When Sir David Attenborough talks, we listen. That’s why we just couldn’t miss the March 31 premiere of “Extinction – The Facts” presented by PBS. Lifelong broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough talks viewers through the consequences of the global extinction crisis along with some of the world’s leading scientists and wildlife experts.
The report not only reveals how serious the situation has become but also what it means for humans. For a more timely spin, the documentary goes into how global extinction can put us at greater risk for pandemic diseases like COVID-19. Most importantly, the documentary gives solutions as to what we can do to change the current course.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life found on Earth, including plants, animals and micro-organisms. Each of these species and organisms form unique communities and habitats, working together in various ecosystems to maintain balance.
The United Nations brought 500 international scientists together in 2019 to investigate the current state of our natural world, only to find that the planet was losing biodiversity at a rate never seen before in the history of humanity. The results were unexpected and unprecedented; there were at least 1 million plant, animal and insect species threatened with extinction at a rate 100 times faster than their natural evolutionary rate. The numbers are nearly split, between about 500,000 insects and 500,000 plants and animals, with populations growing smaller by the day.
“Extinction is a natural process,” explained professor Kathy Willis, a plant scientist at the University of Oxford. “Things come, they grow, their populations get huge and then they decline. But it’s the rate of extinction; that’s the problem.” When scientists look at previous groups in fossil records, extinction happens over millions of years. Today, we’re looking at tens of years.
Since 1970, vertebrate animals — such as birds and reptiles — have declined by a total of 60%, while large animals have disappeared from three-quarters of their historic ranges. Professor Elizabeth Hadly, a biologist at Stanford University, said one of the most concerning aspects of this decline is that it’s happening simultaneously around the world. “In the Amazon, in Africa, in the Arctic; it’s happening not at one place and not with one group of organisms, but with all biodiversity, everywhere on the planet.”
James Mwenda, a conservationist at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, is the caretaker for the world’s last two living northern white rhinos, a species that once numbered in the thousands throughout Central Africa. “Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale told by conservationists, but I have lived it. I know what it is,” he said in the documentary. As a caretaker, Mwenda watched the northern white rhino population go from seven in 1990 to just two today, a mother and daughter named Najin and Fatu. A subspecies of the white rhinoceros, the northern white rhino was pushed to the critically endangered list due to hunting and habitat loss. “They’re here because we betrayed them,” he said sorrowfully. “And I think they feel it, this threatening tide of extinction that is pushing on them.”
Losing entire portions of the planet’s individual species is tragic enough in itself, but the crisis encompasses much more than that. All of biodiversity is interlocked on a global scale, and the planet needs all parts of it to function properly. Humans are not outside of those ecological systems by any means. For example, a loss in insect species can put pollination at risk, which in turn puts food production at risk, affecting both humans and animals alike.
The documentary also examines the ways that humans are driving biodiversity loss. Things like overfishing, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade are the biggest contributors, but there are also less obvious threats like consumer-driven demand for products like clothes, which can cause pollution in their production.
The illegal wildlife trade has become a multibillion dollar global industry over the last 20 years. Increased income in certain countries like China and Vietnam, where endangered animal parts may be seen as a status symbol or used for medicinal purposes, is one of the largest drivers. Pangolins, for instance, represent the most trafficked animals in the world, and the demand for their scales is directly responsible for their declining numbers.
The scale of global overfishing has dramatically increased as well. In some parts of the world, limits on ocean catch aren’t regulated. Scientists have seen declines in larger predator fish as their food supply dwindles due to overfishing, so the impact on marine ecosystems is widespread.
The link to pandemics
The connection between the natural world and pandemic diseases is closer than most people might expect. History is full of them, from Ebola to SARS, and, of course, COVID-19. Even worse, if biodiversity continues on its current path, we will see more (and possibly worse) epidemics in the future. After every pandemic, scientists look back to try and figure out where it came from and what could have caused it. According to Dr. Peter Daszak of Ecohealth Alliance, they’ve found that humans are directly or indirectly behind every one of them.
In a press release for the special, Attenborough said that while hope is not lost, the time to act is now. When he visited the mountain gorillas of Rwanda 40 years ago, they were on the brink of extinction with just 250 individuals left. Thanks to decades worth of conservation from the local government and communities, however, there are now more than 1,000.
“Over the course of my life, I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” he said. “Only now do I realize just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear from our planet forever. We are facing a crisis and one that has consequences for us all, but it’s not too late. I truly believe that together we can create a better future, if we make the right decisions at this critical moment.”
Images via PBS