The extinction of species

Photo: Barta 1V

The mass extinction of species, currently taking place before our eyes, is arguably the most damaging aspect of the whole global environmental crisis, writes Alan Thornett.  The Earth is losing species 1000 times faster than the normal background rate, resulting in what is known as the ‘sixth extinction’ the greatest extinction of species since the demise of the dinosaurs.

Some scientists believe that challenge of biodiversity loss is an even bigger challenge than mitigating the negative effects of global warming and climate change. Previous periods of mass extinction were driven by global changes in atmospheric chemistry. This time we are seeing an extinction event that is a direct result of competition for resources with another species—mainly us, modern humans. In other words, by habitat degradation caused by human activity.

In 2012, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established by the UN member States as an independent intergovernmental body. It provides policymakers with objective scientific assessments about the state of knowledge regarding the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems and the benefits they provide to people, as well as the tools and methods to protect and sustainably use these vital natural assets. Its purpose was to do for biodiversity what the IPCC does for climate change. ‘Our mission’, it says, ‘is to strengthen knowledge foundations for better policy through science, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development’. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 Living Planet Report and its associated Living Planet Indices—that monitors over 10,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, in both tropical and temperate regions—concluded that in the last fifty years, human impact has done more damage to their habitats and survival systems than in any previous period in the history of the planet. The species they studied have declined by an average by 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010. In other words, in less than two human generations the population size of those species has reduced by a half. This is a much steeper decline than previously recorded, and it is based on new and more accurate methods of analysis.Nor is it just iconic species such as the orangutan, the blue whale, the harp seal, the maul’s dolphin, the vaquita porpoise, the polar bear, the snow leopard, the black rhino, the leather back turtle and the mountain gorilla that are in grave danger—though the significance of such species should not be underestimated. It is a wide range of less prominent creatures on which the whole ecosystem depends. These species are living barometers that chart the destruction we are visiting on the planet on which we live and rely.

Three quarters of world food production relies on bees and other insect pollinators (such as hover flies) that are in deep trouble. A study published in June 2017 by Britain’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology established beyond doubt that crucial to pollinators such as honey bees and wild bees are under serious threat from the widely-used insecticides such as neonicotinoids.

It’s time we took this issue a lot more seriously and considered the long-term implications. By allowing an extinction event on this scale to continue we are disrupting the earth’s biological systems on which we ourselves depend. By allowing the pollinators to decline, cutting down the tropical rain forests, altering the composition of the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans, we’re putting our own survival as a species in danger.


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