By some estimates people are forcing species into extinction at a rate 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural rate. The WWF estimates that world’s wildlife population was reduced around a quarter between the 1970s and the 2000s. Marine species have been particularly hard hit but birds and land animals have also suffered. Frogs and other amphibians are the most at risk of extinction. Coral reefs are the most threatened habitat.
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has 166 member countries. It list 30,000 plants and animal species as varying degrees of endangered. The IUCN Red List by the World Conservation Union lists endangered species and their status. In 2004, there were a record 15,589 organisms listed as threatened species, with 3,000 new additions. According to list one in four mammals species is threatened along with one in eight birds and one in three amphibians and almost half the turtles and tortoises.
A species is considered extinct if there has been no reliable sighting for 50 years. According to a study by the 52-members Alliance for Zero Extinction published in December 2005, 795 species are on the brink of extinction. According to Conservation International 300 rare species are unprotected.
The hunting of mammals, birds and reptiles for bush meat is a big problem. The number of endangered primates has risen recently 50 percent, mainly as a result of the demand for "bush meat."
A controversial topic among conservationists is whether or not endangered animals should be cloned, raised with surrogate mothers or reproduced using other advanced reproductive techniques.
Websites and Resources: Rainforest Action Network ran.org ; Rainforest Foundation rainforestfoundation.org ; World Rainforest Movement wrm.org.uy ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Forest Peoples Programme forestpeoples.org ; Rainforest Alliance rainforest-alliance.org ; Rainforest Portal rainforestportal.org ; Prince’s Rainforest Project rainforestsos.org/about-rainforests ; Nature Conservancy nature.org/rainforests ; National Geographic environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/rainforest-profile ; Rainforest Books: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); Portraits of the Rainforest By Adrian Forsythe.
Websites and Resources on Rainforest Plants and Animals: Rainforest Animals rainforestanimals.net ; Rainforest Animal Photos mongabay.com ; Rainforest Plant Photos rain-tree.com/plantimages ; Rainforest Animal Photos leslietaylor.net/gallery/animals ; Rainforest Plants wheatonma.edu/rainforest ; Enchanted Learning enchantedlearning.com/subjects/rainforest ; Amazon Plants junglephotos.com ; Plants plants.usda.gov ; Biology of Plants .mbgnet.net/bioplants ; Botany.com botany.com ; Life Cycle of Plants /www2.bgfl.org ; Scientific American articles on plants scientificamerican.com ; Dave’s Garden davesgarden.com/guides ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Picture Gallery in German pflanzenliebe.de Also see the Census of Marine Life at http://www.coml.org and the Encyclopedia of Life: http://www.eol.org
Websites and Resources on Animals: ARKive arkive.org Animal Info animalinfo.org ; Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive ; BBC Animals Finder bbc.co.uk/nature/animals ; Animal Diversity Web animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu ; International Field Guides media.library.uiuc.edu ; animals.com animals.com/tags/animals-z ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; World Wildlife Fund (WWF) worldwildlife.org ; National Geographic National Geographic ; Animal Planet animal.discovery.com ; Wikipedia article on Animals Wikipedia ; Animals.com animals.com ; Endangered Animals iucnredlist.org ; Endangered Species Resource List ucblibraries.colorado.edu ; Biodiversity Heritage Library biodiversitylibrary.org Books: Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia (Macmillian); Animal Life (DK, American Museum of Natural History) edited by zoologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek. The Encyclopedia of Life is a project to create an online reference source for very one of the 1.8 million species that are named and known on the planet and add new ones as they are discovered. The WWF is the world’s largest independent conservation body.
See Studying the Rainforest and Biodiversity and Deforestation Under Deforestation
Impact of Human Activity on the World’s Ecosystem
The Economist reported: “The Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each. To think that the workings of so vast an entity could be lastingly changed by a species that has been scampering across its surface for less than 1 percent of 1 percent of its history seems, on the face of it, absurd. But it is not. Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed. [Source: The Economist May 26, 2011]
Almost 90 percent of the world’s plant activity, by some estimates, is to be found in ecosystems where humans play a significant role. Although farms have changed the world for millennia, the Anthropocene advent of fossil fuels, scientific breeding and, most of all, artificial nitrogen fertiliser has vastly increased agriculture’s power. The relevance of wilderness to our world has shrunk in the face of this onslaught. The sheer amount of biomass now walking around the planet in the form of humans and livestock handily outweighs that of all other large animals. The world’s ecosystems are dominated by an increasingly homogenous and limited suite of cosmopolitan crops, livestock and creatures that get on well in environments dominated by humans. Creatures less useful or adaptable get short shrift: the extinction rate is running far higher than during normal geological periods.
