(CNN)London commuters dragged climate change protesters off the top of trains on Thursday morning, as clashes broke out between peak-hour passengers and activists who disrupted travel in the British capital.
The pangolin, a unique and protected species among Bornean mammals in Sarawak, is to have its classification upgraded to the “totally protected” category in the state. — NSTP Archive By Bernama – October 14, 2019 @ 10:00pm
KUCHING: The pangolin, a unique and protected species among Bornean mammals in Sarawak, is to have its classification upgraded to the “totally protected” category in the state.
The animal, which is also known as the “Scaly Anteater” or its scientific name Manis javanica, has been topping the chart as the most frequently seized mammal in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade and is currently facing extinction.
Naming the shy and quiet animal as his favourite, Sarawak Forestry Corporation Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Zolkipli Mohamad Aton said the corporation would conduct a study to find out its current population, before submitting a proposal to the government to upgrade its category.
This, he said, was a common procedure.
However, he added that if there were indicators, for instance from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, saying that they had to do it immediately than the classification upgrade would be made a priority.
“For now, on our job list, we want to review our Wildlife Masterplan, after that the relevant laws, but if there are indicators by outsiders, if they say, look you must do it, if not they (species) will go extinct, then we have to put it as priority,” he said.
In Sarawak, species that are totally protected may not be kept as pets, hunted, captured, killed, sold, imported or exported or disturbed in any way, nor may anyone be in possession of any recognizable part of these animals.
Animals in the category include the proboscis monkey, the bornean gibbon, rhinoceros, naked bat, dugong and marine turtles.
Zolkipli said Sarawak still had quite a number of pangolin, but in other states, the numbers were declining.
“So, these smugglers now want to come over here (Sarawak). We have been warned by other people, better look after your pangolins.”
He said the animal, being a rare and hardly seen species, had numerous myths surrounded it, especially among traditional medicine practitioners, which contributed to demand, among others, for its scales.
“They say it has medicinal value, but I can quote an article by the World Conservation Society that says that pangolins scales are made of keratin, which is the same material as human fingernails, so in reality there is no medicinal value there, but because of tradition, people tend to go for these things.
“There are some who like its meat, but pangolin meat is not even fleshy,” he said.
Zolkipli said the SFC would also review its wildlife-related laws to increase the penalty for offenders.
Traffic Southeast Asia director Kanitha Krishnasamy, in an article earlierthis year, posed a rather intriguing question about the penalty involving offences related to wildlife smuggling in the country and wanted state governments to review their laws.
Citing a case on Feb 7 this year, where Sabah Police and the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) shut down a pangolin processing factory and warehouse after seizing 30 tonnes of pangolin and body parts.
She was quoted as saying that the maximum amount of fine under the state’s enactment was nowhere near the syndicate’s possible revenue.
“This is also important because the worst financial penalty the suspect in the Feb 7 case may get, if convicted under the Sabah’s Wildlife Conservation Enactment, is a fine of RM250,000.
“Meanwhile authorities have valued the seized items at RM8.4 million, making the syndicate’s revenue 33 times higher than the law’s heftiest fine,” she was quoted as saying.
The pangolin, with its prehensile tail and lacking teeth, normally eats ants and termites taken from nests in trees, on the ground or below ground with insect nests opened with their strongly clawed feet and the contents licked up with the long, sticky tongue.
Usually nocturnal, sleeping during the daytime in underground burrows, it is mostly seen on roads at night, where it is slow-moving and conspicuous, although the eyes reflect very little light. – Bernama
Animals are disappearing at hundreds of times the normal rate, primarily because of shrinking habitats. Their biggest threat: humans.
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Most of the animals shown here are among the more than 28,000 species of animals and plants that the International Union for Conservation of Nature says are threatened with extinction. That number actually understates the risk. Since 1964, when the IUCN established a “red list” of threatened species and began compiling data gathered worldwide, the list has become the preeminent global database of endangered life and an essential tool for conservation policy. Yet the IUCN has been able to assess only about 106,000 species of the more than 1.5 million species of animals and more than 300,000 plants that scientists have described and named—which they estimate is less than a quarter of what’s really out there. A recent intergovernmental report on the biodiversity crisis estimated that extinction threatens up to a million animal and plant species, known and unknown. The IUCN hopes to raise the number of species assessments to 160,000 by 2020. Next up on its agenda: a “green list” of conservation successes. It will be much shorter than the red one.
THE BIGGEST THREAT: HUMANS
Habitat loss—driven primarily by human expansion as we develop land for housing, agriculture, and commerce—is the biggest threat facing most animal species, followed by hunting and fishing. Even when habitat is not lost entirely, it may be changed so much that animals cannot adapt. Fences fragment a grassland or logging cuts through a forest, breaking up migration corridors; pollution renders a river toxic; pesticides kill widely and indiscriminately. To those local threats one must increasingly add global ones: Trade, which spreads disease and invasive species from place to place, and climate change, which eventually will affect every species on Earth—starting with the animals that live on cool mountaintops or depend on polar ice. All of these threats lead, directly or indirectly, back to humans and our expanding footprint. Most species face multiple threats. Some can adapt to us; others will vanish.
If we lived in an ordinary time—time here being understood in the long, unhurried sense of a geologic epoch—it would be nearly impossible to watch a species vanish. Such an event would occur too infrequently for a person to witness. In the case of mammals, the best-studied group of animals, the fossil record indicates that the “background” rate of extinction, the one that prevailed before humans entered the picture, is so low that over the course of a millennium, a single species should disappear.
But of course we don’t live in an ordinary time. Everywhere we look, species are winking out. Just in the past decade, two mammal species have gone extinct: a bat known as the Christmas Island pipistrelle and a rat, the Bramble Cay melomys.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than 200 mammal species and subspecies as critically endangered. In some cases, like the Sumatran rhino or the vaquita—a porpoise native to the Gulf of California—there are fewer than a hundred individuals left. In others, like the baiji (also known as the Yangtze River dolphin), the species, though not yet officially declared extinct, has probably died out.
And unfortunately, what goes for mammals goes for just about every other animal group: reptiles, amphibians, fish, even insects. Extinction rates today are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of times higher than the background rate. They’re so high that scientists say we’re on the brink of a mass extinction.
