The Earth is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, and it’s picking up speed. New research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates the threats first detailed in a 2015 study.
Species are disappearing faster than previously thought, the new study says. The cascading effect of collapsing ecosystems is making the planet steadily less habitable for people as well. “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system,” said Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, co-author of the paper, in a press release from Stanford University. “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption to which it is linked.”
The researchers analyzed numbers and distribution of critically endangered species. They determined that 515 species of terrestrial vertebrates have fewer than 1,000 individuals left, meaning they’re very close to extinction. Nearly half of those species have fewer than 250 surviving members, mostly due to human encroachment.
The first five mass extinctions in the last 450 million years each destroyed 70% to 95% of animal, plant and microorganism species. Huge changes to the environment, such as asteroids, volcanic eruptions or depletion of oceanic oxygen caused the first five. The sixth, the study finds, is our doing.
Almost all loss of species has happened since humans developed agriculture, about 11,000 years ago. Back then, there were only about a million of us. Now we number 7.7 billion, and that number is growing fast. “As our numbers have grown, humanity has come to pose an unprecedented threat to the vast majority of its living companions,” the study says.
According to the study, it is a “moral imperative” for scientists to do whatever they can to stop extinction via the following suggestions: the International Union for Conservation of Nature should immediately classify any species with fewer than 5,000 remaining members as critically endangered; governments and institutions should elevate conservation of endangered species to a global emergency; illegal wildlife trade must stop now and the ban must be strictly enforced; and alternative food must be provided to low-income communities, especially in Africa, who depend on bush meat for survival.
There’s no time to lose. “There is no doubt, for example, that there will be more pandemics if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for human consumption as food and traditional medicines,” the study warns. “It is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization.”
Image via Alex Strachan