Impact of Biological Activity on Human Affairs
By the some token matters of biology are not addressed by economics and the social sciences. Lovejoy wrote in the Washington Post, “A major reason the biology of the planet is largely ignored in human affairs, is that its critical contributions to human wellbeing are not taken into account in the formal economy. The world’s poor, for example, derive 40 to 89 percent of their annual “income” from nature, both directly through the goods it provides (e.g., food and fiber) and indirectly through its services.
A project initiated by the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations known as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB, being released in Nagoya makes the case for bringing these factors into the economic calculus as much as possible. For example, conventional economics would always support the removal of mangrove ecosystems to make way for shrimp aquaculture. However, if economic subsidies are subtracted, the choice to develop rather than leave untouched becomes pretty marginal.Furthermore, if the service function of mangroves as nurseries for local fisheries is added to the value of the intact ecosystems, the numbers very clearly argue for maintenance of the mangrove ecosystem.
A classic study in Costa Rica shows that coffee plantations close to forest areas have 20 percent greater yield because of pollination services from wild pollinators. That translates to an additional $60,000 in income for a farmer with an adjacent forest. Costa Rica has a pioneering ecosystem services law that, among other things, rewards landholders financially for maintaining forests and thus reliable water flow for downstream hydroelectric generation. On a larger scale, the TEEB project reckons the annual value contributed by global wetlands at $3.4 billion. On land the project calculates the annual loss of natural capital from natural ecosystems like forests at $2 trillion to $4.5 trillion.
Despite many laudatory efforts, the Earth’s vital signs are very disturbing and its biological infrastructure is degrading rapidly. Almost all indicators are negative and many are in decline exponentially. Fifteen tipping points, like dieback of the southern and southeastern Amazon forest, loom. We can see plainly in Haiti what happens when the biology of a nation is largely destroyed; indeed it is clear that for the country to have any hope in its future Haiti needs substantial ecosystem restoration and reforestation.
One in Five Plant Species Faces Extinction
Juliette Jowit wrote in The Guardian, “One in five of the world's plant species – the basis of all life on earth – are at risk of extinction, according to a landmark study. Scientists randomly selected 7,000 species from across the major plant groups as a representative sample of the estimated 380,000-400,000 so far known to science. Of these, 3,000 were found to have too little information to begin making an proper assessment – a result that was expected and so built into the selection process. [Source: Juliette Jowit, The Guardian, September 29 2010]
The remaining 4,000 species were assessed and the level or risk based on a combination of the absolute number of plants estimated in the wild, the known decline, and the total area in which they are thought to live. Of the 4,000, 63 percent were found to be of "least concern", 10 percent near threatened, 11 percent vulnerable, 7 percent endangered and 4 percent critically endangered. Another 5 percent were rated "data deficient".
The proportion of plant species deemed at-risk is similar to that of the IUCN's red list for mammals, worse than that for birds (less than 10 percent at-risk) and better than the number for amphibians (more than a quarter under threat). Nearly two-thirds of threatened plant species are found in tropical rainforests, five times the proportion for the nearest other habitats – rocky areas, temperate forests and tropical dry forests. This is because of their huge density of biodiversity and the widespread risks of logging and clearance for other agriculture, said analysts.
At first glance, the 20 percent figure looks far better than the previous official estimate of almost three-quarters, but the announcement is being greeted with deep concern.The previous estimate that 70 percent of plants were either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable was based on what scientists universally acknowledged were studies heavily biased towards species already thought to be under threat.
Today the first ever comprehensive assessment of plants, from giant tropical rainforests to the rarest of delicate orchids, concludes the real figure is at least 22 percent . It could well be higher because hundreds of species being discovered by scientists each year are likely to be in the "at risk" category."We think this is a conservative estimate," said Eimear Nic Lughadha, one of the scientists at Kew Gardens in west London responsible for the project.
The plant study is also considered critical to understanding the level of threat to all the natural world's biodiversity, said Craig Hilton-Taylor of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which runs the world's offical "red list" of threatened species. "Plants are the basis of life, and unless we know what's happening to plants it has many implications," said Hilton-Taylor.
