The Extinction Chronicles

An impartial record of articles and events leading up to the end…

The Extinction Chronicles

Two-fifths of plants at risk of extinction, says report

Amazon rainforest on fireImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionOne of the main drivers of plant extinction is clearance of natural habitats

Scientists say they are racing against time to name and describe new plants, before species go extinct.

Plants and fungi hold promise as future medicines, fuels and foods, according to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

But opportunities are being lost to use this “treasure chest of incredible diversity” as species vanish due to habitat destruction and climate change.

New estimates suggest two-fifths of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction.

The assessment of the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi is based on research from more than 200 scientists in 42 countries.

The report was released on the day of a United Nations summit, which will press for action from world leaders to address biodiversity loss.

Gladiolus mariae in flower on GuineaImage copyrightRBG, KEW
Image captionThe increased figure is partly down to more rigorous assessments

We are living in an age of extinction, said director of science at Kew, Prof Alexandre Antonelli.

“It’s a very worrying picture of risk and urgent need for action,” he said.

“We’re losing the race against time because species are disappearing faster than we can find and name them. Many of them could hold important clues for solving some of the most pressing challenges of medicine and even perhaps of the emerging and current pandemics we are seeing today.”

The report revealed that only a small proportion of existing plant species are used as foods and biofuels.

More than 7,000 edible plants hold potential for future crops, yet only a handful are used to feed a growing world population.

And some 2,500 plants exist that could provide energy for millions worldwide, while only six crops – maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil, rapeseed and wheat – generate the vast majority of biofuels.

AkkoubImage copyrightRBG, KEW
Image captionThe thistle-like akkoub can be fried or pickled

Dr Colin Clubbe, head of conservation science at Kew, told BBC News: “We’re currently utilising such a small proportion of the world’s plant and fungi, be it for food or medicines or for fuel, ignoring the potential treasure chest of wild species which we now have increasing knowledge of and the techniques to investigate for the good of humanity.”

The scientists estimate that the extinction risk may be much higher than previously thought, with an estimated 140,000, or 39.4%, of vascular plants estimated to be threatened with extinction, compared with 21% in 2016.

They say the increased estimates are partly down to more sophisticated and accurate conservation assessments.

They are calling for risk assessments to be fast tracked, using technology such as artificial intelligence, and for more funding for plant conservation.

FonioImage copyrightRBG, KEW
Image captionFonio is a grass that grows across savannas of West Africa used as a cereal crop

The research found 723 plants used for medicine are at risk of extinction, with over-harvesting a problem in some parts of the world.

And 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi were named as new to science in 2019, including species that might be valuable as foods, drinks, medicines or fibres.

The report contains a chapter on UK flora, which is better studied than in most parts of the world.

However, there is no single agreed list of the UK’s flowering plants and even more uncertainty over fungi, with estimates ranging from 12,000 to 20,000.

Planetary ‘safety net’ could halt wildlife loss and slow climate breakdown

Researchers have drawn up a blueprint of areas that need additional conservation to stem biodiversity and climate crises

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World leaders are preparing to join a key summit on biodiversity being hosted in New York amid mounting evidence that governments are failing to halt the unprecedented loss of species around the world.

Earlier this month, a UN report revealed that the international community had failed to fully achieve any of the 20 biodiversity targets agreed in 2010.

But scientists at the environmental research organisation Resolve have drawn up a blueprint for a planetary “safety net” of protected areas they say could help halt catastrophic biodiversity loss.

Jasper caribou herd wiped out of existence

Jasper caribou herd wiped out of existence

“The die off of Jasper’s entire Maligne caribou population is a tragic, predictable result of decades-long habitat and wildlife errors.”

BANFF – One of four caribou herds in Jasper National Park is extirpated.

Parks Canada quietly announced on its website that Jasper’s Maligne herd is gone and two other herds under the agency’s responsibility are too small to recover on their own.

The Maligne herd, down to about four animals in its remaining years, was last observed in 2018 and is considered extirpated, meaning locally extinct.

Environmentalists say saving caribou populations is perhaps the most widespread conservation issue currently facing Canada, noting the animals are under pressure throughout their range.

