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The White Rhino - one of many endangered large animals

Warning from 40 top scientists: Tigers, elephants may go extinct by 2100


40 scientists from across the world have recently announced that megafauna – large animals like elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, rhinoceroses – will not survive much longer if we don’t act fast. Examining population trends, the scientists said that human activities like deforestation and hunting can wipe out their populations by the end of this century.

VIEW PAPER
Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna
Multiple authors, BioScience

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Lions, the kings of the jungle, once roamed freely across the Indian subcontinent. Today, they are a mere tourist attraction in Gujarat’s Gir sanctuary.

Cheetah, the fastest animal, once sprinted in the Gangetic plains and semi-arid regions of present-day Gujarat and Rajasthan. Today, it is extinct.

Where are we heading?

40 scientists from across the world have recently issued a statement that megafauna – large animals like elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, rhinoceroses – will not survive much longer if we don’t act fast.

Examining population trends of these large animals, the scientists said that human activities like deforestation and hunting can wipe out their populations by the end of this century and that international efforts are needed to preserve them.

“PARTICULARLY DIRE” SITUATION IN AFRICA, SE ASIA

The statement, published in the journal BioScience, says the most megafauna face a “dramatic” fall in population and the areas in which they live.

In Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is “particularly dire”. Gorillas, rhinos, and big cats like the tigers are among those at risk.

Already, 59% of the world’s largest carnivores and 60% of the herbivores weighing more than 100 kg are endangered.

“Unfortunately, they are vanishing just as science is discovering their essential ecological roles,” the statement says.

THE THREATS

The megafauna are threatened by deforestation, human-wildlife conflict, illegal hunting, and agricultural and pastoral activities expanding into forested areas.

These have cut down on the habitats where the animals can thrive. Habitats have also been fragmented.

“With simultaneous loss of wildlife habitat and expansion of human populations and agriculture, negative interactions between people and wildlife are bound to rise,” said Varun R Goswami, a co-author on the study, in a press statement.

Goswami is a scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society’s India office.

“For wide-ranging megafauna like elephants and tigers, we need landscape-scale conservation strategies, taking into account the increasing interface between wildlife and people,” he added.

WRITING OBITUARIES

The study warns: “Under a business-as-usual scenario, conservation scientists will soon be busy writing obituaries for species and subspecies of megafauna as they vanish from the planet.”

Some of the species that the study expects to go extinct very soon, or are already feared to be, are the Kouprey (a bovine native to Southeast Asia last seen in 1988), and the northern white rhinoceros, of which three individuals remain.

The population of the Sumatran rhino has crashed from 800 to less than 100 in just 30 years.

Only the most radical action can reverse such trends. The study suggests that global funding towards wildlife conservation must double, at least.

It also calls for “altering the framework and ways in which people interact with wildlife”.

But, this is easier said.

The 40 scientists is mindful of this. “As biologists, ecologists, and conservation scientists, we are mindful that none of our arguments are new and that our prescriptions are far easier to write out than to accomplish. However, our objective in presenting them together here is to demonstrate a consensus of opinion amongst the global community of scientists who study and conserve these animals, thereby emphasising to the wider world the gravity of the problem.”

NOT ENOUGH MONEY?

In 2002, the Convention for Biological Diversity – a UN body – had adopted a resolution to stop the decline of global biodiversity by 2010. The world had failed.

A 2013 study published in the US-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) argued that inadequate funding was a key reason why the biodiversity target could not be met.

The study analysed country-level funding, and concluded that the 40 most underfunded countries contained 32% of “all threatened mammalian diversity”.

The study also concluded that even “very modest increases” in funding assistance for conservation could go a long way in arresting population decline.

But are the philanthropists listening?

VIEW PAPER
Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna
Multiple authors, BioScience
From the late Pleistocene to the Holocene and now the so-called Anthropocene, humans have been driving an ongoing series of species declines and extinctions (Dirzo et al. 2014). Large-bodied mammals are typically at a higher risk of extinction than smaller ones (Cardillo et al.2005). However, in some circumstances, terrestrial megafauna populations have been able to recover some of their lost numbers because of strong conservation and political commitment, as well as human cultural changes (Chapron et al. 2014). Indeed, many would be in considerably worse predicaments in the absence of conservation action (Hoffmann et al.2015). Nevertheless, most mammalian megafauna face dramatic range contractions and population declines. In fact, 59% of the world’s largest carnivores (more than or equal to 15 kilograms, n = 27) and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores (more than or equal to 100 kilograms, n = 74) are classified as threatened with extinction on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (supplemental tables S1 and S2). This situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, home to the greatest diversity of extant megafauna (figure 1). Species at risk of extinction include some of the world’s most iconic animals—such as gorillas, rhinos, and big cats (figure 2 top row)—and, unfortunately, they are vanishing just as science is discovering their essential ecological roles (Estes et al. 2011). Here, our objectives are to raise awareness of how these megafauna are imperiled (species in tables S1 and S2) and to stimulate broad interest in developing specific recommendations and concerted action to conserve them.

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