Cause and Effect – Extinction – The Result of Humanity
Extinction is a natural process that has occurred over all time. It is inevitable that a species will become extinct if it cannot adapt to an environment or are out competed. Thus, 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. There is natural ‘background extinction’ where around 0.01-0.1% of species die out (it is hard to estimate the true number as there are many species still thought to have not been discovered yet. At this current time between 1.4 and 1.8 million species have been identified, but there are estimates that there could be 100,000,000 species on the planet). Scientists are now reporting that we are losing species at around 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural background rate and thus are now referring to this current huge extinction rate as the sixth ‘mass extinction’. Unlike other mass extinctions, which have been caused by natural events such as volcanic eruptions and natural rhythmic climatic shifts, the events unfolding today are sadly due to humans. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 99% of threatened species ‘are at risk from human activities’. It is also estimated that 30% to 50% of all species will be extinct by the mid of the 21st century.
There are many species on the brink of extinction. A delicate balancing act is being played out within the world and some of many are highlighted below:
The Javan Rhino
With 50 of these magnificent creatures left in the world, this species is at a tipping point. There are no rhinos in captivity and as of 2011 the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam leaving only a small population in Indonesia on the Ujung Kulon peninsula in western Java.
The Javan rhino’s fundamental niche historically was from north-eastern India through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao, Vietnam and Indonesia. The population has been decimated over the last 150 years due to trophy hunting, habitat loss and degradation and, due to the low numbers, genetic diversity. Many of the individuals died during the Vietnam war, leaving the land desolate. This also contributed to an increase in poaching of the animals. Guns turned from each other onto the wildlife. The remaining population are under strict protection by the local government but the area is unsuitable as it is too small. There is a significant worry that because of the small area they are confined to, disease or natural disaster will wipe out the whole species. There are plans to relocate the rhinos but the threat of poaching is ever increasing across the globe and unfortunately it seems that is a losing battle.
The Amur Leopard
It is the rarest and most endangered cat in the world and lives in the inhospitable Russian eastern tundra. Hunting, traditional medicinal use, conflict, fire, roads, deforestation, declining prey numbers and habitat fragmentation. It’s a wonder how Amur leopards have survived through the persecution as a human population we have forced upon them. Between 30-45 exist today. Sergei Khokhryakov, deputy director of the Land of Leopard national park declared that “in theory, the Amur leopard should have died out a decade ago”. As with all of these species on the brink, inbreeding and genetic loss if a major issue and there is little that can be done.
There is some hope. The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is a group of 15 international and Russian NGOs who are all working to conserve the Amur leopard and tiger. Money and awareness are raised and project implemented to help to protect these animals. WWF have been working with TRAFFIC to prevent hunting, increased the number of prey and have worked with local communities to increase the amount of protected land for the leopard.
A survey in 2013 showed an increase from around 35 in 2007 to around 45 adult Amur leopards in the wild.
The small and most endangered porpoise is so shy that few people know about its existence. Translated its name means ‘little cow’. It may be likely that out of the few species that have been discussed here that the vaquita will be, perhaps, the species that will not receive an international outcry when the last individual dies. Similar to ugliness, shyness amongst the animal kingdom makes it hard for us humans to appreciate them or become engaged and draw the line against their extinction. It could be gone before most of us know it was there.
Found in the Gulf of Mexico, these beautiful creatures are dying as a direct result of becoming entangled in fishing nets. Only around 500 individuals survive (due to their elusive nature, this is a rough estimate) in these waters that are around double the size of Los Angeles. Accidental by-catch, habitat loss (from the damming of the Colorado river) and pesticide pollution from the drainage basin of the Colorado river are resulting in the deaths of around 100 per year. This means in 5 years the species could be extinct.
Luckily after highlighting the plight of these small porpoises the Mexican government has invested $25 million on vaquita conservation since 2007 in the aim to prevent deaths from nets. With the help of WWF, the Mexican government are devising a long-term conservation strategy for the animals.
The Hawksbill turtle
There are five populations around the world and only an estimate of around thousand females nesting annually. They are distributed throughout tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlanctic Ocean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The IUCN has listed the turtle as critically endangered. They are under the protection of CITES and other laws. Despite this heavy protection, the Hawksbill turtle is plagued with hunting to provide products for the black market. Just in the last century the population declined by 80%. They are sought for their carapace plates to be made for jewellery and ornaments. Unfortunately, like so many other animal products, Asia has proved a bountiful market. The turtle also contends with the other threats that most of the endangered animals are experiencing such as habitat loss and degradation (they are found in sponges in coral reefs, which are susceptible to damage from climate change), hunting for consumption, accidental capture, climate change and pollution.
As with the vaquita, it is often the animals we do not see that do not get the coverage for protection. However, it is often these smaller species that indicate the health of the overall environment.
The Cross River Gorilla
Unlike the western lowland gorilla, this species time is almost up. With only 200-300 individuals left, the outlook is pretty dismal. In some circumstances it seems, as humans, we are incapable of living in the same area as another species without decimating their population. The gorilla’s territory has become smaller and more fragmented as humans have encroached upon them. Forests cleared, field created and livestock moved in further hems the gorilla’s into a small piece of land (roughly around 3,000 square miles) in the lowland montane forests of Cameroon and Nigeria. The loss of each individual is a major blow. The species is at serious risk of inbreeding due to the reduction in the population. Hunting is illegal, but the gorilla’s are still poached.
Efforts to protect these animals are focused on securing the forests that house them. WWF and partners have worked with the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria to create a protected area for the Cross River gorilla that spans the border of these two nations. There are many schemes to protect these creatures, but most need funding, which is lacking in these countries.
The Greater World
At some point, we must ask ourselves; at what point do we do something? Some people may not care or not believe that our actions are causing a mass extinction. What has been discussed here is truly just the tip. There were countless species that could have been discussed. Maybe this has been said too much and we have become desensitised to it, but they are dying and not enough is being done by the global population. There are many people who are desperately trying to save these species and some may succeed. Extinction may be a natural process, but a mass extinction predominantly caused by humans cannot be justified.
Everything can help. Do not underestimate the power of a small act.