The last mass extinction, which did in the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, followed an asteroid impact. Today the cause of extinction seems more diffuse. It’s logging and poaching and introduced pathogens and climate change and overfishing and ocean acidification.
But trace all these back and you find yourself face-to-face with the same culprit. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson has noted that humans are the “first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.” Many scientists argue that we have entered a new geologic epoch—the Anthropocene, or age of man. This time around, in other words, the asteroid is us.
What’s lost when an animal goes extinct?
One way to think of a species, be it of ape or of ant, is as an answer to a puzzle: how to live on planet Earth. A species’ genome is a sort of manual; when the species perishes, that manual is lost. We are, in this sense, plundering a library—the library of life. Instead of the Anthropocene, Wilson has dubbed the era we are entering the Eremozoic—the age of loneliness.
Joel Sartore has been photographing animals for his Photo Ark project for 13 years. In an ever growing number of cases, animals housed in zoos or special breeding facilities are among the last remaining members of their species. In some instances, they are the only members.
Toughie, a Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog from central Panama, lived at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He became the last known of his kind when a fungal disease swept through his native habitat and a captive-breeding program failed. Toughie died in 2016, and it’s likely the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog is now extinct.
Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog that lives at the natural history museum in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was likewise believed to be a sole survivor. Scientists created an online dating profile for him. It linked to a donation page, and the $25,000 raised helped fund expeditions in the eastern Andes, where the species was once abundant.
Amazingly, the search has revealed five more Sehuencas water frogs, two males and three females. All were taken to Cochabamba; the one female mature enough to breed with Romeo was named Juliet. Whether she will prove a worthy mate and perpetuate the species, no one knows.
Was the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog beautiful? Not in the flashy way of, say, the Spix’s macaw (which is believed to be extinct in the wild) or the Gee’s golden langur (which is endangered). But with its expressive brown eyes and gangly limbs, it had its own kind of charm.
Sartore treats all creatures—great and small, handsome and homely—with reverence. His photos capture what’s singular and, I’d also like to say, soulful about every living thing. One of my favorite images of Joel’s is of a Partula nodosa, or niho tree snail, laying down a trail of slime. There used to be dozens of Partula species in the South Pacific, occupying different islands and different ecological niches. Much like Darwin’s finches, they are the darlings of evolutionary biologists—living, slime-producing illustrations of the power of natural selection. The introduction of carnivorous snails from Florida drove nearly a third of the Partula species extinct; several survive solely thanks to captive-breeding programs.
Precisely because extinction takes place so frequently now, it’s possible to become inured to it. This desensitizing is what makes Sartore’s images so crucial: They show us just how remarkable each species is that’s being lost.
We live in an extraordinary time. Perhaps by recognizing this, we can begin to imagine creating a different one—one that preserves, as much as is still possible, the wonderful diversity of life.
Since the 1980s, a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, likely spread through direct contact and by infected water, has ravaged global amphibian populations. More than 500 species have been affected; 90 of these may be extinct. The fungus disrupts transmission of electrolytes through the skin of a frog or toad, ultimately stopping its heart.
THREAT: INVASIVE SPECIES
THREAT: HABITAT LOSS
Butterflies can fly long distances and feed on many types of flowers, but caterpillars are locavores, eating plants they hatch on or near. As those plants are lost to development or farming, butterflies disappear. The ones here aren’t listed by the IUCN—which has evaluated only 8,100 insect species—but are considered at risk by other authorities.
For tree-dwelling lemurs, there’s no life without the forest—or Madagascar, their only home. Yet the island nation has lost 80 percent of its trees to development, charcoal production, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Lemurs are squeezed into limited protected areas; 38 species are critically endangered. Fuel-efficient stoves are being introduced to encourage people to reduce wood use and protect forest habitat.
LONDON (Reuters) – Thousands of climate activists took to the streets of cities around the world on Monday, launching two weeks of peaceful civil disobedience to demand immediate action to cut carbon emissions and avert an ecological disaster.
In London, police arrested 135 activists from the Extinction Rebellion group as they blocked bridges and roads in the city center, and glued themselves to cars, while protesters in Berlin halted traffic at the Victory Column roundabout.
Dutch police stepped in to arrest more than 100 climate change activists blocking a street in front of the country’s national museum and there were similar protests in Austria, Spain, New Zealand and Australia.
“SORRY that we blocked the road, but this is an emergency,” declared placards held by activists in Amsterdam.
The protests are part of an international two-week campaign coordinated by Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group that rose to prominence in April when it disrupted traffic in central London for 11 days.
They are the latest in a string of demonstrations against climate change. Last month, millions of young people flooded onto the streets of cities around the world, inspired to take action by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
Banging drums and chanting, protesters in London took over Trafalgar Square and marched down the Mall, the avenue that leads to Buckingham Palace, carrying banners with slogans such as “Climate change denies our children a future unless we act now”.
“We’re here because the government is not doing enough on the climate emergency,” protester Lizzy Mansfield said in London. “We only get one planet and so we’re here to try and defend it.”
Police chiefs said last week they would mobilize thousands of officers to handle the protests in London and anyone who broke the law, even as part of non-violent civil disobedience, would be arrested.
On Saturday, officers used a battering ram to enter a building in south London where activists had been storing materials to use during the protests. Eight people were arrested during the raid.
‘OUT OF TIME’
Defying almost freezing temperatures in Berlin, activists singing “Solid as a rock, rooted as a tree” gathered at dawn at the Victory Column roundabout near Berlin’s Tiergarten park.
At sunrise, some were sleeping in insulated bags in the middle of the roundabout as police on motorbikes drove by. No arrests were made and the protest remained peaceful.
Police blocked the five avenues that converge on the roundabout to stop cars and buses reaching the demonstration, as it would have resulted in traffic chaos during rush hour.
By midday, the protest had swelled to 4,000 people, a policeman said, and a second main roundabout was also blocked by activists sitting in the middle of the road.
The rally came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended climate protection measures her government is due to approve on Wednesday that have been condemned by critics as unambitious.
In Amsterdam, police were lining up empty city buses to take the arrested demonstrators away as they tried to clear a major thoroughfare in the afternoon.
“The climate crisis is not being taken seriously enough by politics, and also not by the companies. That’s why I joined,” said one demonstrator, who gave his name as Christiaan.
