By Maria Lima
Imagine that each person you know is a separate animal species. Now imagine that half of those people suddenly disappear forever. Would you be upset? This is the exact situation currently facing the world mammal population today. Striking estimates are that worldwide 1 in 2 mammal species are in decline and that 1 in 4 mammal species are threatened with extinction. This drastically impacts humans by altering natural ecosystems and changing population dynamics.
Biodiversity loss is frequently cited as one of the leading outcomes of habitat destruction. Simply put, biodiversity is the variety of life (such as animals and plants) in a habitat. For example, the endangered Golden Lion Tamarins which are native to Brazil, are currently losing their only home to deforestation and agriculture. Homeless and forsaken, these New World Monkeys may get killed by poachers or die from starvation. Mammals play extraordinarily important roles in ecosystems by grazing, dispersing seeds, and keeping pest populations down by predation. Furthermore, they provide direct benefits to humans for recreation, food, and income.
Today, 25% of mammals are currently threatened with extinction. This percentage speaks to the colossal effect humans are having on animals worldwide, and points to our responsibility to drastically expand conservation efforts. We must maximize our efforts to rescue dwindling populations. Sadly, for many, including 29 critically endangered mammals, it may already be too late.
According to an article on Science by Jan Schipper and colleagues at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all of the world’s existent mammal species add up to a grand total of 5,487 species. This is not such a large number when divided by over 130 countries worldwide.
Since the 1500s, 76 known mammal species have been classified as Extinct, including the popular Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Tasmanian Tiger, and recently, the West African Black Rhinoceros (declared extinct in 2011). To add to these astonishingly high numbers, 323 more mammals are classified as “Near Threatened.” It is completely up to us to enact policies to counteract our destructive actions.
Much focus is placed on conserving terrestrial mammals, but we often overlook the even greater concern for our aquatic friends. Today, heavy exploitation of oceans threaten marine mammals significantly through overharvesting. Specifically, accidental mortality of marine life through vessel strikes and fisheries impacts 78% of species, while pollution by chemical contaminants impacts another 60% of species. This impacts the economy by driving up prices and decreasing product quality.
Now, think briefly about what you can do in 20 years. You can get a Ph.D., become a master chef, or discover 1/5 of the world’s mammal species. Well, the latter is exactly what happened recently. In an article, Schipper states that, “the number of recognized species has increased by 19% since 1992 and includes 349 newly described species.” Many of these species are found in areas with limited conservation resources and area knowledge, such as the Congo Basin, Madagascar, and the Amazon. Obviously, species are still being discovered at an astonishing rate so it is critical that humans work diligently to protect them before they become extinct. Who knows, perhaps one of these exotic species holds the key to discovering a life-saving medication.
Immediate action needs to be taken to preserve biodiversity worldwide (Newbold, 2015). This includes increasing protection efforts, providing funding for threatened areas, and preventing overharvesting in oceans. For example, increased enforcement of poaching of the Sumatran Tiger would be instrumental in rescuing the population (currently fewer than 400 individuals) from extinction.
Some people may claim that it is too expensive or difficult to enact more measures to safeguard certain species, but past policies have demonstrated that through dedicated and targeted conservation efforts, it is indeed possible to save numerous species from extinction. One such past policy focusing on the Bhutan tiger was labeled a “roaring success” by Dechen Dorji from the World Wildlife Fund, and supports it as an “incredible achievement.” To be sure, conserving mammal biodiversity by increasing protection efforts worldwide will be a tough uphill battle, but all efforts count. One day can literally mean the difference between life or death.
Newbold, Tim. “Global Effects of Land Use on Local Terrestrial Biodiversity.” Nature, 520 (2015): 45-50. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Schipper, Jan, et al. “The Status of the World’s Land and Marine Mammals: Diversity, Threat, and Knowledge.” Science, 10 Oct. 2008. Web. 3 Sept. 2015.