Unfolding disaster: Millions of species face extinction

Current global response is insufficient; transformative change is required to restore and protect life

The most comprehensive biological survey ever conducted has reached a terrifying conclusion: Extinction is the new normal. The international assessment found that human activities “threaten more species now than ever before” based on the fact that around 25 percent of species in plant and animal groups are vulnerable.

“The overwhelming evidence ... from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The international report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The report was compiled and written by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with additional material from another 310 contributing authors, assesses changes over the past five decades using some 15,000 scientific and government sources.

The report also draws (for the first time ever at this scale) on Indigenous and local knowledge.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net.’ But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

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Prof. Josef Settele is co-chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services.

The numbers are staggering:

  • Land based habitat has fallen by at least 20 percent;
  • More than a third of all marine mammals are threatened;
  • More than 40 percent of all amphibian species;
  • At least 10 percent of all insects are at risk of extinction.
  • And, in 2015, 33 percent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60 percent were maximally sustainably fished, with just seven percent harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.

The report says since the 16th century, more than 9 percent of all domesticated species used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016 with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

This report ties mass extinction to global warming. “Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics – impacts expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers,” the report said.

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Governments around the world need to address the issues with “transformative” reform to limit the damage.

The section on Indigenous peoples represents one glimmer of hope. “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions,” the report found. “On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”

Across the globe, a quarter of all land is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by Indigenous peoples. Some of these lands are formally protected and more than a third of remaining terrestrial areas reported “very low human intervention.”

“Nature managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands – although 72 percent of local indicators developed and used by Indigenous peoples and local communities show the deterioration of nature that underpins local livelihoods,” the report said. “The areas of the world projected to experience significant negative effects from global changes in climate, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and nature’s contributions to people are also areas in which large concentrations of Indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities reside.”

The report made the case for policy makers tuning into Indigenous knowledge. “Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways,” the report said. “Recognition of the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous peoples and local communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration and sustainable use.”

Indigenous knowledge and leadership includes “positive contributions to sustainability” and that “can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co- management arrangements with local communities.”

The Director-General of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Audrey Azoulay said the report “reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity. Our local, Indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently.”

Cover photo: Malagasy women of Vezo ethnicity fishing in Madagascar. (Photo by sunsinger/Shutterstock.com) 

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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