Extinction: courtesy of Homo sapiens?

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While the global investment in conserving the world’s biodiversity is estimated at approximately US$7-10 billion per year, the number of endangered species continues to increase. Extinction is not a new phenomenon, and in the course of history there have been several mass extinction events. However, now is the time to act, if we as humans do not want to be collectively responsible for the next mass extinction.

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If the news reports showing mountainous carcasses of elephants slaughtered for their tusks in Kenya are anything to go by, it is clear that the public conscience is in for an uneasy time this year. With the future of a shocking proportion of the earth’s inhabitants looking less than rosy (one fifth of vertebrates are classed as Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) it almost seems inevitable that we throw our hands up in despair in the face of this seemingly unstoppable thinning out of tomorrow’s biodiversity.

The Natural History Museum in London has a new exhibition entitled ‘Extinction: not the end of the world?’ which reminds the visitor that extinction, aside from representing the finality of total disappearance, can also be a creative force. While certain species fade away, biodiversity blossoms as natural selection shapes life that can exploit new ecological niches. In fact, it is estimated that over 90% of all organisms that have ever lived on earth are now extinct. Just think of the massive multiplicity in animal life that has come about in spite of these disappearances. The extinction of certain plant and animal species may open up the possibility for a vast new multitude of organisms, but these changes are not easily predictable. In the wake of the extinction event which eradicated the dinosaurs, for example, there was a huge diversification of mammals and birds.

elephants3 Anna Smet brigherExtinction events are historically quite common, and there have been a handful of mass extinction events in the history of our planet where all individuals of a large number of species died out in a relatively short period of time, possibly due to volcanic eruptions and impact from asteroids or comets. But the destructive force of humans may be equally powerful in its consequences, and there is reason to believe that humans themselves are bringing about a sixth mass extinction.

Human population growth, invasive species, habitat loss, exploitation and pollution have taken a devastating toll on vulnerable species. In many cases, it seems that intervention by conservation programs are not matched to the enormity of the crisis at hand, and a long term solution in the form of a green world economy is needed. A report by the IUCN in 2004 stated that current rates of extinction are at least 100 to 1000 times higher than the natural rates found in the fossil record, with humans being the cause.

Rather than resign ourselves to the depressing situation that our presence on earth requires other species to vacate it, we may see the positive flip-side: the huge potential capacity of humans to exact changes on their surroundings which can be harnessed into turning the situation around. The bleak reality that 52 species of vertebrates move one IUCN category closer to extinction every year conceals the impact of conservation successes without which the rate of deterioration would have been at least one fifth greater than without their efforts. The current conservation efforts are insufficient, but they show that given sufficient investment and dedication, as well as conscious living, real changes can be made.

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Photo credits: G.Stevens (white rhino) and Anna Smet (elephants)

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