The Anthropocene extinction: the first, mass loss of life caused by humanity?

By 2020, animal populations on Earth will have experienced a 67% decline, on average since records began in 1970. To put that in context, that is the equivalent of nearly 5 billion people dying by 2066, and no one being born to replace them. This is the frightening new data presented by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London in their new ‘Living Planet 2016’ report. Vertebrate species, so those with a backbone, are declining at a rapid rate, and whilst not included in this particular paper, it is reasonable to assume similar levels of decline are being seen in some invertebrates, plant and fungal species too.

Some scientists have gone as far to predict that the Earth could even be experiencing its 6th mass extinction, the most recent being the so-called K-Pg extinction that famously killed off the dinosaurs, and 75% of life on Earth. So what’s different this time? The short answer is us, Homo sapiens. Never before has the planet experienced such pressures from one singular species, from fossil fuel usage to deforestation to poaching. Humanity is having such an unprecedented effect on Earth that some geologists are now referring to the current era as the ‘Anthropocene’. We call it development, but to many species it can mean disaster.

But is it all doom and gloom? Not at all. The report also highlights the incredible success stories already recorded in recent years. One standout example is the abandoned Loess Plateau in China, which until as recently as the 1990’s was still being described as ‘China’s Sorrow’ because of the cyclical droughts and famines. But thanks to a huge multi-disciplinary effort, the area the size of France has been restored to a bio diverse, lush landscape that can be sustainably used for agriculture. And individual species are making a comeback too. In April, the WWF announced that wild tiger numbers were increasing for the first time in 100 years, and pandas are recovering too, with a 16.8% rise in the wild population in the last 10 years.

But what can we all do as individuals? Orbital spoke to Royal Holloway’s Conservation and Animal Volunteer Society president Beth Calhoum to hear her take on this issue:
“The Living World Report (2016) is the most up to date information on the increasing problems in the world of sustainability and conservation, and is well worth a read! It is based on global problems, but these can be translated locally – here are some ways you, as students, could help in the local area:
• How about walking to campus instead of driving? less carbon foot print and less use of fossil fuels = slower climate change
• Recycle your plastics! – a lot of landfill waste ultimately ends up in water bodies. The plastic then disintegrates and toxic shreds enter the bodies of fish in the sea, killing them. Bio-accumulation then occurs as the animals further up the food chain eat lots of the animals lower than them, including lots of toxic plastic!
• Eat local, and don’t waste food! Locally sourced produce reduces the carbon footprint, and the less leftovers thrown away, but eaten instead, the fewer animals and plants that have to be sacrificed/harvested!
• Volunteer with the Community Action team! – Help conserve forests and their inhabitants!
Together we can help improve the figures in the report!”

These success stories, small lifestyle changes and opportunities on campus to make a difference show it is very possible to reverse the damage human behaviour is having on our planet and stop exploiting the natural world we should be treasuring. A record 175 parties have signed the Paris Climate Change agreement and 64 countries are taking an active role in reducing deforestation through ‘The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries’ (or UN REDD+ for short). Progress is being made and with enough collaboration from individuals, communities and national governments, the damage we have done may just be reversible. In the famous words of Dr Ian Malcolm, ‘life finds a way’. It may just need a little help from us this time.