Protect our speciesMonday, April 22, 2019
This year the theme for Earth Day, observed annually on April 22, is “Protect our Species”. The intention is to raise awareness about the increasing rate of extinction of millions of species around the world and inspire action to help address the problem.
What is happening to our species and their habitat, you might ask.
There is no doubt that a vast number of animals and plants have gone extinct in recent centuries due to human activity, especially since the industrial revolution. The number of individuals across species of plants and animals has declined as well — in many cases severely — affecting genetic variation, biodiversity, among other issues.
All around the world, areas where humans exploit natural resources or undergo encroaching development all have the same outcome: a deteriorating natural environment. As a result of human action, ecosystems face threats such as unhealthy production and consumption; in today's interconnected world, it doesn't take much to see these unsustainable forces take hold.
This is a trend that cannot continue. If ecosystems are too severely depleted, their ability to remain replenish, sustain our species, and meet human needs is drastically threatened.
Many of us have seen images depicting open prairies covered by massive herds of bison that no longer exist, enormous flocks of birds congregated in marshes and lagoons that have seen their numbers reduced dramatically, or beautiful and impressive animals such as elephants, giraffes, and whales, which — in many cases — are in danger of becoming extinct.
Other people have cherished memories of less imposing animals that nonetheless bring deeply felt emotions, such as the sound of thousands of frogs croaking in the middle of the night, birds visiting a backyard feeder year after year, or millions of bats flying to their resting place at dusk. Others might remember that when traveling by car through the countryside, their car's windshield ended up covered with hundreds of dead insects, which sadly was a signal of abundance that now hardly ever happens.
If you lived close to the ocean or spent much time there, you have probably heard that fish stocks have declined dramatically or read stories about whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals washing up dead on beaches, occasionally in large numbers.
In the last decades, we have learned countless stories of new species of plants or animals being discovered in tropical forests across the globe, giving us a sense of wonder and possibility. At the same time, millions of acres of natural forests are being destroyed every year.
Let's check some numbers:
• The number of animals living on the land has fallen by 40 per cent since 1970.
• Marine animal populations have also fallen by 40 per cent overall.
• Overall, 40 per cent of the world's 11,000 bird species are in decline.
• Animal populations in freshwater ecosystems have plummeted by 75 per cent since 1970.
• Insect populations have declined by 75 per cent in some places of the world.
• About a quarter of the world's coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair, and 75 per cent of the world's coral reefs are at risk from local and global stresses.
• It is estimated that humans have impacted 83 per cent of Earth's land surface, which has affected many ecosystems as well as the range in which specific species of wildlife used to exist.
Developed nations have seen benefits in economic growth not only from the exploitation of their ecosystems and species, but from the exploitation of the ecosystems and species of undeveloped nations as well. Currently, the biggest declines in animal numbers are happening in low-income, developing nations, mirroring declines in wildlife that occurred in wealthier nations long before. The last wolf in the UK was killed in 1680. For instance, between 1990 and 2008, around a third of products that cause deforestation – timber, beef, and soya – were imported to the EU.
Academics and others debate if we are already facing a new process of mass extinction, such as the ones the world has experienced over the millennia. But even if that is not the case, we know that thousands of species are endangered, and most land and sea flora and fauna have seen their numbers severely reduced, with few exceptions.
Many species have disappeared already and many more are following the same path. As reported by The International Union for Conservation of Nature, there have been 849 species that have disappeared in the wild since 1500 AD; most strikingly, this number greatly underestimates the thousands of species that disappeared before scientists were able to identify them.  Most troublingly, around 33 per cent and 20 per cent of amphibians and mammals are in danger of becoming extinct in the coming decades.
We also know that some people have argued that species have disappeared before and how the current decline is just part of a natural process. But this conclusion is way off base. All other processes of global mass extinction in the history of the planet happened because of a catastrophic natural event. They were not the result of human intervention, as is the case for the current mass extinction. According to Peter Ward from the University of Washington, what we are experiencing today is strikingly similar to the dinosaur-killing event of 60 million years ago, when a planet already stressed by sudden changes in its climate was knocked into mass extinction by the impact of asteroids. This mass extinction we are going through has been unfolding because of the intervention of a single species, us. Humans are having an outsized negative impact on all other species. Human activity has caused a dramatic reduction in the total number of species and the population sizes of specific species; thousand have already disappeared, and many more are threatened with extinction.
The marine extinction crisis is not as widely grasped as the crises in tropical forests and other terrestrial biomes. We do not know how many species are in the ocean as the bulk of marine species are undiscovered. Therefore, we do not know how many have disappeared or how many are in danger of disappearing. Furthermore, we are also losing species or unique types within a species (for example a type of salmon), before we even know of them.
We know that overfishing is a major global concern. Current assessments cover only 20 per cent of the world's fish stocks, so the true state of most of the world's fish populations is not clear. Although, recent findings suggest that those unstudied stocks are declining, and nearly three-quarters of the world's commercially fished stocks are overharvested and at risk.
Along with species extinction, the devastation of genetically unique populations and the loss of their genetic variation leads to an irreversible biodiversity loss. The evidence all points to the unfolding of a global tragedy with permanent consequences.
– Earth Day Network
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