Cost of the Human War on Earth: 58% of Wildlife Eradicated in Past 46 Years
October 30, 2016 Jeremy Hance / The Guardian & Rebecca Morelle / BBC News
Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% since 1970, according to a biodiversity report, but is the loss of a unique life form on Earth big news? Not according to most media outlets. But how can the public care about global mass extinction if they aren't even told about its victims?
Toughie, the last Rabbs' fringe-limbed tree frog, has died at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Frog Goes Extinct, Media Yawns Jeremy Hance / The Guardian
(October 27, 2016) -- On 26 September, staff with the Atlanta Botanical Garden found a frog dead in his enclosure. The frog had big brown eyes, massive feet with thick webs between the toes, and brownish skin speckled with little yellow dots. His name was Toughie. He was big for a frog and he didn't like it when humans handled him. He'd lived a long time: 12 years.
And he was the last of his kind.
On 26 September 2016, the world very likely lost Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum) to extinction. The species, only discovered by scientists in 2005, lived in Panama before it was wiped out in the wild by habitat destruction and the amphibian disease, chytridiomycosis.
The last one was heard calling in the wild in 2007. But before this, a small number of Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog had been taken into zoological facilities for captive breeding. Unfortunately, the attempt failed. Toughie was the last to die.
Despite the fact that we can actually trace the extinction of Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog to an exact date, it occurred with very little media interest. Sure, the species' demise was covered by many standard science media sites, such as Scientific American, National Geographic and Mongabay.
But the list of what media outlets thought the story not interesting enough is perhaps more notable, including the BBC, the Sun, and CNN. Even this outlet, the Guardian, did not devote a full article to the extinction.
Many news sites simply reprinted the Associated Press's story, which spilled 264 words on the extinction of Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog (in contrast, the AP wrote three times as many words, 798, on Taylor Swift's concert at Formula One). The New York Times at first only carried the AP article, though it later published a beautiful op-ed by one of the researchers.
Still, I waited a little while to see if news coverage would pick up as the story trickled out -- it didn't.
A week after the extinction, I gave a presentation to a local herpetological society, ie devoted to amphibians and reptiles. When I brought up the recent demise of Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog, there were audible gasps in the room. Even herp lovers hadn't heard of it.
This begs the question: how could the public care about global mass extinction if they aren't even told about its victims? How can we care if we don't grieve?
Scientists have repeatedly warned that if we don't change our ways we could see a mass extinction event with potentially hundreds of thousands, even millions, of species wiped out by human actions.
The impact -- and scale -- is impossible to imagine. The last time the Earth suffered such a mass extinction event was when an asteroid slammed into it, killing off all the non-avian dinosaurs. We didn't show up for another 64m years.
Despite this, most media outlets chose to ignore a story that could not only inform readers of the loss of one distinct species, but also connect them to a global crisis that rarely makes its way on to the front page -- or any page for that matter.
I don't know why so many outlets ignored the story -- but it may be because the species that went extinct was a frog and not a big mammal like the baiji (which also didn't get the coverage it deserved when it vanished, but got plenty more than Toughie's species).
Still, Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog was truly amazing. Living in the canopies of Panama's cloud forests, this species glided through the air via the webbing connecting it toes. Scientists also believe that it was the only frog species to feed its tadpoles by allowing them to nibble at the skin of adults.
If a frog such as this is not noteworthy, what does that mean for the reptiles, fungi, plants, insects or fish that vanish? What does that say about any species that doesn't grip the public's imagination -- are they somehow lesser for not having evolved (or vice versa) to be easily loved by us?
Amphibians are the canary in the coalmine for our current biodiversity crisis. Having been around for 370 million years, amphibians make dinosaurs look babyish. But experts believe we may have lost more than 150 species in the last few decades alone, many of them to chytridiomycosis.