Slideshow (14 Images)
Meanwhile activists in London, some wearing yellow safety helmets with “Rebel at Work” painted on the side, glued or chained themselves to cars parked in the middle of roads or to street lamps, making it hard for police officers to detain them.
“We are out of time, there is none left, we have to act now,” said a protester called Benjamin.
Morgan and Adam have always wanted children but fears over climate change are making them reconsider.
The committed pair, aged 36 and 35, are part of a growing trend for young couples to abandon plans for a family because of the climate crisis.
Millions of people around the world rallied for climate action over the past two days, including 300,000 in Australia on Friday, ahead of a United Nations climate action summit on Monday.
“I feel so sad, it’s such a hard thing to let go of,” says Morgan, who works in logistics. “My conscience says, ‘I can’t give this child what I’ve enjoyed, I can’t give them the certainty of a future where they can be all that they can be … or have the things they should have, like breathable air and drinkable water’.”
Morgan is feeling “pretty damn certain” a baby is off the cards, even though she fears she might regret it. She has at least two close friends in their early 30s, with good partners, who have made the same decision.
Her partner Adam, who works in web development, agrees. “I have a lot of love to give and would love to raise a child … but it doesn’t feel justifiable. The world is heading blindfolded towards catastrophe.”
Prince Harry made headlines when he revealed in an interview in British Vogue, in the September issue guest-edited by his wife Meghan, that the couple would have two children “maximum” for the sake of the planet.
The idea of limiting family size to two children to represent net zero population growth has been around for decades. But is no children the new two children?
Dr Bronwyn Harman, a lecturer at Edith Cowan University in Perth who studies people without children, says it is a progression of the same theme. She says some people are avoiding parenthood because they are worried for their unborn children, while others are motivated not to make things worse.
“They’re saying things like ‘we don’t want to add children into the mix and put more strain on the planet’,” Harman says. “It’s started coming up [in my research] in the past six months but it’s not very common.”
The phenomenon is growing. The Age and Sun-Herald have spoken to 20 and 30-somethings all over Australia wrestling with the dilemma. Most asked to use first names only to avoid online harassment.
“I’m terrified that in another 50 years, if my hypothetical child was all grown up, what would our world look like?” says Jessica Ivers, 29. The digital specialist and yoga teacher from Northcote in Melbourne says she is “100 per cent certain” about her choice.
In Mackay in Queensland, community organiser Emma, 32, says she and her partner Mick, 33, were planning to start trying for a family next year but changed their minds after the federal election.
“After the LNP won – with no climate plan – we cried and agreed that the dream of a family wouldn’t be for us,” Emma says. “It’s a terrifying thought for us that the world will be uninhabitable in a few decades if we continue charging ahead with fossil fuels and approving coal mines like Adani.”
Melanie, 24, from Highgate Hill in Brisbane terminated an unplanned pregnancy last year and says the climate crisis was the “ultimate deciding factor”. She read scientific articles about the best and worst-case scenarios and decided she would never have children.
“It’s been a hard year coming to terms with the reality of the situation,” says Melanie. “I cannot justify bringing children into a world in the midst of a mass extinction event and facing total ecological collapse. “
Shalini, 33, and David, 35, from Summer Hill in Sydney have decided not to have biological children but would like to adopt or foster in the future.
“It makes more sense for us to look after a child that is here and needs someone rather than make more children,” says David, a 3D animation artist.
Shalini, a public servant, says climate change is a big reason, along with her focus on career.
“I don’t eat meat and I’m really conscious about consuming goods and services that that are more sustainably produced and in the same vein, I don’t want to produce more people,” Shalini says. She finds it hard to discuss with friends because she doesn’t want them to feel judged.
Maddie, 32, from the lower north shore, sought counselling to deal with her grief and anxiety over climate change and her dilemma over having children.
“My psychologist is having more and more couples coming to her about this,” she says. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘this is not a manifestation of normal anxiety, this is a real threat and real grief that you’re carrying’.”
Maddie would love children but feels an obligation to fight for her newborn niece and friends’ children instead.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest one in four women aged 15 to 35 will never have children. Harman says roughly two-thirds of those women make an active choice to be “child-free” while one-third are “childless” because of circumstances, including fears over the state of the world.
A global trend
In Britain musician and activist Blythe Pepino, 33, kicked off the “BirthStrike” – a movement of people pledging not to have children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat”.
In February, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented on the grim scientific outlook and political inaction: “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK still to have children?”
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American singer and actress Miley Cyrus, 26, told Elle magazine’s August 2019 US issue that Millennials didn’t want to reproduce because they knew the Earth could not handle it.
“We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child,” Cyrus says. “Until I feel like my kid would live on an Earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.”
Yet even at the coalface of climate change research, some see this as extreme. Earlier this month, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation (parent body of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), weighed into the debate.
“The latest idea is that children are a negative thing,” Taalas told a Finnish magazine. “I am worried for young mothers, who are already under much pressure. This will only add to their burden.”
He warned facts could be hijacked to justify “extreme measures” in the name of climate action.
Taalas told The Sun-Herald in a statement he supports strong climate action and a science-based approach offers hope.
“We must not be driven to despair, given that reasonable solutions are available to the international community, governments and civil society,” he says.
UCLA evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of many species of large carnivores—including wolves, lions and tigers— that lived from 50,000 years ago to the present. She reports today in the journal eLife the answer to a puzzling question.
In the research, Van Valkenburgh reports a strong link between an increase in broken teeth and a decline in the amount of available food, as large carnivores work harder to catch dwindling numbers of prey, and eat more of it, down to the bones.
“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” said Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology.
For the new research, Van Valkenburgh studied the skulls of gray wolves—160 skulls of adult wolves housed in the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Montana; 64 adult wolf skulls from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior that are housed at Michigan Technological University; and 94 skulls from Scandinavia, collected between 1998 and 2010, housed in the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. She compared these with the skulls of 223 wolves that died between 1874 and 1952, from Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho and Canada.
Yellowstone had no wolves, Van Valkenburgh said, between the 1920s and 1995, when 31 gray wolves were brought to the national park from British Columbia. About 100 wolves have lived in Yellowstone for more than a decade, she said.
In Yellowstone, more than 90% of the wolves’ prey are elk. The ratio of elk to wolves has declined sharply, from more than 600-to-1 when wolves were brought back to the national park to about 100-to-1 more recently.
