle Vul­ner­a­ble

Log­ger­head tur­tle Vul­ner­a­ble

Malayan tiger Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Ma­rine iguana Vul­ner­a­ble

Moun­tain go­rilla Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Moun­tain plover Near threat­ened

Nar­whal Near threat­ened

North At­lantic right whale En­dan­gered

Olive ri­d­ley tur­tle Vul­ner­a­ble

Orangutan Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Plains bi­son Near threat­ened

Po­lar bear Vul­ner­a­ble

Red panda En­dan­gered

Saola Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Sa­vanna ele­phant Vul­ner­a­ble

Sea lions En­dan­gered

Sea tur­tle Vul­ner­a­ble

Sei whale En­dan­gered

Snow leop­ard Vul­ner­a­ble

South China tiger Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

South­ern rock­hop­per pen­guin Vul­ner­a­ble

Sri Lankan ele­phant En­dan­gered

Su­ma­tran ele­phant Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Su­ma­tran orangutan Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Su­ma­tran­rhino Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered

Hu­man­ity has wiped out 60% of mam­mals, birds, fish and rep­tiles since 1970, lead­ing to ex­perts is­su­ing a warn­ing that the an­ni­hi­la­tion of wildlife is an emer­gency that threat­ens civil­i­sa­tion.

The es­ti­mate of the mas­sacre is made in a ma­jor re­port pro­duced by WWF and in­volv­ing 59 sci­en­tists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and grow­ing con­sump­tion of food and re­sources is de­stroy­ing the web of life, bil­lions of years in the mak­ing, upon which hu­man so­ci­ety ul­ti­mately de­pends for clean air, wa­ter and ev­ery­thing else.

“We are sleep­walk­ing to­wards the edge of a cliff,” said Mike Bar­rett, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of sci­ence and con­ser­va­tion at WWF. “If there was a 60% de­cline in the hu­man pop­u­la­tion, that would be equiv­a­lent to emp­ty­ing North Amer­ica, South Amer­ica, Africa, Europe, China and Ocea­nia. That is the scale of what we have done.”

“This is far more than just be­ing about los­ing the won­ders of na­ture, des­per­ately sad though that is,” he said. “This is ac­tu­ally now jeop­ar­dis­ing the fu­ture of peo­ple. Na­ture is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-sup­port sys­tem.”

“We are rapidly run­ning out of time,” said Prof Jo­han Rock­ström, a global sus­tain­abil­ity ex­pert at the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search in Ger­many. “Only by ad­dress­ing both ecosys­tems and cli­mate do we stand a chance of safe­guard­ing a sta­ble planet for hu­man­ity’s fu­ture on Earth.”

Many sci­en­tists be­lieve the world has be­gun a sixth mass ex­tinc­tion, the first to be caused by a species –

Homo sapi­ens. Other re­cent analy­ses have re­vealed that hu­mankind has de­stroyed 83% of all mam­mals and half of plants since the dawn of civil­i­sa­tion and that, even if the de­struc­tion were to end now, it would take 5-7 mil­lion years for the nat­u­ral world to re­cover.

The Liv­ing Planet In­dex, pro­duced for WWF by the Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don, uses data on 16,704 pop­u­la­tions of mam­mals, birds, fish, rep­tiles and am­phib­ians, rep­re­sent­ing more than 4,000 species, to track the de­cline of wildlife. Be­tween 1970 and 2014, the lat­est data avail­able, pop­u­la­tions fell by an av­er­age of 60%. Four years ago, the de­cline was 52%. The “shock­ing truth”, said Bar­rett, is that the wildlife crash is con­tin­u­ing un­abated.

Wildlife and the ecosys­tems are vi­tal to hu­man life, said Prof Bob Wat­son, the cur­rent chair of an in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal panel on bio­di­ver­sity that said in March that the de­struc­tion of na­ture is as dan­ger­ous as cli­mate change.

