“Now is the time to act boldly.”
A sobering new study reveals that 60% of the planet’s large herbivores face extinction, largely—and unsurprisingly—due to human action. The paper, “Collapse of the World’s Largest Herbivores,” was published in Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As it explains:
Growing human populations, unsustainable hunting, high densities of livestock, and habitat loss have devastating consequences for large, long-lived, slow-breeding, and, therefore, vulnerable herbivore species.
The problem is compounded by animal hunters and poachers, specifically in Africa and Southern Asia. The study notes that between 2002 and 2011, the forest elephant population in central Africa dropped 62%. From 2010-2012, 100,000 African elephants were killed (that’s 20% of the African population). In 2011, the black rhinoceros of West Africa was declared extinct due to the high value of rhinoceros horn, which drives incessant and disturbing methods of poaching.
The loss of this life is concerning on its own, but also affects the environment. As the Washington Post summarizes, the endangered herbivores play many roles, including “expanding grasslands for plant species, dispersing seeds in manure, and, in the ultimate sacrifice, providing food for predators.” Large predators like big cats and wolves will face fates similar to the herbivores if they have no prey to hunt.
Because of the rapid destruction of the herbivore population, the paper predicts that
ever-larger swaths of the world will soon lack many of the vital ecological services these animals provide, resulting in enormous ecological and social costs.
The study notes that the biggest threats are “hunting, competition with livestock and land-use change such as habitat loss, human encroachment, cultivation and deforestation.” It lists overhunting as the biggest factor.
As the paper points out, the 74 herbivores studied–most found in developing nations—inhabit only 19% of the historical land they used to.
The solution to the problem is nothing short of a monumental undertaking. The paper suggests that in order to save the large herbivores, human birth rates must be lowered, young women must be exposed to more opportunities, and humans should consume less meat. Further, according to the study, poaching should be discontinued, protected environments preserved, and climate change addressed. The authors noted that these goals are difficult to achieve, especially because of the lack of funding in the countries involved. Still, it maintained that
A sense of justice and development is essential to ensure that local populations can benefit fairly from large herbivore protection and thereby have a vested interest in it.
It called on the wealthy populations of the world to contribute funding to reverse the trend. As the paper concluded, “Now is the time to act boldly.”
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