In the first 10 years after the reintroduction, the wolves did not break their teeth much and did not eat the elk completely, Van Valkenburgh reports. In the following 10 years, as the number of elk declined, the wolves ate more of the elk’s body, and the number of broken teeth doubled, including the larger teeth wolves use when hunting and chewing.
The pattern was similar in the island park of Isle Royale. There, the wolves’ prey are primarily adult moose, but moose numbers are low and their large size makes them difficult to capture and kill. Isle Royale wolves had high frequencies of broken and heavily worn teeth, reflecting the fact that they consumed about 90% of the bodies of the moose they killed.
Scandinavian wolves presented a different story. The ratio of moose to wolves is nearly 500-to-1 in Scandinavia and only 55-to-1 in Isle Royale, and, consistent with Van Valkenburgh’s hypothesis, Scandinavian wolves consumed less of the moose they killed (about 70%) than Isle Royale wolves. Van Valkenburgh did not find many broken teeth among the Scandinavian wolves. “The wolves could find moose easily, not eat the bones, and move on,” she said.
Van Valkenburgh believes her findings apply beyond gray wolves, which are well-studied, to other large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears.
Extremely high rates of broken teeth have been recorded for large carnivores—such as lions, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats—from the Pleistocene epoch, dating back tens of thousands of years, compared with their modern counterparts, Van Valkenburgh said. Rates of broken teeth from animals at the La Brea Tar Pits were two to four times higher than in modern animals, she and colleagues reported in the journal Science in the 1990s.
“Our new study suggests that the cause of this tooth fracture may have been more intense competition for food in the past than in present large carnivore communities,” Van Valkenburgh said.
She and colleagues reported in 2015 that violent attacks by packs of some of the world’s largest carnivores—including lions much larger than those of today and saber-toothed cats—went a long way toward shaping ecosystems during the Pleistocene.
In a 2016 article in the journal BioScience, Van Valkenburgh and more than 40 other wildlife experts wrote that preventing the extinction of lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants and the world’s other largest mammals will require bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide.
Discussing the new study, she said, “We want to understand the factors that increase mortality in large carnivores that, in many cases, are near extinction. Getting good information on that is difficult. Studying tooth fracture is one way to do so, and can reveal changing levels of food stress in big carnivores.”
Michael Mobbs outside his sustainable house in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Chippendale. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
Michael Mobbs, you might say, has been preparing for this moment his entire life.
The 69-year-old former environmental lawyer who, in 1996, converted his two-storey 19th century Sydney terrace into one of the world’s first inner-city self-sufficient homes, is selling his famous passion project and moving to a remote coastal location to prepare for what he predicts will be impending societal collapse induced by climate change.
That is, he says, a total breakdown within the next three to five years.
Selling his four-bedroom, off-grid Chippendale property that he purchased in 1978 for $23,500 and is now valued at $2.2m is proving more difficult than he thought. He’s had it on the market since March, but wants to sell it to someone who won’t convert the back yard into a car space, who wants to maintain the Saturday morning house tours that have attracted some 30,000 eco-curious visitors, and who will appreciate the home’s unique perks: two resident Australorp chooks named Pesky and Blanche d’Alpuget; less than $300 a year in water and energy bills for a family of four and a leafy street blooming with edible verge gardens.
The house also has a water, sewerage and electricity system completely disconnected from the mains: it is powered by solar panels and a battery storage system; clean drinking water falls on the roof and is then filtered for storage in an underground tank; and an aerated waste treatment system recycles all grey and blackwater, ensuring no raw sewage has left the premises in 23 years.
“Resilience and future proofing will be built in through an off-grid water and energy supply and robust materials suitable for extreme weather conditions,” explains architect and Fairweather Homes director Paul Adam. “With the climate emergency in full swing we need to create solutions that are affordable and accessible and also make a positive contribution to preventing climate change.”
Mobbs has narrowed the location for his new home to two sites in Australia: south-west Western Australia and Bermagui on the New South Wales south coast, both chosen because, to put it simply, “wherever there are trees, there is rainfall”. There are, of course, other strategic considerations (but more on that later).
First Mobbs has to do something he’s been deferring for a while: go “public”. Coming out as a survivalist who is abandoning the urban world is no easy step for a man who has authored two bestselling books on sustainable city living, spent two decades as a consultant to the public and private sector, lectured at universities, and has a model of his eco-friendly terrace home exhibited at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Even his two adult children, who he says remain frustratingly indifferent to the apocalypse, aren’t fully across his intentions. “I’ve tried to crabwalk into this conversation with my children,” he says, sighing. “The idea that life won’t go on for them in the same way it has gone on for me is incomprehensible.”
Mobbs has chosen the night before September’s global climate strike to speak his truth at a “talk and feast” event organised by the community group Transition Bondi. They have invited Mobbs to speak as part of a four-person panel on the topic, “What is your response to climate change?”
As soup is served, a real-life emergency is unfolding in the kitchen. An overheated kettle has triggered the fire alarm, forcing everyone to file out of the Margaret Whitlam Recreation Centre at Waverley Oval to the repetitive strains of “Emergency, emergency! Evacuate now!”
When the kettle has finally been pacified, Mobbs and the panel take their positions. Mobbs is no stranger to public speaking – quick with a quip and with a lawyer’s gift for the gab – but tonight he’s nervous, clutching printed notes which he reads from slowly.
“My guess is water, energy, food, the seasons and economies will collapse in the next three to five years,” he says. “Am I certain of these things? No. But like someone diagnosed with a cancer expected to kill me in the next five years, I am now preparing for my personal circumstances over the next few years. The star I steer by is an article by Catherine Ingram, Facing Extinction.”
The audience – who were hoping for a side of hope with their vegan meal – appear stunned. Mobbs, on the other hand, looks relieved.
Speaking to Guardian Australia in the days leading up to and following his big reveal, Mobbs admits he sometimes has moments of doubt, where he wonders if he’s just catastrophising. But he reserves most of his incredulity for people who refuse to believe it could happen here.
“I don’t debate it any more – it’s just a waste of time. What they’re saying is: ‘I find this too hard to talk about. I don’t want to listen to your point of view,’” he says.
