The world is losing its wildlife at a rate not seen in 65 million years. We are in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the past half-billion years. What makes this extinction crisis unique is that it is man-made. By combining climate change, habitat loss/degradation, poaching, and the introduction of exotic species, we are killing off species at an unprecedented rate.
The Center for Biological Diversity explains that humans are responsible for 99 percent of currently threatened species. Typically, extinction of a species occurs at a rate of about one to five species per year. We are currently losing 1,000 to 10,000 times that amount. On average, dozens of species are going extinct every day. At the current rate, by 2050, as much as half of all species may be eradicated.
A wide range of species is threatened, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and invertebrates such as corals, earthworms, and butterflies.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, several critically endangered species may go extinct in 2015 thanks to human activities. This list includes the Black Rhino, Javan Rhino, Hawksbill Turtle, Soala, South China Tiger, Yangtze Finless Porpoise, Western Lowland Gorilla, Vaquita, Sumatran Elephant, and the Mountain Gorilla.
The 2014 WWF Living Planet report indicates that plant and animal biodiversity is declining. For example, Marine and terrestrial species populations have dropped by 30 percent since 1970.
In addition to the tragedy of individual species loss, there is a host of other less apparent ramifications, including the insights from nature that are lost when species and ecosystems vanish. This includes everything from cures to diseases like cancer and a host of useful extrapolations from nature, such as those we find in biomimicry.
We are coming to a better understanding of the relationships between species. We are beginning to appreciate the interconnected and interdependent webs in nature. We do not know what will happen as we remove individual elements on such a mass scale. It may very well lead to widespread collapse.
Climate change drives extinction
Much of the adverse impact on the animal world is attributable to climate change. Things like changing weather patterns, ocean acidification, and warmer temperatures can all prove to be deadly.
One of the species most at risk are honeybees which have suffered dramatic declines in recent years. These deaths are attributed to climate change and pesticide use.
Declining sea ice due to climate change poses a significant problem for a wide range of animals, including polar bears, wolves, arctic foxes, grizzly bears, caribou, and walruses. To dramatically illustrate the point, last October, 35,000 walruses were forced ashore on a beach in Northwest Alaska because of the disappearance of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea.
Declining bird populations has also been attributed to climate change. According to a report from the Audubon Society, the situation will get far worse, with nearly half of all North American bird species under threat from climate change.
A ThinkProgress article reviewed several other species being harmed by climate change. According to an October study, these species include Alpine Mountain goats, which weigh 25 percent less than their healthy peers did in the 1980s. Researchers think this is attributable to less grazing due to increasing heat from climate change.
Climate change and drought impact fish species in particular. A July population assessment of Chinook salmon and Steelhead in California’s Salmon river found that low water levels caused a significant number to die before they had a chance to spawn.
Similar impacts have been recorded with mollusks and other marine life due to acidification and warmer ocean temperatures. Last February, 10 million scallops died due to ocean acidity. Scientists recommended that Maine cancel its shrimp season in October due to depleted populations.
Governments must step up
State governments are a significant part of the problem. Their failure to enact protective legislation and deal with the broader issue of climate change poses a direct threat to wildlife. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government is a prime case in point.
Canada is a climate Luddite that has backed out of its Kyoto commitments and failed to meet its GHG reduction targets. The nation is also a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry and the tar sands in particular.
Canada has taken the unprecedented step to becoming the first country ever to opt-out of all resolutions to protect endangered species. Canada made its position known at the March 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Canada is at odds with the delegates from 180 countries who voted to extend protections to 76 plant and animal species. Canada has even been fighting efforts to curb the trade in polar bears.
While action to protect species is essential, the broader issue of reducing climate change-causing greenhouse gases is instrumental to protecting the Earth’s biodiversity and wildlife in particular.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor, and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics, and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s Twitter feed.
Image credit: Ray Morris, courtesy Flickr