With an increasing number of species dying off, it is not just plants and animals that are at risk.
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Earth is losing plants, animals and clean water at a dramatic rate, according to four recent United Nations scientific reports that provide the most comprehensive look at the state of the planet’s biodiversity.
Biodiversity, which refers to all living organisms within a given area, is declining in every region of the world per the three-year study approved by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES). Also known as “species richness,” biodiversity is measured by counting the total number of species in a specified area.
IPBES scientists meeting in Colombia issued four regional reports on how well animals and plants are doing in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific area in March 2018.
The IPBES mission, said study team chairman and prominent scientist Robert Watson, is about keeping Earth livable for humans, who rely on biodiversity for food, clean water and public health.
The organization’s conclusion after three years of study? Nowhere is doing well.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives,” said Dr. Watson. “Nothing could be further from the truth—they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy. They are at the heart not only of our survival, but of our cultures, identities and enjoyment of life.”
This threat to biodiversity “is undermining well-being across the planet, threatening us long-term on food and water,” he continued.
More is at stake than the well-being of plants and animals. Human existence is also tied to biodiversity.
Further concerning IPBES scientists was the demise in March of Africa’s last male northern white rhino. In its death, the world saw the shadow of extinction approach before its eyes. “Utter tragedy today,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted in response to the animal’s death. “We can’t just sit back and watch more species disappear.”
Jan Stejskal, an official at the zoo where the rhino lived, said its death “is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature.” Scientists hope to use in vitro fertilization to continue the species.
National Geographic detailed the significance of biodiversity: “All species are interconnected. They depend on one another. Forests provide homes for animals. Animals eat plants. The plants need healthy soil to grow. Fungi help decompose organisms to fertilize the soil. Bees and other insects carry pollen from one plant to another, which enables the plants to reproduce. With less biodiversity, these connections weaken and sometimes break, harming all the species in the ecosystem.”
“Ecosystems with a lot of biodiversity are generally stronger and more resistant to disaster than those with fewer species.”
IPBES Executive Secretary Dr. Anne Larigauderie reinforced this connection: “Richer, more diverse ecosystems are better able to cope with disturbances—such as extreme events and the emergence of diseases. They are our ‘insurance policy’ against unforeseen disasters and, used sustainably, they also offer many of the best solutions to our most pressing challenges.”
Mankind’s continued existence is at risk. Therefore, governments, scientists and other experts must put their heads together and try to maintain a planet rich with biodiversity.
Another species in danger is the right whale. The winter calving season for the critically endangered animal ended without a single newborn being spotted off the southeast U.S. coast, bringing the rare species a step closer to extinction.
“It’s a pivotal moment for right whales,” said Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the U.S. southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “If we don’t get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end.”
Scientists estimate only about 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, and the species suffered terribly in 2017. A total of 17 right whales washed up dead in the U.S. and Canada last year, far outpacing five births.
With future births uncertain, researchers say more needs to be done to prevent human causes of many right whale deaths. Necropsies performed on the 17 dead whales last year found at least four were struck by ships and at least two died from entanglement in fishing gear.
“Right now, the sky is falling,” said Ms. Zoodsma. “I do think we can turn this around. But it’s sort of like, what’s our willpower to do so? This is a time for all hands on deck.”
The right whale is not the only sea creature in danger. In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund reported a nearly 50 percent decline in some marine life populations between 1970 and 2012.
According to the organization, the 42-year period also saw the populations of locally and commercially fished species fall by half, with some decreasing even more. Tuna, mackerel and bonito populations, for instance, fell by 74 percent. One in four species of sharks, rays and skates were determined to be on the brink of extinction.
Most of the sharp drops in marine populations were due to the global problem of overfishing, the authors of the report said.
Declines in the Pacific Ocean are particularly concerning. Asian customs such as “shark-finning”—which involves removing the fins of a shark and throwing its body back into the water—took a major toll. If trends continue, 25 percent of shark species could be extinct in 10 years.
Biodiversity, and efforts by scientists to keep species in existence, is not just about helping animals. It is also about preserving plants.
Take the influence of diverse plant life on humanity for instance. National Geographic stated that plants “help humans by giving off oxygen. They also provide food, shade, construction material, medicines, and fiber for clothing and paper. The root system of plants helps prevent flooding. Plants, fungi, and animals such as worms keep soil fertile and water clean. As biodiversity decreases, these systems break down.
“Hundreds of industries rely on plant biodiversity. Agriculture, construction, medical and pharmaceutical, fashion, tourism, and hospitality all depend on plants for their success. When the biodiversity of an ecosystem is interrupted or destroyed, the economic impact on the local community could be enormous.”
