Our World’s Animals Are Rapidly Disappearing

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

In an election year that was abysmal in tackling subjects of substantial importance there was one story that was entirely missed. A story with implications for the future of humankind. But instead, the nation’s media focused incessantly on Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails or Donald Trump’s outrage of the week.

Television, by far the biggest source of news for most people, did by far the worst job of giving us meaningful news. They sought ratings that would bring in advertising dollars. They didn’t seek to inform the electorate on critical issues.

What was this critical story that was missed?

Few people have probably heard of something called the “Living Planet Index.” It is a measure of the condition of biological diversity in the world. It is a look at trends within species of vertebrates around the globe. A vertebrate is an animal that has a backbone.

Fish, amphibians like frogs and salamanders, birds, and mammals are all invertebrates.

The first global assessment of vertebrate health and diversity was established in 1970. It created a baseline on which we can measure what is happening to wildlife in the world. It acknowledged that many species had gone extinct due to human expansion and population growth globally well before 1970 – but it was a starting point. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London created it.

The 2016 Living Planet Index found vertebrate populations in the world fell by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, and that 67 percent will be gone by 2020. Imagine a football field with 100 animals living on it. Now imagine 67 of them lying dead – nearly 70 yards of the field littered with carcasses. That is where we are headed. And it gets worse in the coming decades.

What are the principle reasons for such a rapid decline in the number of animals in the world? Destruction of habitat for farm land; pollution from the chemicals we pour on the land and down our drains; over fishing of our reefs, rivers and lakes; and over hunting the prairies and forests. And, yes, because a warming planet is changing ecosystems faster than some animals can adapt.

“The creatures being lost range from mountains to forests to rivers and the seas and include well-known endangered species such as elephants and gorillas and lesser known creatures such as vultures and salamanders,” Damian Carrington writes in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Animals living in rivers and lakes have been the hardest hit, Carrington writes. Animals relying on these ecosystems have seen an 81 percent decline in their populations since 1970 because of pollution, water diversion and dams that interrupt water flow.

Loss of diversity isn’t just something happening in the Amazon rainforest or in seas around Indonesia; it is happening in America and in our backyards.

“The Great Plains lost more grassland to agriculture in 2014 than the Brazilian Amazon lost to deforestation, says a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund,” Chelsea Harvey writes in the Washington Post. “And it argues that the continued expansion of cropland in the region may be threatening birds, pollinators and even drinking water, while releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.”

Years ago when we would drive through eastern South Dakota the prairie would stretch to the horizon. Now that prairie is increasingly being plowed up and planted to corn and soybeans. Improving crop genetics make it possible, and profitable, to grow crops where they once failed to thrive.

There is a name now for the period in which we are living – the Anthropocene. It is the geologic era when humans rule the planet and its fate. It is also a period being called the Sixth Extinction. The last one was 66 million years ago when a comet hit the Earth ending the reign of the dinosaurs.

“The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it,” Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, says. “Life supports life itself and we are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse.”

There is another index that measures humankind’s impact on the world called the Living Plant Report. It looks at the resources available globally and how quickly we are using them up. Right now, it says, we are consuming at a rate 50 percent over what the world can sustain.

“Currently, the global population is cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb,” it says.

As the world population grows, resources will become more and more scarce. That is likely to lead to wars between countries with populations that don’t have enough food to eat or clean water to drink. It certainly is going to mean a continued decline in the animal numbers in the world.

Just when we face one of the greatest challenges of our time, we have a president-elect, an administration soon to take power, and a Congress that will dominate both houses in Washington, that sees climate change as a hoax. Rather than developing policies to address the threat of the loss of biodiversity in the world, our nation will be doubling down on the ways that put us in this precarious place.

At some point in the future, people will look back on the generations that destroyed the vast majority of the world’s habitat and creatures with little or no thought to the consequences with disgust, anger and frustration. Often our excesses aren’t a matter of survival, aren’t even a matter of living a comfortable life, but simply the drive to make more money to live what 99 percent of the world would see as an extravagant life.

If Noah was here today, he might look around and start thinking about building another arc. But the destruction the world faces today isn’t a flood of water; it is one of an uncaring humankind.

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