A new report suggests we are already experiencing Earth’s sixth mass-extinction and a period of “biological annihilation,” but there is still time to save species if we act now.
Sixty-five million years ago, a cataclysmic event wiped out 76 percent or more of all plant and animal species on Earth. It was only the fifth such event known in Earth’s history (see graphic) that resulted in mass extinction on such a grand scale, and sadly it won’t be the last. In fact, right now we could be witnessing an extinction event on the scale of the one that claimed the dinosaurs unfolding right in front of us.
Are We Facing a Sixth Mass Extinction?
Many scientists believe we are either on the verge of or are already experiencing Earth’s sixth mass-extinction event. Scientists estimate that we could lose 75 percent of all species in the coming centuries, with major losses seen in as little as 33 years where we could lose half of all species to extinction. It is a dire prediction indeed, but not one that is written in stone.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming odds and impending doom, there is a silver lining: unlike mass-extinctions of the past, this one is a creation of our own doing and because of this, we have the opportunity to do something to stop it.
A Sobering Reality
We are already seeing the effects of climate change playing out on a grand scale. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that of the 27,600 land-based mammals, birds, amphibians and reptile species studied, nearly one-third are shrinking in terms of their population numbers and territorial ranges. In addition, the rate of extinction is at least 100 times what would be considered normal and in the last 40 years alone, we have lost half of all wild animals on Earth (half of the total population of individual animals on the planet).
Furthermore, according to their findings, we have already lost billions of populations of animals. To put it a little more simply, not only are we losing entire species, we are also seeing massive losses of regional populations of animals. Take for example, the lion (Panthera leo). Lions were once abundant throughout most of Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and even into the northwest of India. Today, the vast majority of lion populations have been lost and what is left is confined to scattered populations in sub-Saharan Africa and a single remnant population in India. Their range has also decreased extensively from more than 7.7 million square miles to 2.3 million square miles (20 million km2 to 6 million km2).
According to the report’s findings, of the 177 mammals studied, all have lost more than 30 percent of their geographic ranges and more than 40 percent have experienced severe population declines with their ranges shrinking by more than 80 percent.
The rapid loss of populations has wide-ranging implications for biodiversity and the ultimate pace of the extinction crisis. As individual populations go extinct, we lose intricate ecological networks of animals, plants and microorganisms as well as important, diverse genetic information needed for species to survival and evolve in a rapidly changing world. It is this population decline that is ultimately leading to the species-level extinctions we’ve already been witnessing. Furthermore, these population declines are so alarming that it prompted the study’s authors to not only avow that we are already in the midst of a sixth extinction, but to refer to the current crisis as a period of “biological annihilation.”
As terrifying as “biological annihilation” and the looming or actualizing threat of a sixth mass extinction are, there is still plenty of reason to remain hopeful about the future.
A Devil of Our Own Design
The bad news is that this extinction crisis, whether underway or just on the horizon, is one we have created through our own actions: habitat destruction, overexploitation of the land and our natural resources, the spread of invasive organisms, pollution, toxification and climate disruption. The good news is that there is still time to right this ship, but that window is closing fast.
Estimates range somewhere in the next two to three decades to thwart this mass extinction from taking root. Population losses are a prelude to species extinctions and we can only hope that this prelude is to a story that will never be written.
Defenders is doing everything in our power to prevent the extinction of all wildlife and that work grows more critical every day. We are fighting in the courts, on Capitol Hill and on the ground to: defend and protect the Endangered Species Act and other critical protections for wildlife, preserve vital habitat for wildlife, fight illegal wildlife trafficking, combat climate change and pollution, and promote sustainable, wildlife-friendly sources of clean energy.
Help us turn the tide for wildlife and thwart another mass extinction. Give today and your gift will be TRIPLED up to $150,000 from now until August 31st. Together we can make a real difference for wildlife.