It reminds him of the resistance he encountered when he took his inner-city home off grid – the naysayers, the builders, the hydraulic engineers, the local government officials who said it could never be done.
We’re sitting near the fireplace in Mobbs’ Myrtle Street terrace looking out through large glass doors to the landscaped back garden with its small beehive, kumquat trees and homes for micro bats. Mobbs is talking about “collapse”, which he fears, when it strikes, could unfold very quickly.
“I want to get away from the major cities because I think they’ll become unsafe. You look at what happens in places that get cyclones or tornadoes; when the food runs out and it’s hard to get power and water, civil unrest happens in about two or three days,” he says.
“People die without food and water in a week, and if there are a lot of people dying or at risk of dying, their behaviour will become uncontrollable.”
The nation-state, he believes, won’t come to the rescue. “They will look after themselves and their own. They will appropriate resources to protect their own entitlements. They won’t look after the people who voted for them.”
Even this Sydney house won’t withstand the coming crisis, Mobbs says – a point, I suggest, he probably shouldn’t stress to a prospective buyer.
He throws his head back and laughs. “I suppose I could put up a warning note: ‘Staying here is life-threatening.’”
Still, he believes those in the city who are more self-sufficient, including the future occupants of this house, will have an advantage. “[But desperate people] will come here for the water and the energy,” he says, adding drily: “Maybe I should sell it with guns.”
When, or if, such a situation arises, Mobbs wants to be well off the radar. Does he see himself as a doomsday prepper?
“Yeah, I’m looking after me – I want to survive. I doubt that I will because it’s hard to say where the water will or won’t fall.
“I’m trying to find somewhere, where even if the great conveyor belt does break down while I’m alive, there are enough trees to out-arm wrestle the ocean and retain the rainfall.”
Enter Bermagui, the frontrunner for his haven from climate disaster. The town of 1,500 people flanked by ocean and forest and midway between Sydney and Melbourne first came to his attention during a chance encounter with chef turned urban farmer Paul West, who hosts the Foxtel series River Cottage Australia.
“We did this gig together for Whitehorse City Council [in Melbourne]. Within 10 minutes we were talking like you and I were talking. He said ‘I’m moving out of my Melbourne house and back to Bermagui.’ He said ‘Come to Bermagui. It’s got two wooden bridges which could be burned down should the town need defending.’ I thought, ‘This is my man!’”
Mobbs’ annihilation anxiety can be traced back to his childhood. He grew up on a farm downstream from Forbes in the NSW central west. When he was six the Lachlan River flooded, cutting him and his family off from the world for four months, leaving them reliant on food drops from a Gypsy Moth biplane. It was young Mobbs’ first “experience of the power of water”, giving him an enduring “respect for the unpredictability of the weather”.
A number of factors coalesced in the last year to rekindle Mobb’s unease. With his children flown the coop and his marriage long over, he decided to rent out his Chippendale home for a year and relocate to Bondi Beach so he could swim in the ocean at dawn and “see who I was when I wasn’t that guy in that house”.
Three months after the move the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its dire report warning the world only had 12 years to avert a climate catastrophe.
Standing at sunrise on the golden strip of sand that lures millions of people each year, Mobbs saw a culture that “simply can’t be sustained”.
“Bondi is a kind of Andy Warhol picture writ large of good figures and narcissism at every second step,” he says. “And I found [my sustainable house] was put in perspective, I saw myself as quite an aberration – just alone with millions of people who have no concept of what the realities are and think that they have time … They seem to believe that if they have superannuation, climate change won’t apply to them.”
During that year Mobbs also took a 4,352km train trip from Perth to Sydney, a journey he describes as “just four days of dying countryside”. “I travelled through Western Australia across the Nullarbor, through South Australia, down through Broken Hill – the whole of the country is abandoned and dying,” he says.
That the mighty, flood-prone Lachlan River of his youth has now been projected by WaterNSW to run dry by March 2020 given no significant rain or government intervention, fills Mobbs with a grave fear.
When NSW premier Bob Carr opened Mobbs’ sustainable house on 9 December 1996, he declared Sydney’s first self-sufficient home “a vision of the future”.
Indeed, at last count, more than 20% of Australian homes were fitted with solar panels; this year’s national Sustainable House Day saw 252 homes open their doors to the public; and NSW now has a building sustainability index (Basix) that regulates the energy and water efficiency of new dwellings.
In those two decades Mobbs has had significant wins against the state, including Sydney Water, which for years after he’d disconnected his home from the sewage and water mains continued to send him bills (when he didn’t pay up, he says, they threatened to disconnect him). “[Eventually] they came round and did a smoke test. And their faces fell,” he says, grinning.
But Mobbs is still locked in an ideological battle with Sydney Water, which he sees as prioritising desalination plants over home rainwater tanks and wastewater recycling systems. The dwindling H2O levels in his own underground storage system is a daily reminder of the city’s water insecurity – in recent years he’s had to increasingly rely on his neighbour’s garden hose to top up his tank. The latest worst-case scenario projection from WaterNSW is that Warragamba Dam – Sydney’s primary water supply – will stop flowing by January 2022.
“I’ve done my best here and it hasn’t been enough,” Mobbs says of his Sydney ecohome. “I see what I’ve done as a failure. Not a tragic failure – I mean it’s changed things such as building regulations … This house has brought more change than political argument has. I’ve given up political strategising. The political process is just too slow for the problems we face. I’m hoping if we can do a good job with this [prefabricated sustainable home] project, we can achieve change.”
Next week Mobbs will jump on a bus (he doesn’t own a car) at Central Station and travel eight hours south of Sydney to Bermagui to look for land to buy and establish contacts in a patch of NSW he foresees will be his next home.
“Is Bermagui somewhere I want to go?” he says. “Sort of yes, sort of no. Somebody gave the analogy of the Jews in Germany [before the Holocaust]. They said there were three types of Jews: those who said ‘We can’t trust [Hitler], we’re leaving.’ There were people who said ‘I think we can manage him and bring him round.’ There were others who said ‘It’ll never happen to us, we’ll be right.’ And the same forms of denial and acceptance are in the conversations I’m having now.
“It’s hard to work out how to live in the face of impending collapse and my solution – aside from whisky and wine and gardening – is to do things that have meaning for others and to show faith that it’s possible to do this stuff.”
