Why We Should Be Concerned About The Sixth Mass Extinction?

Remember the dinosaurs? Probably not . . . since it’s been 65 million years since they roamed the planet. An extinction event (also known as a mass extinction or biological crisis) is a widespread and rapid decrease in the biodiversity on Earth. When it happens, it occurs at an uneven rate. Based on fossil records, the rate of extinctions on Earth is about two to five species of animals every million years. Estimates of the number of major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years indicate there has been as many as five since the dawn of time.

Extinction on the horizon . . .

So, if mass extinctions are rare and are dependent on catastrophic events such as asteroids, toxic volcanoes and/or an ice age, how is it that a new study is telling us we are entering the sixth mass extinction?

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have estimated that by 2020 populations of vertebrates will have fallen by 67 per cent since 1970. And extinction rates for many species are now running at 100 times their natural level due to deforestation, hunting, pollution, overfishing and climate change. In essence, man is squarely found at the epicenter of causation regarding the next mass extinction.

"Usually mass extinctions have occurred in periods of thousands or even millions of years," says the study's lead author, Gerardo Caballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who worked with researchers from Stanford University, Princeton University, and the University of California-Berkeley. "The current extinction rate is wiping out hundreds of species in 100 years. And it is the tip of the iceberg; many species are critically endangered."

Using conservative estimates researchers looked at the highest rate of past extinctions since the fossil record, and the recent extinctions that have been verified.

"We wanted to evaluate if even under the most constrained conditions we could detect that we are entering a mass extinction," says Caballos. "So there is no doubt we are in a sixth mass extinction."

The Birds & The Bees

While bird populations continue to decline, this isn’t bad news for their species only. In many situations, humans reliance on certain species, like crop-pollinating honeybees are also rapidly dwindling. Within three human lifetimes, the study says, our ecological life support system could be destroyed.

"We need to get our act together understanding that the current extinction rate and other environmental problems threatens us," says Caballo. "We do not have a choice. Unless we act fast, really fast, we may face catastrophic scenarios."

Lions, tigers, bears — the list goes on . . .

Populations that have been impacted by other types of human activity include African elephants in Tanzania, which have seen their numbers decline due to poaching. Maned wolves in Brazil, are threatened by grasslands being turned into farmland. European eels have reduced in number due to disease, over-fishing and changes to their river habitats.

Hope on the Horizon?

Wetland wildlife has seen an increase since 2005, and marine species have been stable since 1988 - although the majority of stocks that contribute most to global fish catches are now either fully fished or overfished, the study cautioned.

Professor Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL, said: "Human behavior continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats.

"Importantly, however, these are declines - they are not yet extinctions - and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations."

According to Robert Coburn of National Geographic Explorers, to thwart the impact of the sixth mass extinction that are best logical best practices that need to come into play. “Good leadership and governance must be in place first. If an ecosystem has good human stewardship, there will be very little chance of it needing to be ‘rewilded’ to begin with, and no restoration project can succeed without devoted leadership and oversight.”

Man has to reassess our stewardship of this planet and become vigilant about climate change and instituting better methods of conservation, while reducing man’s proclivity for heightened levels of deforestation, hunting, pollution and overfishing.

Coburn sums it up best when he states: “Even the vitally important 'culture change' needed in various parts of the world can’t happen without leaders—leaders who live and breathe the culture they want to see implemented. Paleolithic hunters didn’t necessarily have overarching leaders to manage their land in a world sparsely populated by tribes, but we do.”