Alberta Wilderness Association is calling on Parks Canada to prevent the demise of Jasper’s Tonquin and Brazeau caribou herds and to manage Maligne range access for eventual caribou reintroduction there.

“The die off of Jasper’s entire Maligne caribou population is a tragic, predictable result of decades-long habitat and wildlife errors,” said Carolyn Campbell, AWA conservation specialist in a press release.

“[This was] reinforced in the last decisive decade by Parks Canada still catering to the recreation desires of a few above the habitat needs of endangered wildlife.”

Caribou that live in Jasper National Park are part of a subset of woodland caribou herds called Southern Mountain caribou and are protected under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

Twenty-five years ago, more than 800 caribou ranged in the mountain national parks. Today, fewer than 220 animals remain.

“The Tonquin and Brazeau herds do not have enough female caribou – 10 or fewer in each herd –  to be able to grow the herds,” states the website.

“The Tonquin and Brazeau herds are now so small that they cannot recover on their own.”

The other herd, referred to as the À La Pêche, is a partially migratory group of about 150 animals on Jasper’s northern boundary that is primarily managed and monitored by the province of Alberta.

“Some animals in the herd stay in Jasper National Park year-round, some stay in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, and some migrate back and forth,” according to Parks Canada’s website.

In neighbouring Banff National Park, woodland caribou were extirpated in 2009 when the last five animals in that tiny remnant herd died in an avalanche near Molar Creek north of Lake Louise.

Caribou historically occurred in two regions of Banff National Park – the herd wiped out in the avalanche spent time in the Upper Pipestone and Siffleur valleys. Caribou in the Nigel Pass area were thought to be part of the Brazeau herd.

The plan was to reintroduce caribou into Banff, but it’s not clear if that is off the table at this point.

Parks Canada did not grant an interview request, but in a statement indicated recovery efforts in Jasper are the priority.

“Banff National Park continues to meet its legal commitments under SARA by protecting critical woodland caribou habitat, even in the absence of caribou themselves,” according to the statement.

“Parks Canada’s recent species recovery efforts for the Banff-Jasper local population unit have largely centred on Jasper National Park, which has active herds of caribou, historically higher density populations, and more abundant habitat.”

According to Parks Canada’s 2017 multi-species action plan for Banff National Park, restoring caribou to the park may require an active reintroduction effort supported by a multi-partner, multi-jurisdictional captive breeding program.

The plan indicates this may be more challenging than augmenting existing populations, such as those in Jasper National Park.

“Caribou recovery efforts in Banff National Park will be contingent on the availability of captive-bred animals, and the persistence of a sufficient amount of suitable habitat with low predation risk,” it states.

“Any future reintroduction of caribou would be coordinated with the work of other mountain parks.”

Meanwhile, AWA is asking Parks Canada to consider an emergency population augmentation program for Tonquin and Brazeau caribou.

The organization also wants the federal agency to retain hard-won winter access limits in the Maligne range and consider further measures in Tonquin and Brazeau habitat to support caribou recovery.

In 2002, a temporary winter closure of Maligne Lake Road, approved by Jasper’s superintendent based on extensive evidence, was overturned by Parks Canada CEO as “unnecessary.”

Campbell said keeping the Maligne Lake winter road open every subsequent winter to recreation traffic, up to today, was a death sentence for Maligne caribou, giving wolves easy predation access as caribou numbers spiraled down.

“The ‘four month per year’ ski trail closures since 2016 were overdue measures that unfortunately proved too late to recover the tiny remaining population,” she said.

In the statement provided by Parks Canada, officials indicated the agency is committed to the protection and recovery of woodland caribou in the mountain national parks.

“Reintroduction is only one strategy to meet the broad number of overarching objectives listed under Canada’s recovery strategy for the southern mountain population of woodland caribou,” it stated.

‘Sliding towards extinction’: koala may be given endangered listing as numbers plummet

The species is among 28 animals being assessed for potential upgrade of their threat status, federal government says

A koala in a tree
 Severe declines in Australia’s koala populations were exacerbated by last summer’s bushfires, environmental groups say. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The koala is being considered for official listing as endangered after the summer’s bushfire disaster and ongoing habitat destruction on the east coast forced the government to reconsider its threat status.

