The Sixth Extinction–Changing Our Ways Now
People and wildlife will always have to compete for resources and space as long as people reside in areas where animals are also present. Some civilizations have had conflicts with the local wildlife, either from competing for resources or because of risks with livelihoods. Prime examples of wildlife skirmishes can be exhibited with the overexploitation of passenger pigeons in the United States in the early 1900’s, the disappearance and eventual reintroduction of carnivores in many ecosystems, and the disappearance of megafauna from almost every continent. Unfortunately, some human and wildlife interactions have ended more poorly than others. For example, the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction by 1914, plummeting from the millions in numbers. Because the passenger pigeons flew in extremely large flocks, most of them were killed for sheer sport. However, low numbers reduced their reproductive capacity, rendering them incapable of repopulating. A similar occurrence took place in many species of large carnivores such as the saber-toothed tiger; yet the carnivores were killed predominantly because of the large threat they placed on both human life and livelihood.
There have been five recorded mass extinctions within the known historical record of Earth. These extinctions happened so quickly that such a large percentage of flora and fauna have no time to adapt; in these mass extinctions at least 50% of the Earth’s population of species are killed. The most well known extinction is that of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. This extinction is thought to have occurred due to a meteor, asteroid, or other extraterrestrial impact on the Earth’s surface, near Yucatan, Mexico. Currently, the Earth is said to have entered its sixth extinction. This extinction, however, is seemingly unlike the rest. The previous five extinctions have all been caused by extreme natural disasters: meteors, ice ages, intense heat waves, etc. Yet—this extinction follows a different pattern. It is likely that this extinction began around the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1900’s, cities and civilizations began to grow at an extremely rapid rate, and species have since been disappearing 100 times faster than what is considered sustainable.
Humans are the culprits for deforestation, increased climate change, and significant civilization growth. While all of these things have been seemingly helpful to the promotion of humankind, they have had a detrimental effect on the rest of the species sharing our world. Entire ecosystems are failing due to losses of keystone species, as was almost evidenced by the removal of the gray wolf from the northern United States.
Most humans like to see themselves as a natural part of global ecosystems. We see ourselves as living with nature, instead of alongside nature. I think it is specifically this perspective that has led us to where we are today. In viewing humankind as ‘one with’ nature, essential aspects of the ecosystem are taken for granted—seen as rightfully ours. If we viewed ourselves as living alongside nature, maybe we wouldn’t be so greedy as to use so many vital resources without replacement. Since 1900 the Earth has lost 69 mammal species, and over 400 types of invertebrates. Currently, at least one-third of the planet’s 6,300 species are threatened with extinction; that is 2,100 species—and we have already documented a quarter of that number as extinct over the past 100 years. This situation is extremely serious, however I do not believe it is time to give up yet.
One benefit that humans have over other species is our great ability to adapt; we can consciously decide to make a change, and follow through without compromising our ability to survive. Now is our time to make that change. We must stop being so careless with our use of resources—it isn’t sustainable to cut down thousands of acres of rainforest to grow palm trees for palm oil; killing thousands of animals for decorative horns, or medicinal properties, is careless; overfishing is depleting our oceans of diversity; and farming at massive scales is polluting the world. Every country has its own issues with resource supply and demand; therefore every country can make its own changes. The intense land-use change that humans have caused has occurred so quickly and completely that many native species cannot adapt, rendering them extinct. Many species in the rainforest have gone extinct due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as many native grass species on the plains of the United States and Asia.
In the United States it is imperative that less land be used for agriculture and livestock, and a better farming coexistence matrix be implemented to allow for large supply with a fraction of the land. In Africa, the animals need to be protected, and cannot continue to be poached for demand from the outside. This is a daunting dilemma to be faced with, and it may seem like an individual cannot make a difference on his or her own. However, you can. Empowerment is the strongest tool. If you are not directly involved in an issue that you want to make a difference in, raise awareness in your community. Take the message to social media and encourage your friends to get involved, organize fundraisers to spread awareness and to get donations to send to the cause. These individual actions make the difference. Damien Mander, CEO and Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, told me wholeheartedly in an interview that it is the $5 and $10 individual donations that really add up and allow for the largest overall change to be made.
We shouldn’t let the Sixth Extinction occur because of our desire for a lavish lifestyle, or laziness to make a change. This is something that we can see happening right now—but it is also something that we can dedicate ourselves to stop. Learn more about environmental changes in your ecosystem, there is likely an endangered species living nearby that you can try to help. Conservation isn’t always glamorous: the species you save may not be a majestic African Elephant, however it is still a species saved. To prevent the continuation of our trajectory into mass extinction, every species counts. We have to change our ways now, so that we can see a future as full of life as our great-grandparents saw. If you feel inspired to make an immediate change, you can donate to Youth 4 African Wildlife to help conserve rhino, lion, elephant, and pangolin visit here.
Written by Erica Taylor