The Tragic Face of Extinction

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

July 11, 2017
vluw-eyed black lemur
The critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur of Madagascar
– only 100 survive in the wild.
Wild creatures our grandchildren will never experience in person stare back at the camera with haunting eyes and evocative expressions. Even if they themselves are oblivious to the impending demise of their species, these gazes are freighted with meaning to those of us who think that their continued existence on this planet and in this universe matters.
map of madagascar
All that is left of where the blue-eyed black lemur clings to
existence on the island of Madagascar. By IUCN Red List of
Threatened Species, species assessors and the authors
of the spatial data, CC BY-SA 3.0.


U.K.’s newspaper The Telegraph reports on “the vanishing animals that future generations will never see:”
 
“Habitat loss, poaching, hunting and disease are pushing many species to the brink to such an extent that the world has now entered a sixth mass extinction.”
 
The “sixth mass extinction” follows on the five previous great extinction episodes in the history of life on Earth. The last of these crises happened 65 million years ago when an asteroid or fragment of a comet slammed into the ocean near the Yucatan Peninsula; the abrupt climate change this cataclysm unleashed closed the Cretaceous period and extinguished the dinosaurs, which had ruled the planet for 165 million years. The Age of Dinosaurs yielded to the Age of Mammals.
 
Yet now the Age of Mammals (and other vertebrates such as birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) is imperiled by the vertiginous rise of just one mammal in particular: Homo sapiens.
 
All of the direct, proximate causes of the extinction crisis listed above – habitat loss, poaching, hunting and disease – are themselves direct and indirect effects of human overpopulation: of too many people, en masse, overexploiting and impacting essentially the entire Earth, from the frigid waters off Antarctica to the steaming jungles of the Amazon, and the thin air of the stratosphere to the melting sea ice of the Arctic. Our reach is planet-wide.
blue-eyed black lemur
Black-faced golden tamarin.

Only a hundred or so of the critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur survive in a tiny pocket of forested habitat remaining in northern Madagascar. This four-pound primate is the victim of habitat loss due to widespread deforestation on Madagascar, as its soaring human population clears shrinking forests to convert them to farmland. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries and its population has quadrupled over the last 50 years.

The black-faced golden tamarin monkey of Brazil is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because only 400 individuals split into three isolated subpopulations survive in the wild. Two nature reserves conserve remnants of its habitat but provide little protection from illegal hunting (poaching) and collection for the illicit pet trade. Ongoing infrastructure development is also a long-term threat.

Vaquita aka the panda of the sea
Vaquita – “the panda of the sea” – is a small porpoise that lives
only in Mexico’s Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).
The vaquita is a tiny, adorable, extremely rare porpoise that lives only in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. It is less than five feet long at maturity. A November 2016 survey estimated that only about 30 vaquitas survive; they have been victimized by illegal gillnetting for fish. They get tangled in the nets and drown, because, of course, they are air-breathing mammals with lungs, not fish with gills. They need to surface, and the gillnets prevent that.
Vaquita trapped in a gillnet.
Vaquita trapped in a gillnet.

The vaquita’s population has plunged by 90 percent over the last decade. So few now remain that they could well go extinct this very year, “becoming yet another mammal forced off the face of the Earth” by human rapacity.
 
These are just three of the more than 23,000 species on the IUCN Red List threatened with extinction, including 41 percent of the world’s amphibians, 25 percent of its mammals and 13 percent of its birds.
Red List logo
IUCN Red List logo.


At a time when human needs and problems are so pressing, some question why non-human species should receive any attention, any effort, or any funds at all.

It is our very capacity to care about others, and to care about Creation in general, that defines and elevates us as human beings. Even Pope Francis, no slouch when it comes to compassion for his fellow man, is deeply concerned by the extinction crisis now engulfing other species, as he expressed so eloquently in his 2015 papal encyclical Laudato Si (“On Care for Our Common Home”).
 
We should heed his wise words while there may still be time, although sadly, for some species, it may already be too late.
 

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