The mass extinction that is rapidly wiping out the diversity of life on Earth will leave us, by 2020, with only a third of the animal species recorded in 1970. 67% of our planet’s animal species will disappear in half a century.
There are a variety of factors contributing to this extinction but they pretty much all boil down to human intervention. Habitat loss through logging and farming is the worst culprit but so is our insatiable appetite. More than 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction. Fish are just as bad off. Commercial fishing operations are depleting the oceans at a rate that will leave several species to extreme endangerment or extinction within a couple of decades.
And then there is climate change, also a human-powered problem, but one that’s arguably more challenging to tackle. When the shit hits the fan – when cold areas warm and warm areas cool, when floods and drought disrupt food production, when major weather events cause unmitigated destruction, humans may have the chance to migrate (the wealthy will, at least) but animals will be constrained by the myriad barriers we have created for them.
Wild animals live in small pockets of undeveloped land that can provide them with their daily needs. When those pockets can no longer sustain them, they’ll be forced to confront built human environments to survive.
This is already happening.
Encounters with wild animals in rural communities have increased in some regions where natural food sources are no longer providing for the needs of animal populations. Over the last 15 years the Beaufort Sea population of polar bears who reside on the coast of southern Alaska have, for example, been forced to come ashore in search of food as the sea ice they traverse to hunt has rapidly melted away. Their most dependable food source now is the extensive waste pile generated by traditional summer bowhead whale hunts by Inuit whalers from the tiny, remote village of Kaktovik. The more desperate they become, the risk to both villagers and bears is expected to increase.
So what happens when an animal population can no longer survive in its natural habitat? Is it ethical to cull wild populations to decrease competition for resources and assure the survival of some individuals? In South Africa, extreme drought led rangers at Kruger National Park to do just that. With the nation reeling from food shortages and the loss of 15% of its national cattle herd, park managers chose put down 350 hippos and buffalo in order to assure the health of the survivors.
Drought is particularly malicious when it comes to species survival. When populations are endangered in ecosystems stressed by drought, the habitat that emerges if and when conditions improve looks very different. Hardier species may survive but those with longer gestation periods or specialized needs for survival may never rebound. If those weaker species are integral to the web of life in a particular ecosystem, their loss ripples outward, impacting other plant and animal species, eventually resulting in its collapse.
The result of extended drought, then, is decreased biodiversity.
There is no stopping the anthropocene – this geological age in which we humans are the dominant influence on the earth. There is no stopping the massive die off of species we will witness over the next thirty years. We are too far down the path with no clear interventions in sight. There is no coming back from this. Can we learn enough from it to prevent the loss of the remaining ⅓ of our animal species by 2050? Or will we be too concerned with our own survival to assure theirs?