"This is a base point," said Nic Lughadha. "What we do from now is going to lead to the future of plants. We need to challenge the idea that plants are there to be exploited by us, we need to move to a system where we're nurturing plants much more carefully [and] actively taking steps to conserve them." By far the biggest threat to plants is human – rather than natural – causes, especially intensive agriculture, livestock grazing, logging and infrastructure development. Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, said the results were deeply troubling. She added: "Plant life is vital to our very existence, providing us with food, water, medicines, and the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change."
One in Five Vertebrates Threatened
The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species categorizes one-fifth of the world's vertebrates as threatened with extinction, but the situation would be much worse without global conservation efforts, according to a study titled "The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World's Vertebrates," published in the journal Science. [Source: Heather Howard, Daily Yomiuri, October 28, 2010]
Based on data for about 25,000 species from the Red List, the study says an average of 50 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation and invasive alien species. However, the study also says the status of biodiversity would have declined by nearly 20 percent if conservation action had not been taken and highlights 64 mammal, bird and amphibian species that have moved at least one Red List category away from extinction due to successful conservation activities.
"There've been a lot of messages around the conference of the parties that the status of biodiversity is getting worse, that species are continuing to decline, that everything is doom and gloom," said Thomas Brooks, one of the study's authors and chief scientist of NatureServe, a nonprofit organization working to provide scientific underpinnings for conservation action. "Yes, absolutely, the situation is very bad. But what this data show...is that conservation can and does work. We know what to do to conserve biodiversity, to stop biodiversity loss, we just need much more of it," Brooks said.
According to the study, the percentage of vertebrates threatened by extinction ranges from 13 percent of the world's birds to 41 percent of amphibians. A total 174 authors from 115 institutions worldwide were involved in the study.
World's Sixth Mass Extinction May Be Underway
In March 2011, Discovery News and AFP reported, “Over the past 540 million years, five mega-wipeouts of species have occurred through naturally-induced events. But the new threat is man-made, inflicted by habitation loss, over-hunting, over-fishing, the spread of germs and viruses and introduced species, and by climate change caused by fossil-fuel greenhouse gases, says a study published in Nature. [Source: Discovery News, AFP, March 3, 2011]
Palaeobiologists at the University of California at Berkeley looked at the state of biodiversity today, using the world's mammal species as a barometer. Until mankind's big expansion some 500 years ago, mammal extinctions were very rare: on average, just two species died out every million years.But in the last five centuries, at least 80 out of 5,570 mammal species have bitten the dust, providing a clear warning of the peril to biodiversity.
"It looks like modern extinction rates resemble mass extinction rates, even after setting a high bar for defining 'mass extinction," said researcher Anthony Barnosky. This picture is supported by the outlook for mammals in the "critically endangered" and "currently threatened" categories of the Red List of biodiversity compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
On the assumption that these species are wiped out and biodiversity loss continues unchecked, "the sixth mass extinction could arrive within as little as three to 22 centuries," said Barnosky. Compared with nearly all the previous extinctions this would be fast-track. Four of the "Big Five" events unfolded on scales estimated at hundreds of thousands to millions of years, inflicted in the main by naturally-caused global warming or cooling.
The most abrupt extinction came at the end of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago when a comet or asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula, in modern-day Mexico, causing firestorms whose dust cooled the planet.An estimated 76 percent of species were killed, including the vertebrates.
The authors admitted to weaknesses in the study. They acknowledged that the fossil record is far from complete, that mammals provide an imperfect benchmark of Earth's biodiversity and further work is needed to confirm their suspicions. But they described their estimates as conservative and warned a large-scale extinction would have an impact on a timescale beyond human imagining.
"Recovery of biodiversity will not occur on any timeframe meaningful to people," said the study. "Evolution of new species typically takes at least hundreds of thousands of years, and recovery from mass extinction episodes probably occurs on timescales encompassing millions of years." Even so, they stressed, there is room for hope. "So far, only one to two percent of all species have gone gone extinct in the groups we can look at clearly, so by those numbers, it looks like we are not far down the road to extinction. We still have a lot of Earth's biota to save," Barnosky said. Even so, "it's very important to devote resources and legislation toward species conservation if we don't want to be the species whose activity caused a mass extinction."
Asked for an independent comment, French biologist Gilles Boeuf, president of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, said the question of a new extinction was first raised in 2002.So far, scientists have identified 1.9 million species, and between 16,000 and 18,000 new ones, essentially microscopic, are documented each year."At this rate, it will take us a thousand years to record all of Earth's biodiversity, which is probably between 15 and 30 million species" said Boeuf."But at the rate things are going, by the end of this century, we may well have wiped out half of them, especially in tropical forests and coral reefs."