On top of this amphibian plague, amphibians are being hard hit by deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, the illegal wildlife trade for pets and even consumption and yes, of course, climate change (which may be exacerbating the stunning death tolls of chytridiomycosis).
Unfortunately, Toughie will not be the last frog to vanish or the last species. How many more will depend on us. But it's hard to imagine anything changing when a story like Toughie's is so easily swept aside. We can't care about what we don't know.
(October 27, 2016) -- The Living Planet assessment, by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and WWF, suggests that if the trend continues that decline could reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.
The figures suggest that animals living in lakes, rivers and wetlands are suffering the biggest losses. Human activity, including habitat loss, wildlife trade, pollution and climate change contributed to the declines.
Dr. Mike Barrett, head of science and policy at WWF, said: "It's pretty clear under 'business as usual' we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations. But I think now we've reached a point where there isn't really any excuse to let this carry on. We know what the causes are and we know the scale of the impact that humans are having on nature and on wildlife populations -- it really is now down to us to act."
However the methodology of the report has been criticised. The Living Planet Report is published every two years and aims to provide an assessment of the state of the world's wildlife.
This analysis looked at 3,700 different species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles -- about 6% of the total number of vertebrate species in the world.
The team collected data from peer-reviewed studies, government statistics and surveys collated by conservation groups and NGOs. Any species with population data going back to 1970, with two or more time points (to show trends) was included in the study. The researchers then analysed how the population sizes had changed over time.
Some of this information was weighted to take into account the groups of animals that had a great deal of data (there are many records on Arctic and near Arctic birds, for example) or very little data (tropical amphibians, for example). The report authors said this was to make sure a surplus of information about declines in some animals did not skew the overall picture.
The last report, published in 2014, estimated that the world's wildlife populations had halved over the last 40 years. This assessment suggests that the trend has continued: since 1970, populations have declined by an average of 58%.
Dr. Barrett said some groups of animals had fared worse than others.
"We do see particularly strong declines in the freshwater environment -- for freshwater species alone, the decline stands at 81% since 1970. This is related to the way water is used and taken out of fresh water systems, and also the fragmentation of freshwater systems through dam building, for example."
It also highlighted other species, such as African elephants , which have suffered huge declines in recent years with the increase in poaching, and sharks, which are threatened by overfishing.
The researchers conclude that vertebrate populations are declining by an average of 2% each year, and warn that if nothing is done, wildlife populations could fall by 67% (below 1970 levels) by the end of the decade.
Dr Robin Freeman, head of ZSL's Indicators & Assessments Unit, said: "But that's assuming things continue as we expect. If pressures -- overexploitation, illegal wildlife trade, for example -- increase or worsen, then that trend may be worse.
"But one of the things I think is most important about these stats, these trends are declines in the number of animals in wildlife populations -- they are not extinctions. By and large they are not vanishing, and that presents us with an opportunity to do something about it."
However, Living Planet reports have drawn some criticisms.
Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in the United States, said that while wildlife was in decline, there were too many gaps in the data to boil population loss down to a single figure.
"There are some numbers [in the report] that are sensible, but there are some numbers that are very, very sketchy," he told BBC News. "For example, if you look at where the data comes from, not surprisingly, it is massively skewed towards western Europe.
"When you go elsewhere, not only do the data become far fewer, but in practice they become much, much sketchier . . . there is almost nothing from South America, from tropical Africa, there is not much from the tropics, period. Any time you are trying to mix stuff like that, it is very hard to know what the numbers mean. They're trying to pull this stuff in a blender and spew out a single number . . . . It's flawed."
But Dr Freeman said the team had taken the best data possible from around the world: "It's completely true that in some regions and in some groups, like tropical amphibians for example, we do have a lack of data. But that's because there is a lack of data. We're confident that the method we are using is the best method to present an overall estimate of population decline.
"It's entirely possible that species that aren't being monitored as effectively may be doing much worse -- but I'd be very surprised if they were doing much better than we observed."
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