“Na­ture con­trib­utes to hu­man well­be­ing cul­tur­ally and spir­i­tu­ally, as well as through the crit­i­cal pro­duc­tion of food, clean wa­ter and en­ergy, and through reg­u­lat­ing the Earth’s cli­mate, pol­lu­tion, pol­li­na­tion and floods,” he said. “The Liv­ing Planet re­port clearly demon­strates that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties are de­stroy­ing na­ture at an un­ac­cept­able rate, threat­en­ing the well­be­ing of cur­rent and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

The big­gest cause of wildlife losses is the de­struc­tion of habi­tats, much of it to cre­ate farm­land. Three-quar­ters of all land on Earth is now sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected by hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. Killing for food is the next big­gest cause – 300 mam­mal species are be­ing eaten into ex­tinc­tion – while the oceans are hugely over­fished.

The worst af­fected re­gion is South and Cen­tral Amer­ica, which has seen an 89% drop in ver­te­brate pop­u­la­tions, largely driven by the felling of vast ar­eas of wildlife-rich for­est. In the trop­i­cal sa­van­nah called cer­rado, an area the size of Greater Lon­don is cleared ev­ery two months, said Bar­rett.

The habi­tats suf­fer­ing the great­est dam­age are rivers and lakes, where wildlife pop­u­la­tions have fallen 83%, due to the thirst of agri­cul­ture and the large num­ber of dams. “Again there is this di­rect link be­tween the food sys­tem and the de­ple­tion of wildlife,” said Bar­rett. Eat­ing less meat is an es­sen­tial part of re­vers­ing losses, he said.

Mean­while, ahead of an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence to dis­cuss the col­lapse of ecosys­tems, the UN’s bio­di­ver­sity chief warned that if a new deal for na­ture wasn’t agreed in the next two years, hu­man­ity could be the first species to doc­u­ment our own ex­tinc­tion.

Cris­tiana Pașca Palmer said peo­ple in all coun­tries need to put pres­sure on their gov­ern­ments to draw up am­bi­tious global tar­gets by 2020 to pro­tect the flora and fauna that

are vi­tal for global food pro­duc­tion, clean wa­ter and car­bon se­ques­tra­tion.

“The loss of bio­di­ver­sity is a silent killer,” she said. “It’s dif­fer­ent from cli­mate change, where peo­ple feel the im­pact in ev­ery­day life. With bio­di­ver­sity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is hap­pen­ing, it may be too late.”

Palmer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the UN Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity. Its 196 mem­ber states will meet in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, this month to start dis­cus­sions on a new frame­work for man­ag­ing the world’s ecosys­tems and wildlife. This will kick off two years of ne­go­ti­a­tions, which Pașca Palmer hopes will cul­mi­nate in an am­bi­tious global deal at the next con­fer­ence in Bei­jing in 2020. De­spite the weak gov­ern­ment re­sponse to such an ex­is­ten­tial threat, she said her op­ti­mism about what she called “the in­fra­struc­ture of life” was undimmed.

One cause for hope was a con­ver­gence of sci­en­tific con­cerns. Last month, the UN’s top cli­mate and bio­di­ver­sity in­sti­tu­tions and sci­en­tists held their first joint meet­ing. They found that na­ture-based so­lu­tions – such as for­est pro­tec­tion, tree plant­ing, land restora­tion and soil man­age­ment – could ab­sorb up to a third of the emis­sions needed to keep global warm­ing within the Paris agree­ment pa­ram­e­ters. In fu­ture the two UN arms of cli­mate and bio­di­ver­sity should is­sue joint as­sess­ments. “There is a lot of good­will,” she said. “We should be aware of the dan­gers but not paral­ysed by in­ac­tion. It’s still in our hands but the win­dow for ac­tion is nar­row­ing. We need higher lev­els of po­lit­i­cal and ci­ti­zen will to sup­port na­ture.”

Habi­tat loss An orangutan in In­done­sia

Source: Liv­ing Planet in­dex, WWF/ZSL

Shaded ar­eas show the sta­tis­ti­cal un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the trend

UDAYAN RAO PAWAR

Wa­ter scarcity A ghar­ial in In­dia. Thirsty agri­cul­ture com­petes with wildlife

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