Greenpeace Co-founder Slams Extinction Scare Study
Greenpeace co-founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore slammed a new study claiming a dramatic and irreversible mass species extinction. "This article should never have made it through the peer-review process," Moore told Climate Depot in an exclusive interview. "The fact that the study did make it through peer-review indicates that the peer review process has become corrupted," Moore, the author of the new book "Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout," added. [Source: Marc Morano, Newsmax, March 22, 2011]
"The authors greatly underestimate the rate new species can evolve, especially when existing species are under stress. The polar bear evolved during the glaciation previous to the last one, just 150,000 years ago," Moore explained. Moore told the Climate Depot, "The biggest extinction events in the human era occurred 60,000 years ago when humans arrived in Australia, 10 to 15,000 years ago when humans arrived in the New World, 800 years ago when humans found New Zealand, and 250 years ago when Europeans brought exotic species to the Pacific Islands such as Hawaii.
"Since species extinction became a broad social concern, coinciding with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, we have done a pretty good job of preventing species extinctions." He added: "I quit my life-long subscription to National Geographic when they published a similar 'sixth mass extinction' article in February 1999. This [latest journal] Nature article just re-hashes this theme."
This is not the first time Moore has gone to battle of alarming claims of species extinction. In the 2000 documentary "Amazon Rainforest: Clear-Cutting The Myths," Moore bluntly mocked species extinction claims made by biologist Edward O. Wilson from Harvard University.Wilson estimated that up to 50,000 species go extinct every year based on computer models of the number of potential but as yet undiscovered species in the world. Moore said in 2000: "There's no scientific basis for saying that 50,000 species are going extinct. The only place you can find them is in Edward O. Wilson's computer at Harvard University . . . I want a list of Latin names of actual species."
Moore was interviewed by this reporter in the 2000 Amazon rainforest documentary. Environmental activist Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief was asked in the 2000 documentary if he could name any of the alleged 50,000 species that have gone extinct and he was unable."No, we can't [name them], because we don't know what those species are. But most of the species that we're talking about in those estimates are things like insects and even microorganisms, like bacteria," Keating explained.
UK scientist Professor Philip Stott, emeritus professor of Biogeography at the University of London, dismissed current species claims in the 2000 Amazon rainforest documentary."The earth has gone through many periods of major extinctions, some much bigger in size than even being contemplated today," Stott, the author of a book on tropical rainforests, said in the 2000 documentary. "Change is necessary to keep up with change in nature itself. In other words, change is the essence. And the idea that we can keep all species that now exist would be anti-evolutionary, anti-nature and anti the very nature of the earth in which we live," Stott said.
Hunting Animals and Its Costs
Sports hunters don’t like to be considered threats to animals. They argue that the hunting license system serves to keep wildlife within critical limits of food and water and the money spent on licenses goes to conservation. Hunter also provide data to researchers, help enforce game laws and report illegal hunting and poaching.
In many cases, the large, dominant males that carried the banner for their species no longer exist as they have been taken by trophy hunters and poachers. Large elephants, elk, Cape buffalo and bears that were routinely killed a century ago are now rare. Scientists say they are beginning to see an evolution in reverse with elephants with small tusks and elk with less antlers having a better chance of survival than those with them. A study of big horn sheep in North America found that both males and females are getting smaller and the size of the horns has shrunk by 25 percent in the last 30 years. Scientists are also finding more tuskless elephants in both Asia and Africa.
Plants and Animals and Global Warming
Though animals can migrate and make other adaptions to climate change they often move too slowly, and lag behind the shifts in climate. Chris Thomas, a professor of Conservation Biology at the University of York, is experimenting with relocating butterfly colonies in Britain, moving them to cooler habitats, to keep them abreast with changes in climate. The colonies so far are doing well in areas 65 kilometers north of the northern limit of their ranges. The scheme—known as assisted colonization— may not work so well with animals adapted to a specific habitat that is not found further north of their range.
Assisted colonization is costly. Many scientists are calling for the creation of green corridors to allow animals to migrate northward on their own. But that is no easy feat either with many roads, houses and developments lying in the way of potential green corridors.
See Consequences of Global Warming. Weather
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also Life on Earth by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press), New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011