The iconic species, which is currently listed as vulnerable under national environment laws, is among 28 animals that could have their threat status upgraded, the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said on Friday.

The greater glider, which had 30% of its habitat range affected by the bushfire crisis, is also being assessed to determine whether it should move from vulnerable to endangered, while several frog and fish species, including the Pugh’s frog and the Blue Mountains perch, are being considered for critically endangered listings.

Several Kangaroo Island species, including the Kangaroo Island crimson rosella and Kangaroo Island white-eared honeyeater, are among birds being assessed for an endangered listing.

Ley has asked the threatened species scientific committee to complete its assessments by October next year.

The koala assessment will apply to the combined populations of New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, where more than 10% of the population was affected by bushfire. Koalas on the east coast are also under multiple other pressures due to continued habitat destruction, drought and disease.

“We welcome prioritisation for the koala but also hope the process can be sped up and the koala listed as endangered before October 2021,” said Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International.

Josey Sharrad, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said koalas on Australia’s east coast were “sliding towards extinction” and immediate action was needed to bring the species back from the brink.

A recent NSW parliamentary inquiry found koalas would be extinct in the state by 2050 without urgent intervention to protect habitat and help the species recover.

Ley said on Friday that because of the ongoing effects of the bushfires, the government would introduce additional nomination processes for the listing of threatened species over the next two years on top of the annual nomination process.

The 28 species included on the finalised priority assessment list for formal assessment in the 2020 period include two reptiles, four frogs, seven fish, six mammals and 12 birds, bringing the total number of species currently being assessed to 108.

After a species makes the priority list, it is assessed by the scientific committee, which then makes a recommendation to the minister regarding its threat status.

“This process is critical in ensuring threatened species are given strategic protection, are eligible for targeted funding and that awareness is raised about the issues impacting them,” Ley said.

A recent interim report from a review of Australia’s conservation laws found governments had failed to protect Australia’s unique wildlife and the environment was in unsustainable decline.

The government currently has a bill before the parliament to devolve decision-making powers under national environmental laws to the states.

Don’t look away now: are viewers finally ready for the truth about nature?

For decades David Attenborough delighted millions with tales of life on Earth. But now the broadcaster wants us to face up to the state of the planet

Sir David Attenborough pictured in the Maasai Mara, Kenya while filming A Life on Our Planet.
 Sir David Attenborough pictured in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, while filming A Life on Our Planet for Netflix. Photograph: Conor McDonnell/WWF-UK

Sir David Attenborough’s soothing, matter-of-fact narrations have brought the natural world to our living rooms for nearly seven decades and counting. From Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the jungles of central Africa, the 94-year-old broadcaster has dazzled and delighted millions with tales of life on Earth – mostly pristine and untouched, according to the images on our screens. But this autumn Attenborough has returned with a different message: nature is collapsing around us.

“We are facing a crisis. One that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate. It even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as Covid-19,” he warned in Extinction: The Facts on BBC One primetime, receiving five-star reviews.

Clips and graphs showing the spiralling extinction rate were shared widely on social media. Some even pledged to change their diets and live their lives in a different way. “We have to listen to him. And act,” said broadcaster Matthew Stadlen.

Wildlife storytellers have long wrestled with how to tell this uncomfortable tale while keeping audiences engaged. Less than two years ago, Attenborough himself said that repeated warnings on the subject could be a “turn-off” for viewers. The thought of a million species at risk of extinction due to human activity was deemed too much for many to bear. But last Sunday night, viewers did not reach for the off button.

“I thought the figures would just go off a cliff if I am totally frank,” Jack Bootle, the BBC’s head of science and natural history commissioning, told the Guardian.

“What actually happened, to my delight, was the opposite. Viewers rose really dramatically over the course of the hour. So by the end of the hour, it picked up an additional 0.6 million viewers, which is a lot in our book. I think that people couldn’t quite tear themselves away.”