One September evening, Sydney’s long dry spell breaks. Days of downpours follow, during which Mobbs monitors with a childlike joy as his 10,000 litre back yard inner-city rainwater tank fills to 96% capacity.
One morning that week I receive an email. “Beautiful sound of rain on my tin roof as I write this. More than ever the sound is so gratifying,” he says.
He signs off the email with a simple message, but on that saturated morning it rings like a prayer for a parched country.
“May the raindrops be with you.”
Humans are a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth, according to Sir David Attenborough.
The television presenter said that humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources.
He said the only way to save the planet from famine and species extinction is to limit human population growth.
“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he told the Radio Times.
Sir David, who is a patron of the Population Matters, has spoken out before about the “frightening explosion in human numbers” and the need for investment in sex education and other voluntary means of limiting population in developing countries.
“We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.”
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Sir David, whose landmark series are repeated from Monday on BBC2, starting with Life on Earth, has also spoken out about the change in wildlife documentaries during his lifetime.
The 86-year-old said commentary from presenters like himself are becoming less necessary as camera work is able to tell a story.
“I’m not sure there’s any need for a new Attenborough,” he said. “The more you go on, the less you need people standing between you and the animal and the camera waving their arms about.
“It’s much cheaper to get someone in front of a camera describing animal behaviour than actually showing you [the behaviour]. That takes a much longer time. But the kind of carefully tailored programmes in which you really work at the commentary, you really match pictures to words, is a bit out of fashion now … regarded as old hat.”
- The planet appears to be undergoing a mass extinction: the sixth time in the history of life on Earth that global fauna has experienced a major collapse in numbers.
- Historically, mass extinctions have been caused by catastrophic events like asteroid collisions. This time, human activities — including deforestation, mining, and carbon dioxide-emissions — are to blame.
- Frogs and insects are dying off at record rates, animal species are experiencing a “biological annihilation,” and invasive aliens are driving native species out.
- A report from the United Nations found that up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The phrase “mass extinction” typically conjures images of the asteroid crash that led to the twilight of the dinosaurs.
Upon impact, that 6-mile-wide space rock caused a tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean, along with earthquakes and landslides up and down what is now the Americas. A heat pulse baked the Earth, and the Tyrannosaurus rex and its compatriots died out, along with 75% of the planet’s species.
Although it may not be obvious, another devastating mass extinction event is taking place today — the sixth of its kind in Earth’s history. The trend is hitting global fauna on multiple fronts, as hotter oceans, deforestation, and climate change drive animal populations to drop in unprecedented numbers.
These alarming extinction trends are driven by one key factor: humans. According to a 2014 study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans weren’t around. A summary of a United Nations report released last month put it another way: “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the authors wrote.
That report, which assessed the state of our planet’s biodiversity, found that up to 1 million plant and animals species face extinction, many within decades, due to human activity.
Other recent research has led to similar conclusions: A 2017 study found that animal species around the world are experiencing a “biological annihilation” and that our current “mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume.”
Here are 18 signs that the planet is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, and why people are primarily to blame.
More than 26,500 of the world’s species are threatened with extinction, and that number is expected to keep going up.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, more than 27% of all assessed species on the planet are threatened with extinction. Currently, 40% of the planet’s amphibians, 25% of its mammals, and 33% of its coral reefs are threatened.
The IUCN predicts that 99.9% of critically endangered species and 67% of endangered species will be lost within the next 100 years.
According to the UN report, the number of species threatened with extinction could be closer to 1 million.
The UN report estimated that 40% of amphibian species, more than 33% of all marine mammals and reef-forming corals, and at least 10% of insect species are threatened. The authors also found that more than 500,000 land species already don’t have sufficient natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.
Insects are dying off at record rates. Roughly 40% of the world’s insect species are in decline, according to one study.
A study published earlier this year found that the total mass of all insects on the planet is decreasing by 2.5% per year.
If that trend continues unabated, the Earth may not have any insects at all by 2119.
“In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left, and in 100 years you will have none,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, a coauthor of the study, told The Guardian.
That’s a major problem because insects like bees, hoverflies, and other pollinators perform a crucial role in fruit, vegetable, and nut production. Plus, bugs are food sources for many bird, fish, and mammal species — some of which humans rely on for food.
Another recent study published in the journal Nature Communications looked at 353 wild bee and hoverfly species in the UK, and found that one-third experienced declines between 1980 and 2013.
The study authors noted that the geographic ranges of bee and hoverfly species declined by 25% — that’s a net loss of about 11 species per square kilometer. The primary cause was a reduction in the pollinators’ habitats.
The recent UN report calculated that projected declines in the populations of wild bees and other pollinators could put up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk.
Insects aren’t the only creatures taking a hit. In the past 50 years, more than 500 amphibian species have declined worldwide — and 90 have gone extinct — due to a deadly fungal disease that corrodes frog flesh.
A recent study in the journal Science described the spread of chytridiomycosis, or chytrid fungus, and how quickly it has wreaked havoc on frog, toad, and salamander species around the world.
Humans have enabled the fungal disease to spread further than it otherwise could have, in large part because of the global wildlife trade.
According to the study authors, amphibian deaths associated with chytrid fungus represent the greatest recorded loss of biodiversity attributable to any one disease.
Another study published in the journal Current Biology noted that amphibians overall — not just frogs — are among the most highly threatened groups of animals, with at least 2,000 species estimated to be in danger of extinction.
The loss of even one species could also cause an “extinction domino effect” to ripple through an ecosystem, causing the entire community to collapse.
A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports predicted that scientists are likely underestimating how many species are vulnerable to extinction.
“Failing to take into account these co-extinctions therefore underestimates the rate and magnitude of the loss of entire species from events like climate change by up to 10 times,” study co-author Corey Bradshaw said in a press release.
The research suggested that the loss of one species can make more species disappear (a process known as co-extinction) by causing a sudden shift in a system. For example, a species of flower could not survive without the pollinator it relies on.
“Co-extinctions are often triggered well before the complete loss of an entire species,” the study authors wrote.
A 2015 study examined bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species, and concluded that the average rate of extinction over the last century is up to 100 times higher than normal.
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the book “The Sixth Extinction,” told National Geographic that the outlook from that study is dire. It means 75% of animal species could be extinct within a few human lifetimes.
