Mass Extinction May Be Upon Us. What Comes Next?

Robert Crohan/PantherNow

Robert Crohan/Staff Writer

An increasingly common event transpired last week. As Americans grapple with a tsunami of bad headlines, we had to listen as 23 animal species were declared extinct. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service made the grueling announcement on September 29th, recommending that the species receive the miserable designation. The list included birds, mollusks, one bat and one plant. One of them, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, was an icon of the South and America’s largest woodpecker.

Even when politician and celebrity deaths fuel mixed reactions in our polarized day and age, extinctions always bring people together under mutual solidarity with nature. I remember this vividly from the extinction of the Western Black Rhinoceros.

Many of us can name prominent extinct species that died off long ago, like the Dodo Bird or Passenger Pigeon. But these announcements are growing in frequency, and it’s not just since the year 2000.

Scientists say that extinctions are climbing astronomically, to their highest point in 10 million years, and around 9% of terrestrial species have little chance of survival without habitat revival. Even with many of the newly extinct species being unseen for decades, conventional wisdom holds that we are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. And unless swift action is taken, which I do not anticipate, a mass extinction will be upon us.

The last mass extinction was known as the “Great Dying,” and it occurred between the Permian and Triassic ages. Already, scientists are noticing ugly parallels between those times and our own.

Florida, being home to an array of species found in few other places, and harboring distinct ecosystems, is at particular risk. In fact, manatees might be going back on the Endangered Species List after 1,000 have been confirmed dead since January.

And our great state perhaps embodies the most common reasons for extinction: habitat loss due to population growth, climate change pushing up temperatures and concocting monstrous extreme weather events, and environmentally destructive policies that do little to put wrongdoers to account, in the name of profit and convenience.

The implications are enormous, as losing an iconic species like the Florida Panther would cast a dark cloud over ecosystems and our collective conscience.

For other species, however, the price to pay is much higher. Biodiversity promotes environmental health and diversifies the pool of predators, prey, pollinators, scavengers and more. India is struggling to control carrion and trash amidst a decline in vultures. Bats eat disease-carrying insects and save farmers billions. Tigers control deer and wild boar, and their decline spells doom for plants, which are overeaten as a result. Indigenous peoples around the world rely on biodiversity to sustain their livelihoods and understand their environments best.

Keystone species like the Polar Bear are absolutely vital to their respective ecosystems. To give a better idea of the situation’s gravity, consider that activists looking to extinguish Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are warned by scientists of the potential “hiccups” in an ecosystem should the plans be successful. Keep in mind, mosquitoes are an afterthought to us.

However, there is reason for hope. Conservation efforts are drawing hundreds of volunteers and donors, including a rising generation of committed zoologists and environmentalists. Plus, such methods are moving towards environment protection instead of species-level protection, which could potentially promote the long-term survival of more species given that habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction.

Plus, fewer than 1,000 modern species are classified as extinct, and hundreds are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, giving us time to protect them. Our efforts saved the American Bison, American Alligator, and all-American Bald Eagle from drifting towards extinction. Since 1975, 54 species have left the list owing to conservation. This year, Chinese efforts to save the Giant Panda reduced that animal’s status from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable.”

Florida targeted the Gopher Tortoise in legislation, highlighting that threatened species.

The Endangered Species Act took mighty action, but only represents a step in the right direction. Ending this extinction calamity requires a complete reorientation of humanity’s prestige and resources. The current rates of pollution and population growth are unsustainable and a recipe for disaster.

Thus, economy-boosting measures like the Green New Deal will need to be brought to the forefront while we have a relatively green administration in the White House. Federal efforts must be revived, and trafficking stopped. Small-scale groups conducting cleanups on both land and sea need prominence and support. Invasive species like Florida’s iguanas, monitor lizards, Lionfish, and Burmese Pythons need to be controlled or extinguished. And we must press ourselves, and other countries, to meet outlined and committed sustainability goals.

We are seeing some bipartisanship on this topic, but we must do more to address concerns about financial costs. And a mammoth political realignment may be necessary. Just as democracy and freedom consumed our minds in the Cold War, and national security in the post-9/11 era, preserving the environment must be our predominant focus going forward in this age of seemingly incessant natural disasters.

With the clock ticking until the next announcement, and 80,000 acres of rainforest being lost on the day I wrote this, our leaders must wake up before it’s too late. We, after all, cannot survive without the magnificent animals and plants that accompany us, and have been here longer than we have. It’s their planet, and our obligation to preserve it.


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