One of the two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, featured in Extinction: The Facts.
 One of the two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, featured in Extinction: The Facts. Photograph: Charlotte Lathane/BBC

Attenborough and leading scientists told a peak audience of 4.5 million about two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, a disappearing orca pod off the Hebrides and pangolin trafficking. The heartbreak and the horror were a jolting departure from the mega series that celebrate the beauty of the natural world with a limited mention of environmental damage.

Later this autumn, after a short cinematic release, it will be Netflix’s turn to air a stark warning about biodiversity loss, with Attenborough presenting A Life On Our Planet. The film retraces his career, each life stage and natural history film accompanied by the drum beat of human population growth and the loss of wilderness areas. The film begins in Chernobyl – an obvious metaphor for what is to come if humanity does not act – before explaining the importance of a plant-based diet and urging viewers to rewild the planet.

So why the sudden switch to a no-holds barred approach?.

“The responsibility of being a balanced public service has now been reduced to a considerable degree,” he told the Guardian in March, as the pandemic was starting to build. “But it’s also that the problem itself has suddenly become overwhelming and worldwide.”

This week has seen a slew of reports warning that “humanity is at a crossroads” in its relationship with nature, culminating in a UN report that the world has failed to meet a single target to stop the destruction of nature in the last decade.

Intensive agriculture, such as this palm oil plantation in Borneo, has lead to a loss of biodiversity.
 Intensive agriculture, such as this palm oil plantation in Borneo, has lead to a loss of biodiversity. Photograph: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet/Netflix

But explaining the subject matter of films about the destruction of nature and how it relates to human wellbeing is a challenge. “I don’t think that the theoretical basis for the reason why biodiversity is important is a widely understood one,” Attenborough said.


What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

“But I think there’s a profound understanding beneath, as it were, logic that the natural world is of great importance. The biological argument about why, in fact, a complex ecosystem is more likely to survive and change and be productive than a simplified one in which the number of species has been grossly reduced.”

Julia Patricia Gordon Jones, a conservation professor at Bangor University, appeared in Extinction: The Facts and has been tracking the change in language and image use in nature films. The Madagascar expert had grown increasingly frustrated with the portrayals of an apparently untouched natural world in Attenborough documentaries over the years.

Jones spent three weeks with the Our Planet team in 2015 while they were making the Netflix hit series on the western edge of the African island, filming fossas – lemur-hunting carnivores. The team’s camp was threatened by fire – a huge problem in Madagascar’s dry forests – and the habitat where they shot the footage of fossas had disappeared by the time the show appeared on Netflix.

“The footage from the Madagascar sequences was brilliant but they ended them with, ‘since we filmed this, these forests have gone up in flames’. I was, like, you spent nights getting drone footage of fires, going out early in the morning watching the fires,” she said. “The fires were burning right up to the camp there and then but none of that made the cut because they still wanted to perpetuate that people are going to switch off if they see anything sad.”

The new Attenborough documentaries emphasise the disastrous consequences of species extinction.
 The new Attenborough documentaries emphasise the disastrous consequences of species extinction. Photograph: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet/Netflix

Extinction: The Facts was different, Jones wrote in a blogpost for the Conversation, a “surprisingly radical” departure from the past. She expects the Netflix film A Life On Our Planet to be the same.

“I think it’s the film that’s desperately needed,” Jones said. “We’ve all had this guy telling us about the wonders of the natural world for almost three generations, and to have the personal story of his own reflection of what he’s seen, the loss, I think that’s going to be massive.”

 David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will premiere in cinemas on 28 September

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

Discovery of a new mass extinction

Discovery of a new mass extinction
Summary of major extinction events through time, highlighting the new, Carnian Pluvial Episode at 233 million years ago. Credit: D. Bonadonna/ MUSE, Trento

It’s not often a new mass extinction is identified; after all, such events were so devastating they really stand out in the fossil record. In a new paper, published today in Science Advances, an international team has identified a major extinction of life 233 million years ago that triggered the dinosaur takeover of the world. The crisis has been called the Carnian Pluvial Episode.

The cause was most likely massive volcanic eruptions in the Wrangellia Province of western Canada, where huge volumes of volcanic basalt was poured out and forms much of the western coast of North America.