Biodiversity directly affects global food production and nutrition, which is key to feeding an ever-growing population. Many small-scale farming operations have long pursued diversity within agricultural systems as farmers recognize that diverse crops are more resistant to severe weather events or other disturbances.
Yet industrialized food production has led to a reduction in the number of species being grown in fields. The main goal has become achieving maximum yields for maximum profits.
“Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) estimates that there has been a 90-percent decrease in the number of crop species since the beginning of the 20th century. Farm animals have suffered a similar fate: In the last 100 years, around 1,000 of the 6,500 known species have become extinct worldwide” (Deutsche Welle).
Rice, maize, soybeans and wheat—which make up more than 90 percent of global crop production—have all been affected. “And among those, there are very few sub-species still being planted,” Andreas Krug, who heads the BfN’s Sustainable Agriculture division, told the paper.
Of Germany’s 400 species of wheat, only 30 are commercially viable.
Land being used for mass production also suffers from water with high levels of nitrates and pesticides as well as erosion, which all leads to a loss of arable land according to Mr. Krug.
The IPBES reports biodiversity and nature’s ability to contribute to people are “being degraded, reduced and lost due to a number of common pressures” in every region. These pressures include “habitat stress; overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources; air, land and water pollution; increasing numbers and impact of invasive alien species and climate change, among others.”
Though extinction can occur naturally, scientists estimate that human activity is causing species to die out at hundreds of times the natural rate.
National Geographic reported a major reason for this is the destruction of species’ natural habitat. Forests are irresponsibly cut for lumber and firewood. Previously untouched land is being developed to plant crops, and build houses and factories. Fields, forests and wetlands where plants and animals thrived are disappearing. Pollution, overfishing and overhunting are also having a negative impact.
Industrialized meat production has led to a rising demand for animal feed, especially maize and soybeans. Agricultural economist Ernst Berg told Deutsche Welle that global economic growth has “led to a change in eating habits. People consume more meat and dairy and less plant-based food.”
The newspaper reported that it takes 20 times more land to produce 100 grams of meat than the equivalent amount of grain. The available land for this increase is being reduced to make way for more housing, roads and other developments. In addition, a certain percentage of the arable land must lie fallow to avoid soil erosion.
People can also detrimentally affect biodiversity by introducing non-native species to new areas. These alien species often destroy native species over time. Brown tree snakes, for instance, which were accidentally brought into Guam in the 1950s, soon multiplied and caused the extinction of nine of the island’s 11 native forest-dwelling bird species. Another example is the Asia emerald ash borer’s decimation of ash trees in North America.
All this is a side effect of the world getting wealthier and more crowded, Dr. Watson of the IPBES concluded. Humans need more food, more clean water, more energy and more land. And the way society has tried to achieve that has cut down on biodiversity, he said.
Crucial habitat has been cut apart, alien species have invaded places, chemicals have hurt plants and animals, wetlands and mangroves that clean up pollution are disappearing, and the world’s waters are overfished, Dr. Watson said.
“We keep making choices to borrow from the future to live well today,” said Jake Rice, Canada’s chief government scientist for fisheries and oceans, who co-chaired the IPBES Americas report.
Duke University conservationist Stuart Pimm, who was not on the IPBES study team, said the reports make sense and are based on well-established scientific data.
“Are things pretty dire? Yes,” he said.
Even though biodiversity is dropping rapidly, mankind is trying to turn the tide. The fact that there is an IPBES, an international body with representatives from 128 member states, helps prove this.
There has even been some success in the fight to preserve species richness. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier this year that it may reclassify the humpback chub from “endangered” to “threatened” within the next 12 months.
The fish, which has a fleshy bump behind its head and was first considered endangered in the late 1960s, was on the brink of extinction. As dams were built to control waters in its habitat, turning the once warm and muddy waters cold and clear, the fish struggled to survive. Invasive species also preyed on it.
As a result, the number of adult humpback chub in the Grand Canyon area went from nearly 11,000 in 1989 to less than half that number a decade later before stabilizing around 2008. A decade later, the Grand Canyon has the largest population with about 12,000 adults.
“It took a long period of time for us to understand how a species like this behaves in the system,” said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
“It’s kind of putting these puzzle pieces together to understand it,” he said.
Full recovery of the species, however, will take more work. And therein lies the problem.
The humpback chub is only one of countless species in an intricate worldwide ecosystem. The new and emerging problems threatening species globally far outpace the available resources to keep them at bay.
At times, elaborate and sincere efforts to preserve a species are deemed successful yet end up causing other, unforeseen threats. Wildlife officials in the state of Oregon are experiencing this firsthand as they attempt to evict federally protected sea lions from an inland river where they feast on salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The bizarre survival war has intensified recently as the sea lion population rebounds and fish populations decline in the Pacific Northwest, leaving wildlife service staff at their wits end.