In roughly 50 years, 1,700 species of amphibians, birds, and mammals will face a higher risk of extinction because their natural habitats are shrinking.
By 2070, 1,700 species will lose 30% to 50% of their present habitat ranges thanks to human land use, a 2019 study found. Specifically, 886 species of amphibians, 436 species of birds, and 376 species of mammals will be affected and consequently will be at more risk of extinction.
Koalas are already “functionally extinct,” meaning the population has declined so much that it no longer plays a significant role in Australia’s ecosystem.
According to experts at the Australian Koala Foundation, only 80,000 koalas are left on the continent. The animals are struggling to survive in the face of deforestation, changing weather, and severe droughts.
Logging and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is of particular concern when it comes to looming extinctions.
Roughly 17% of the Amazon has been destroyed in the past five decades, mostly because humans have cut down vegetation to open land for cattle ranching, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Some 80% of the world’s species can be found in tropical rainforests like the Amazon, including the critically endangered Amur leopard. Even deforestation in a small area can cause an animal to go extinct, since some species live only in limited, isolated areas.
Every year, more than 18 million acres of forest disappear worldwide. That’s about 27 soccer fields’ worth every minute.
In addition to putting animals at risk, deforestation eliminates tree cover that helps absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.
In the next 50 years, humans will drive so many mammal species to extinction that Earth’s evolutionary diversity won’t recover for some 3 million years, one study said.
The scientists behind that study, which was published in 2018, said the planet will need between 3 million and 5 million years in a best-case scenario to get back to the level of biodiversity we have today.
Returning the planet’s biodiversity to the state it was in before modern humans evolved would take even longer — up to 7 million years.
Some paleobiologists suggested an even longer time frame for the planet’s recovery from a mass extinction: 10 million years or more.
A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that it took around 10 million years for Earth’s biodiversity to rebound from the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.
“Biodiversity losses won’t be replaced for millions of years, and so when you imagine extinctions in coral reef ecosystems, or rain forest ecosystems, or grasslands, or wherever, those places are going to be less diverse essentially forever, as far as humans are concerned,” Chris Lowery, a co-author of the study, told Business Insider.
Alien species are a major driver of extinctions.
A study published in February found that alien species are a primary driver of recent animal and plant extinctions. An alien species is the term for any kind of animal, plant, fungus, or bacteria that isn’t native to an ecosystem. Some can be invasive, meaning they cause harm to the environment to which they’re introduced.
Many invasive alien species have been unintentionally spread by humans. People can carry alien species with them from one continent, country, or region to another when they travel. Shipments of goods and cargo between places can also contribute to a species’ spread.
Zebra mussels and brown marmorated stink bugs are two examples of invasive species in the US.
The recent study showed that since the year 1500, there have been 953 global extinctions. Roughly one-third of those were at least partially because of the introduction of alien species.
Oceans absorb 93% of the extra heat that greenhouse gases trap in Earth’s atmosphere. That kills marine species and coral reefs.
Higher ocean temperatures and acidification of the water cause corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and turn white, a process known as coral bleaching.
As a consequence, coral reefs — and the marine ecosystems they support — are dying. Around the world, about 50% of the world’s reefs have died over the past 30 years.
Species that live in fresh water are impacted by warming, too.
A 2013 study showed that 82% of native freshwater fish species in California were vulnerable to extinction because of climate change.
Most native fish populations are expected decline, and some will likely be driven to extinction, the study authors said. Fish species that need water colder than 70 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive are especially at risk.
Warming oceans lead to sea-level rise. Rising waters are already impacting vulnerable species’ habitats.
Water, like most things, expands when it heats up — warmer water takes up more space. Already, the average global sea level is 5 to 8 inches higher than it was in 1900, according to Smithsonian.
In February, Australia’s environment minister officially declared a rodent called the Bramble Cay melomys to be the first species to go extinct because of human-driven climate change — specifically, sea-level rise.
The tiny rat relative was native to an island in the Queensland province, but its low-lying territory sat just 10 feet above sea level. The island was increasingly inundated by ocean water during high tides and storms, and those salt-water floods took a toll on the island’s plant life.
That flora provided the melomys with food and shelter, so the decrease in plants likely led to the animal’s demise.
Warming oceans are leading to unprecedented Arctic and Antarctic ice melt, which further contributes to sea-level rise. In the US, 17% of all threatened and endangered species are at risk because of rising seas.
Melting ice sheets could raise sea levels significantly. The Antarctic ice sheet is melting nearly six times as fast as it did in the 1980s. Greenland’s ice is melting four times faster now than it was 16 years ago. It lost more than 400 billion tons of ice in 2012 alone.
In a worst-case scenario, called a “pulse,” the glaciers that hold back Antarctica’s and Greenland’s ice sheets could collapse. That would send massive quantities of ice into the oceans, potentially leading to rapid sea-level rise around the world.
Sea-level rise threatens 233 federally protected animal and plant species in 23 coastal states across the US, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. The report noted that 17% of all the US’s threatened and endangered species are vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges, including the Hawaiian monk seal and the loggerhead sea turtle.
If nothing is done to address climate change, one in six species is on track to go extinct.
An analysis published in 2015 looked at over 130 studies about declining animal populations and found that one in six species could disappear as the planet continues to heat up.
Flora and fauna from South America and Oceania are expected top be the hardest hit, while North American species would have the lowest risk.
A new study found that almost 40% of the world’s primates will be at risk of extinction due to extreme weather events associated with a warming planet.
According to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change, 38% of primate species — including orangutans, monkeys, and gorillas — are vulnerable to droughts and tropical cyclones.
Previous mass extinctions came with warning signs. Those indicators were very similar to what we’re seeing now.
The most devastating mass extinction in planetary history is called the Permian-Triassic extinction, or the “Great Dying.” It happened 252 million years ago, prior to the dawn of the dinosaurs.
During the Great Dying, roughly 90% of the Earth’s species were wiped out; less than 5% of marine species survived, and only a third of land animal species made it, according to National Geographic. The event far eclipsed the cataclysm that killed the last of the dinosaurs some 187 million years later.
But the Great Dying didn’t come out of left field.
Scientists think the mass extinction was caused by a large-scale and rapid release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by Siberian volcanoes, which quickly warmed the planet — so there were warning signs. In fact, a 2018 study noted that those early signs appeared as much as 700,000 years ahead of the extinction.