“The eruptions peaked in the Carnian,” says Jacopo Dal Corso. “I was studying the geochemical signature of the eruptions a few years ago and identified some massive effects on the atmosphere worldwide. The eruptions were so huge, they pumped vast amounts of greenhouse gases like , and there were spikes of global warming”.The warming was associated with increased rainfall, and this had been detected back in the 1980s by geologists Mike Simms and Alastair Ruffell as a humid episode lasting about 1 million years in all. The  caused major biodiversity loss in the ocean and on land, but just after the  new groups took over, forming more modern-like ecosystems. The shifts in climate encouraged growth of plant life, and the expansion of modern conifer forests.

“The new floras probably provided slim pickings for the surviving herbivorous reptiles,” said Professor Mike Benton. “I had noted a floral switch and ecological catastrophe among the herbivores back in 1983 when I completed my Ph.D. We now know that dinosaurs originated some 20 million years before this event, but they remained quite rare and unimportant until the Carnian Pluvial Episode hit. It was the sudden arid conditions after the humid episode that gave dinosaurs their chance.”

It wasn’t just dinosaurs, but also many modern groups of plants and animals also appeared at this time, including some of the first turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and the first mammals.

The Carnian Pluvial Episode also had an impact on ocean life. It marks the start of modern-style coral reefs, as well as many of the modern groups of plankton, suggesting profound changes in the ocean chemistry and carbonate cycle.

“So far, palaeontologists had identified five “big” mass extinctions in the past 500 million years of the history of life,” says Jacopo Dal Corso. “Each of these had a profound effect on the evolution of the Earth and of life. We have identified another great extinction event, and it evidently had a major role in helping to reset life on land and in the oceans, marking the origins of modern ecosystems.”

Why Birds Survived, and Dinosaurs Went Extinct, After an Asteroid Hit Earth

Paleontologists think that beaks may have given birds an advantage over other creatures

Great Spotted Woodpecker
A great spotted woodpecker eats a hazelnut. Bird beaks may have allowed the animals to eat seeds and nuts after an asteroid hit the earth, wiping out many forms of life. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Birds are the only dinosaurs left. That might seem strange. A pigeon or a penguin doesn’t look much like a Tyrannosaurus. But the connection is still there, all the way down to the bone. About 150 million years ago, in the Jurassic, the first birds evolved from small, feathery, raptor-like dinosaurs, becoming another branch on the dinosaur family tree. For more than 80 million years, birds of all sorts flourished, from loon-like swimmers with teeth to beaked birds that carried streamer-like feathers as they flew.

With hindsight, birds can be categorized as avian dinosaurs and all the other sorts—from Stegosaurus to Brontosaurus—are non-avian dinosaurs. The entire reason paleontologists make that split is because of a catastrophe that struck 66 million years ago. An asteroid more than 6 miles across struck what’s now the Yucatan Peninsula, triggering the fifth mass extinction in the world’s history. Some of the debris thrown into the atmosphere returned to Earth, the friction turning the air into an oven and sparking forest fires as it landed all over the world. Then the intensity of the heat pulse gave way to a prolonged impact winter, the sky blotted out by soot and ash as temperatures fell. All told, more than 75 percent of species known from the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 million years ago, didn’t make it to the following Paleogene period. The geologic break between the two is called the K-Pg boundary, and beaked birds were the only dinosaurs to survive the disaster.

“There has been a lot of discussion about what enabled modern-type birds to survive the K-Pg extinction while other birds groups, non-avian dinosaurs, and even pterosaurs perished,” says Royal BC Museum paleontologist Derek Larson. The end of the Cretaceous boasted an entire array of birds and bird-like reptiles. But of these groups, it was only the beaked birds that survived. The happenstances of evolution had given birds a lucky break, the key events set in motion long before the asteroid struck.

All living birds have toothless beaks, but this wasn’t always so. The very first bird, the 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx, initially confounded 19th century naturalists because it had teeth. For tens of millions of years after Archaeopteryx, toothed birds continued to thrive and evolve alongside their dinosaurian relatives. And some of these toothed birds eventually lost their teeth, plucking up their meals with toothless beaks instead.

