The issue of threats to species biodiversity and population losses can be broad, cumbersome, and at times overwhelming. This post is the first in a series that will attempt to dive below the surface on the topics interwoven with biodiversity loss generally, and threats to endangered species specifically. It will also provide small but meaningful actionable steps that can be taken by individuals interested in supporting an important issue that impacts us all.
There are moral and ethical arguments for why the threat of species extinction is an important issue, mainly that wild animals roamed the earth long before humans made claim to it, and as fellow living creatures we are obligated to see that our population’s rise and claim to natural resources do not cause their demise. However, there are also far-reaching practical implications at both the global and local scales for failing to protect millions of species of flora and fauna that share the right to inhabit this planet. The effects of species extinction have significant environmental effects and impacts on our human development. The loss of keystone species, for example, is particularly devastating. These landscape architects are critical to maintaining the health of ecosystems, and in their absence a domino effect can occur: other species of animals and plants disappear, non-native species of animals and plants are introduced, and ecosystems can cease to balance in a functioning way or collapse altogether.
Man-made impacts on earth’s ecosystems and the new Anthropocene have already resulted in negative effects on the biodiversity of earth’s flora and fauna (Hooper et al., 2012). The current extinction and biodiversity rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (Urban, 2015), and is largely attributed to human activity; greater than 86% of all bird, mammal, and amphibian species are threatened by habitat degradation and loss (IUCN website, 2016). Further, climate change has a significant negative impact on biodiversity: the expected global temperature rise of two degrees celsius could cause the biodiversity extinction risk to double, and a four degree Celsius rise – not far from the realm of possibility – would put 16%, or one in six, species at risk for extinction (Urban, 2015). Experts suggest that earth has now entered a sixth extinction event (Ceballos et al., 2015).
While the fallout from the loss of species can seem a remote or abstract concept, the economic ramifications of extirpation (localized extinction) has a huge impact particularly on rural communities in developing countries, where dependency on environmental resources can be critical for survival and livelihood achievements. Disadvantaged populations are the most affected by negative environmental changes through increased risks for food insecurity, land degradation, and poverty (Maharajan et al., 2014). Further, the multi-million dollar tourism industry that is often generated by the attraction of these species can play a significant role in local investments in infrastructure and social common-use resources.
The 15th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) put forth by the United Nations (UN) recognizes the interconnectedness of ensuring environmental sustainability and promoting human development successes. It was created to “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”
But reflection on the state of endangered species in biodiversity hotspots is evidence that current environmental protection practices are neither sufficient nor entirely effective. Issues of human-wildlife are on the rise in places where wildlife and humans are battling for access to resources. Look no further than Kenya, where last year the struggle for land rights lead to Maasai herdsman poisoning the famous Marsh Lion pride in retaliation for the death of their cattle. These instances are not relegated solely to developing contexts: the culling of species or individual problem animals in areas with dense human populations are evident in places like the United States. Then there’s the issue of trophy hunting, argued by some as an important financial support mechanism for the preservation of endangered species, which has been proven in a report published by the U.S. Government’s House Natural Resource Committee to cause significant wildlife population declines that outweigh the marginal benefits received by local communities to aid in conservation efforts. And finally there’s the beastly topic of environmental crime, including wildlife poaching and trafficking, that has ravaged endangered species like the African elephant across the continent. In Tanzania, for example, 60% of the elephant species population have been killed in last five years, and this has been overwhelmingly attributed to the ivory poaching industry. A rapid response assessment recently published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) indicates that “weak laws and poorly funded security forces are enabling international criminal networks and armed rebels to profit from a trade that fuels conflicts, devastates ecosystems, and is threatening species with extinction.” Valued at $91-258 billion, the illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking is the fourth largest international criminal industry behind the trafficking and dealing of arms, individuals, and drugs (Nellemann, 2016).
It’s clear that the magnitude of the crises facing wildlife species across our planet is significant and warrants stronger, more efficient and coordinated action. Every day, 96 elephants are killed in Africa for their ivory, and it’s estimated that at this rate it will be less than 10 years before the species are extinct. Setting aside the moral and ethical obligations we have to protect other species on this planet, the human development implications of not doing so will be dire.
Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5), e1400253.
Hooper, D. U., Adair, E. C., Cardinale, B. J., Byrnes, J. E., Hungate, B. A., Matulich, K. L., … & O’Connor, M. I. (2012). A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature, 486(7401), 105-108.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (2015) Conservation successes overshadowed by more species declines – IUCN Red List update. [Online] http://www.iucnredlist.org/news/conservation-successes-overshadowed-by-more-species-declines-iucn- red-list-update
Maharjan, K. L., & Issahaku, Z. A. (2014). Communities and Livelihood Strategies: An Overview. In Communities and Livelihood Strategies in Developing Countries (pp. 1-11). Springer Japan.
Urban, M. C. (2015). Accelerating extinction risk from climate change. Science,348(6234), 571-573.