“There is much evidence of severe global warming, ocean acidification, and a lack of oxygen,” the study’s lead author, Wolfgang Kießling, said in a release.
Today’s changes are similar but less severe — so far.
There’s still some debate about whether we’re truly observing a sixth mass extinction.
Scientists still argue about whether the Earth is truly in the midst of another mass extinction. Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin, an expert on the Great Dying, says we’re not there yet, according to The Atlantic.
But Kolbert told National Geographic that “by the time we have definitive answers to that question, it’s possible three-quarters of all species on Earth could be gone.”
Already, there is consensus on one aspect of the extinction trend: Humans are to blame.
According to a 2014 study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans weren’t around.
“There are very few, if any, extinctions that we know about in the last 100 years that would have taken place without human activity,” Kolbert said.
The recent United Nations report may have ended the debate.
According to the report, 75% of all land on Earth and 66% of oceans have been significantly altered by people. More than 85% of global wetland area has already been lost, and more than 79 million acres of primary or recovering forest disappeared between 2010 and 2015 alone.
This disruption and degradation of animals’ natural habitats is undoubtedly accelerating the rate of extinctions, the report authors said.
Hugh Possingham, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, told Business Insider that the disappearance of so many species will “fundamentally affect the global economy and the health of every human being.”
The population of birds at the start of breeding season in the U.S. and Canada has fallen from just over 10 billion to a little more than 7 billion in the last 50 years. Above, a common nighthawk.Joaquin Paredes / 500px / Getty Images/500px Plus
Pete Marra remembers birdwatching in the woods behind his childhood home in Norwalk, Connecticut, in the 1970s, gazing up at common nighthawks as they extended their long, pointed wings and soared through the air. “They were these aerial acrobats,” he said. “They did ballet.”
By the time he got to high school, the woods had been cut down to make room for houses, and the nighthawks had begun to disappear. Today the bird has all but vanished from his old neighborhood.
“They’re rare in Connecticut now. They’re rare in many places,” said Marra, now an ecologist who is the director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. “It’s an empty feeling in your stomach that these same birds that you grew up with just aren’t there anymore.”
Scientists like Marra have long known that birds were in trouble, having watched their favorite species fade from view. But he said they didn’t understand the scale of the crisis — until now.
For a study published Sep. 19 in the journal Science, Marra joined with other scientists and conservationists to analyze nearly five decades of population data on 529 species of North American birds. The results were staggering: Since 1970, the continental U.S. and Canada have lost more than 1 in 4 birds. The total bird population in the two countries has fallen by almost 3 billion, with grassland birds such as western meadowlarks and American sparrows and shorebirds such as green herons taking the biggest hits.
The population of birds at the start of breeding season in the U.S. and Canada has fallen from just over 10 billion to a little more than 7 billion in the last 50 years, the research showed.
“We can all talk through the stories about there being fewer and fewer birds, but it’s not until you really put the numbers on it that you can really grasp the magnitude of these results,” Marra said. “We’re now seeing common species that have declined, things like red-winged blackbirds and grackles and meadowlarks — species that I grew up with, that were very common when I was a kid. That is the most surprising and most disturbing part.”
‘Nature is unraveling’
The findings track with other research showing a steep drop in the numbers of insects and amphibians, and point to a broader ecological decline.
“We’re making the wrong moves now to sustain nature for the future, and this is an indication that nature is unraveling and that ecosystems are highly stressed,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy and a co-author of the study. “Our generation is going survive it, and probably the next generation will, but who knows where the tipping point is.”
For the new study, the researchers compiled 48 years of data gathered by volunteers who took part in large-scale bird surveys such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count and the International Shorebird Survey. They combined decades of survey data showing the downward trend in population with recent estimates of bird population size to determine the total number of birds lost.
The researchers also reviewed 10 years of data from the National Weather Service Next Generation Weather Radar (Nexrad), a network of radars able to detect insects and birds as they track precipitation. The radar data corroborated the survey data.
“This is an impressive paper assembling several big datasets,” Maria Dornelas, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who was not affiliated with the study, said in an email. “I think the result that bird abundance in the U.S. has declined on average in the past 40 years or so is really important and needs to inform bird conservation in the U.S.”
Explaining the decline
The researchers said humans are driving the decline through the clearing of land and widespread pesticide use and by allowing domestic cats to roam outdoors.
Habitat loss seems to be the biggest issue. By clearing forests and grasslands to erect buildings, roads and farms, humans have encroached on the ecosystems in which birds thrive. And the use of neonicotinoid insecticides has fueled the decline both by poisoning birds and by eradicating insects, depriving birds of a key food. Cats are estimated to kill more than 1 billion birds in the U.S. each year.
“I think of it as death by a thousand cuts” Marra said. “If we fix the habitat problem, we would have a rebound, but there’s multiple interacting threats out there that are now driving these declines.”
While climate change played only a small role in the loss of birds, the researchers said it would likely become a bigger threat in the years ahead, as rising seas inundate coastal habitats and more frequent and severe wildfires lay waste to forests.
While the findings are bleak, not all bird species are on the decline, said Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and the study’s lead author.
Waterfowl have grown in number over the last 50 years, thanks to policies such as the 1972 Clean Water Act that have helped conserve wetlands.
“You have these huge flocks of ducks and geese. That didn’t exist in the ’60s and ’70s,” Rosenberg said. “Bird populations have been shown to be resilient, and they can bounce back pretty quickly — maybe not in all cases, but at least at this point we’re hopeful.”
The study authors agreed that lawmakers can help shore up bird populations by enacting legislation to conserve federal lands and curb the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Bird lovers, they said, can help by keeping cats indoors, eating organic food to help reduce the use of pesticides and taking part in bird surveys like the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Future research will draw on the work of so-called citizen scientists to track the migratory patterns of bird species. Scientists want to understand the specific threats birds face as they fly across the continent in order to make recommendations for conservation efforts.
“My gut says that if we don’t do something, if we don’t act right now, we’re going to lose more and more birds,” Marra said. “We need to think about birds as if they are Monets and Rembrandts and Homers flying around out there, because if we lose them, it’s like burning down one of our greatest museums. These are things we’ll never be able to see again.”