The question is what evolutionary pressures pushed birds to lose teeth when teeth seem so useful. Given that most birds fly, adaptation to the air seemed like a possibility. “Older hypotheses focused on the idea of weight reduction for flight,” says University of Texas at Austin paleontologist Grace Musser, but the discovery that some toothed birds were strong fliers has led researchers back to the drawing board.

Rather than flight, food might have given birds an evolutionary nudge towards toothless beaks as ancient avians thrived among other dinosaurs. Paleontologists have noticed that some dinosaur groups, including birds, evolved beaks and lost teeth as they became more herbivorous. While the earliest birds had teeth to nab insects and other small morsels, some bird lineages started to specialize on fruit, seeds, and other plant foods. Instead of teeth to catch, the birds evolved beaks to pluck and pick.

Among the birds that began to lose teeth in favor of beaks, the way beaks form during development may have helped the evolutionary shift. “Changes to the skull and face as the beak became more complex may have moved developing tissues around, changing how they interact in the embryo, and resulted in the loss of tooth formation,” says King’s College London anatomist Abigail Tucker.

“All the things that make birds, birds, were already in place well before the mass extinction,” says University College London anatomist Ryan Felice.

When the extinction struck, the traits birds had been evolving for millions of years made the difference between life and death. While some birds survived the impact and its aftermath, not all of them did. “When we think about hypotheses of traits that let birds survive, we need to take into account that it was only a small sliver of diversity that made it to the other side,” Felice says. Entire groups of birds, such as toothed birds called enantiornithes, went extinct. It’s unlikely that one single trait determined the fate of all these species. Still, surviving extinction often comes down to luck, and beaks may have been some birds’ ace.

By the end of the Cretaceous, beaked birds were already eating a much more varied diet than their toothed relatives. These birds weren’t specialized on insects or other animal food, and so they were able to pluck up hard food items like seeds and nuts. And in the aftermath of the extinction, when animal life was severely cut back, those hard, persistent little morsels got beaked birds through the hard times. Beaked birds were able to feed on the seeds of the destroyed forests and wait out the decades until vegetation began to return.

Both fossils and the timeline of bird evolution discerned from their genetic relationships indicates that early members of modern bird groups—such as birds related to ducks, parrots, and chickens—were around by time the asteroid struck. These groups still suffered losses, but enough survived to set up a new pulse of bird evolution in the millions of years following the catastrophe. Many bird lineages became smaller in size while maintaining their brain size. Through evolutionary shrinking, birds wound up with larger brains compared to their body size, setting the stage for avian intelligence beyond what the non-avian dinosaurs could have evolved.

But big evolutionary changes often come with constraints. “The loss of teeth does limit the number of dietary niches birds could explore,” Felice says. “Herbivorous mammals and non-avian dinosaurs evolved ever-growing teeth so that could continue eating as the plants wore their teeth down, but this just isn’t possible with a beak,” Felice says. And that means that bird skulls haven’t needed to vary as much to support different jaws and ways of feeding, meaning that birds look like evolutionary slowpokes compared to non-avian dinosaurs—as Felice and colleagues found in a new study of bird skull evolution.

To understand more about how birds managed to survive and make a living in a world recovering from one of the worst mass extinctions of all time, the task at hand is to find more fossils from the time directly following the mass extinction, from a time called the Paleocene. Paleontologists have some great examples of fossil birds from about 10 million years after the disaster, from a time called the Eocene, but birds fossils from the slice in between the Cretaceous and Eocene are fragmentary and hard to find. These are the bones that may reveal new secrets.

Sir David Attenborough makes stark warning about species extinction

Media captionSir David Attenborough met some of the few remaining gorillas in the Virunga Mountains at the time some 40 years ago

Sir David Attenborough returns to our screens this weekend with a landmark new production.

The tone of the programme is very different from his usual work.

For once Britain’s favourite naturalist is not here to celebrate the incredible diversity of life on Earth but to issue us all with a stark warning.

The one-hour film, Extinction: The Facts, will be broadcast on BBC One in the UK on Sunday 13 September at 20:00 BST.

