Pak: Magnificent Beasts

And where you can no longer find them.

by Eowyn Pak | 1/15/19 2:15am

Remember Blu? That loveably awkward macaw from “Rio”? As of 2018, the Spix’s macaw, upon which Blu was based, has been declared extinct in wild habitats.

2018 said some untimely goodbyes to amazing flora and fauna specimens. In a study from last year, scientists examined dozens of highly endangered bird species and ultimately reclassified three of them as extinct. Other species are following the same pattern. The Adenocarpus faurei, an Algerian flowering shrub, is now considered extinct after a thorough five-year search for any sign of the species. In December, after a series of rigorous surveys, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presumes the Ozark pyrg, a small snail found in Arkansas and Missouri, to be extinct, and will not list it under the Endangered Species Act. And already, at the turn of the new year, the world lost a snail named George — the last member of a Hawaiian snail group called Achatinella apexfulva — on Jan. 1, marking the extinction of yet another species.

Species come and go through natural selection. As a result of environmental pressures, species who are better adapted for survival and reproduction will have successful progeny that will go on to carry those genes, emphasizing or eliminating certain ones in the process. However, we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction period of the last half billion years. In other words, we are currently living through the “worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Natural extinction occurs at a rate of one to five species becoming extinct each year, but scientists estimate that we are now losing 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural extinction rate, with 150 to 200 species of flora and fauna going extinct every 24 hours. At this rate, the possibility that we lose 30 to 50 percent of all current-day species by the middle-century is not so far-fetched.

This is the first mass extinction period in all of human history and it is happening precisely because of humans. Unlike natural disasters such as eruptions and asteroid strikes that have brought down animals from the age of dinosaurs, current extinctions are a result of human activities that drive habitat loss through exploitations for natural resources, the introduction of exotic species that harmfully proliferate with no natural predators, pollution and global warming. False beliefs in the medicinal properties of white rhino horns have driven up its demand in the black market. Venerable Californian redwoods that have stood tall and proud for thousands of years have fallen victim to humans’ cosmetic taste for reddish-brown furniture. Since 2016, 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef coral system (visible from space) has died due to rising temperatures in water driven by human-induced climate change.

And with the bottlenecking of these endangered species caused by activities such as overhunting and overfishing, we are producing a crippling loss of genetic variation that further decreases the chances of these species’ ability to adapt and survive. Consider these isolated endangered species cases and loss of genetic variation in concert with the fact that predators rely on these plants and animals in an interdependent, complex ecosystem, and you get a domino effect that has no end in sight.

But why should we care? According to a study done in 2012, it would cost next to $76 billion dollars a year just to preserve land animals. And why would we want to spend money preserving animals like wolves, which seem to pose a threat to both humans and livestock anyways?

From an economic standpoint, biodiversity provides essential services that are critical to survival, as humans are also netted into this web of interdependency. Biodiversity can directly provide us with food, but also with pollinators of crops and food, producers of the oxygen we breathe, digestors in the gut and a myriad of other things. Theoretically, all of these services could be engineered artificially, but it would take a whopping $33 trillion a year to execute, according to a study done in 1997. For context, the global economy produced about $18 trillion that year. Given our exploding population growth, the cost for comparable biosphere services is probably far higher. In a study done five years later, scientists found that the benefits of conserving biodiversity outweigh the costs by a factor of 100. If human-induced extinction were to be left unchecked, 18 percent of global economic output would be wiped by 2050. In other terms, that’s a hefty price tag of $28.6 trillion dollars a year.

The future of the world’s biodiversity is looking grim, especially in light of President Trump’s alterations to the Endangered Species Act — with one modification being the removal of consultation with scientists and wildlife agencies before approving federal ventures like logging and oil and gas drilling. However, a number of companies and organizations are acknowledging the costs of biodiversity loss. For instance, Cargill, involved in producing food ingredients, endorsed a U.N. declaration on deforestation by pledging to make their palm oil supply chains in Malaysia and Indonesia fully sustainable. San Diego and other cities have collectively banned containers made out of polystyrene (Styrofoam), including items such as food and drink containers, egg cartons, ice chest coolers, aquatic toys, mooring buoys and navigation markers. On a smaller scale, a number of grassroots organizations and local movements led by handfuls of determined citizens have succeeded in protecting steams, wildlife habitats, tidal flats, coral reefs, national parks and biodiversity against formidable bureaucratic odds.

But the battle is far from won. Picture a damaged war submarine one might see from the movies — the fiery red swiveling alarm lights, intermittently-flashing warning signs, frantic limbs and whining sirens that drown out panicked voices — and the evolutionary crisis would still be inadequately described. Though perhaps not as obvious, environmental degradation is dangerously subtle yet just as pressing. Creatures and plants that have survived natural selection for thousands of years are meeting their premature end. The extensive tree of evolution now has branches that have stopped branching out and dwindle in stature. This is our reality, and we should care. We must care. If not for nature itself, then care for the people lest we bring about our own ultimate destruction. In the words of past president Theodore Roosevelt, “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country,” and those timeless words ring truer now more than ever before.

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