Case in point: The wildlife service recently spent two days trapping and relocating a sea lion. They transported it 130 miles from an Oregon river where it was eating the fish to release it in the Pacific Ocean. The dog-faced pinniped then proceeded to swim right back to the Oregon river where it started, hungry for more fish.
The population of sea lions, which were hunted for their thick fur, dropped dramatically before they rebounded from 30,000 in the late 1960s to about 300,000 today due to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
As their numbers increased, sea lions ventured farther upstream in Oregon and Washington state rivers and tributaries, eating protected fish species. In Oregon, sea lions intercept protected fish that are on their way to spawning grounds in the Willamette River south of Portland. Last winter, a record-low 512 wild winter steelhead completed the journey, said Shaun Clements, the state wildlife agency’s senior policy adviser.
Less than 30 years ago, that number was more than 15,000, according to state numbers.
“We’re estimating that there’s a 90 percent probability that one of the populations [of fish] in the Willamette River could go extinct if sea lion predation continues unchecked,” Dr. Clements said. “Of all the adults that are returning to the falls here, a quarter of them are getting eaten.”
Oregon wildlife managers say sea lions are beginning to move into even smaller tributaries where they had never been seen before and where some of the healthiest stocks of the threatened fish exist. The mammals also have been spotted in small rivers in Washington that are home to fragile fish populations.
“You’re pitting this protected population that has been fully recovered against these Endangered Species Act-listed fish,” Doug Hatch, a senior fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said.
Oregon wildlife management’s costly and well-meaning efforts to trap and haul sea lions to the ocean can seem futile in the face of this conundrum.
According to Dr. Watson of the IPBES, the outlook is bleak if society does not change.
“Some species are threatened with extinctions. Others, just pure numbers will go down,” Dr. Watson said. “It will be a lonelier place relative to our natural world. It’s a moral issue. Do we humans have a right to make them go extinct?”
But, we must ask, is it more than just a moral issue?
Over the years, scientists have identified 1.75 million different species. This number includes 950,000 species of insects, 270,000 species of plants, 19,000 species of fish, 9,000 species of birds, and 4,000 species of mammals.
Experts recognize this represents only a fraction of the total number of species on Earth. Millions more are yet to be discovered and named. Yet the number of species we do know about is dwindling little by little and much of it due to human causes.
This is the opposite of what was intended.
God created nature, with all its abundant biodiversity. He commanded the soil to bring forth various grasses, herbs, and fruit trees. He made the waters teem with sea creatures, filled the air with birds and covered the land with animals and insects (Gen. 1:11-12, 20-25). He caused this amazing creation to occur and in every case after completing each step declared it “good.” This confirms that all species were designed to interact with each other flawlessly. This was all done for a reason.
Natural diversity was created in part for us to witness and to help us understand God’s mind on the origin and importance of this perfect ecosystem and thus better understand Him.
Notice: “But ask now the beasts, and they will teach you; and the fowls of the air, and they will tell you: or speak to the earth, and it will teach you: and the fishes of the sea will declare unto you. Who knows not in all these that the hand of the Lord has [made] this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).
However, God created the vast variety of plants, flowers, land animals and sea animals with all their defining and unique characteristics for another reason. He did it to help ensure the survival of His most precious creation—mankind.
After man was formed, he was told by God to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). He was further told that “every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat” (vs. 29).
God devised a system to provide animals and humans with an abundant food supply: “every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so” (vs. 30).
This perfect system—with its biodiversity—was clearly made to ultimately provide mankind food, sustenance, medicine, shelter, air to breath and more. This is biodiversity’s most important role.
The created world, with all its diversity and abundance, was not meant to subsist on its own. To help ensure man’s proliferation and survival, God left Creation to him to exercise “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands” (Psa. 8:6). Like the much smaller garden area originally assigned to the first two human beings, man was to “dress and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the areas in which he lived. Human beings were to not only benefit from their natural habitat, but also help it to flourish based on principles established by God.
Yet in trying to flourish in its own way, mankind is causing irreparable damage to the Earth’s biodiversity and thus doing the opposite of what God wanted. In pursuing their own goals, human beings are destroying their life source and threatening their own survival.
This is all quite different from what God purposed for man when placing him on a biodiverse planet! God’s intent is far beyond the prevailing thinking. The Creator of all things wants everyone to know what He has in store for us.
For more on this intricate plan, read The Awesome Potential of Man. It sheds more light on the future God has for His most important creation and will help you understand what lies ahead.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.