“We are facing a crisis”, he warns at the start, “and one that has consequences for us all.”

What follows is a shocking reckoning of the damage our species has wrought on the natural world.

Scenes of destruction

There are the stunning images of animals and plants you would expect from an Attenborough production, but also horrific scenes of destruction.

In one sequence monkeys leap from trees into a river to escape a huge fire.

In another a koala limps across a road in its vain search for shelter as flames consume the forest around it.

Image captionPangolins are trafficked in great numbers for their scales

There is a small army of experts on hand to quantify the scale of the damage to the ecosystems of the world.

Of the estimated eight million species on Earth, a million are now threatened with extinction, one expert warns.

Since 1970, vertebrate animals – birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians – have declined by 60%, another tells us.

We meet the world’s last two northern white rhinos.

These great beasts used to be found in their thousands in Central Africa but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss and hunting.

“Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale told by conservationists,” says James Mwenda, the keeper who looks after them, “but I have lived it, I know what it is.”

Northern white rhino
Image captionJames Mwenda: ‘Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale’

James strokes and pets the giant animals but it becomes clear they represent the last of their kind when he tells us that Najin and Fatu are mother and daughter.

Species have always come and gone, that’s how evolution works. But, says Sir David, the rate of extinction has been rising dramatically.

It is reckoned to be now happening at 100 times the natural evolutionary rate – and is accelerating.

“Over the course of my life I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals,” says Sir David, in one of the most moving sequences in the film.

“Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been – many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever.”

Crisis in the natural world

Sir David is at pains to explain that this isn’t just about losing the magnificent creatures he has featured in the hundreds of programmes he has made in his six decades as a natural history film-maker.

The loss of pollinating insects could threaten the food crops we depend on. Trees and other plants regulate water flow and produce the oxygen we breathe. Meanwhile, the seas are being emptied of fish.

There is now about 5% of trawler-caught fish left compared with before the turn of the 20th century, one expert says.

The northern white rhino
Image captionTwo female rhinos are the last of their kind

But the pandemic provides perhaps the most immediate example of the risks of our ever-increasing encroachment into the natural world, as we have all been learning in the most brutal fashion over the last six months.

The programme tracks the suspected origins of coronavirus to populations of bats living in cave systems in Yunnan province in China.

We see the Chinese “wet market” in Wuhan which specialises in the sale of wild animals for human consumption and is thought to have been linked with many of the early infections.

Cause for hope

The programme is uncompromising in its depiction of the crisis in the natural world, admits Serena Davies, who directed the programme.

“Our job is to report the reality the evidence presents,” she explains.

But the programme does not leave the audience feeling that all is lost. Sir David makes clear there is still cause for hope.

“His aim is not to try and drag the audience into the depths of despair,” says Ms Davies, “but to take people on a journey that makes them realise what is driving these issues we can also solve them.”

The programme ends in iconic style.

We see one of the most celebrated moments in all the films Sir David has made in his long career, the moment he met a band of gorillas in the mountains on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Image captionGorillas face many threats but there is hope for their recovery

A young gorilla called Poppy tries to take off his shoes as he speaks to the camera.

“It was an experience that stayed with me,” says Sir David, “but it was tinged with sadness, as I thought I might be seeing some of the last of their kind.”

The programme makers have been back to Rwanda and, after a long trek, spot Poppy’s daughter and granddaughter in the deep forest scrub.

We learn that the Rwandan government has worked with local people to protect the animal and that the gorillas are thriving.

There were 250 when Sir David visited in the 1970s, now there are more than 1,000.

It shows, says Sir David, what we can achieve when we put our minds to it.

“I may not be here to see it,” he concludes, “but if we make the right decisions at this critical moment, we can safeguard our planet’s ecosystems, its extraordinary biodiversity and all its inhabitants.”

His final line packs a powerful punch: “What happens next”, says Sir David, “is up to every one of us.”

You can see David Attenborough’s, Extinction: The Facts, on BBC One in the UK on Sunday 13 September at 20:00 BST.

Human activity has wiped out two-thirds of world’s wildlife since 1970, landmark report says