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A man is dwarfed by the hill that he stands on, except that, at closer look, it’s not a hill but a mountain of bison skulls. The photo was taken in 1892, in the century wherein more than 50 million bison were annihilated on the American continent, leaving only a few hundred wild bison alive.

For millennia since the planet evolved life, only major natural disasters such as meteor and asteroid impacts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or drastic change in climate such as Ice Ages, have caused tremendous loss of life in the planet. Last year, scientists from the New York University reported a surprising finding that extensive extinction of land animals occur in 27 million-year cycles, possibly associated with the planet’s position in the galaxy. It is still a long way off from the next projected die-off cycle, in around 20 million years. This cycle is the least of our worries.

But with people’s propensity to destroy whatever gets in the way of progress as they see it, such colossal biodiversity loss couldn’t be far ahead. Scientists claim that the current estimated anthropogenic extinction rate, a thousand times higher than the naturally occurring rate, would still likely accelerate in the future.

While a few fear that technology such electric lines, wind turbines, and 5G kill animals, there are greater threats to overall biodiversity decline. One of the most impactful – hunting - has placed many large species on the endangered list. Exploitation of some species for research, entertainment, entry of exotic species to certain habitats, and control of what humans consider as pests and predators, all contribute to biodiversity loss.

Habitat fragmentation and destruction cause widespread biodiversity die-off. Clearing forests for timber and conversion to industrial agriculture accounts for the massive degradation of the Amazon forests. Every single minute, a part of the forest the size of a football pitch disappears, and with it all the wild plants and animals that live there. With the west’s hunger for animal flesh and the carnivorous diet becoming aspirational for developing countries, more and more forests continue to be denuded. Animal agriculture is the biggest driver of forest conversion where these stripped patches of land are converted to industrial scale animal factories, or planted with soya and maize to feed the animals in these factories. This phenomenon drives the dwindling of overall species richness, while promoting species abundance only for a few kinds of animals that are raised for food and other uses. Currently, number of farm animals is three times greater than the number of people. In 2021, the US Animal Kill Clock already registered around 4.2 billion animals killed for food in January alone.

While global forest cover will see a continuous loss over the decade, scientists are saying that forest cover loss could slow by 2030 due to the increase of replanted and protected areas. But not all biodiversity losses are equal. Tropical forest areas, also considered as the most densely bio-diverse areas on earth, are at most risk of conversion. The loss of biodiversity in this period would not be immediately recouped, and many species might become extinct before their habitats recover.

Animal agriculture cause eutrophication in water bodies as manure run-off that reach rivers and ocean trigger excessive algal bloom causing hypoxia or dead zones. Industrial crop farms also contribute to eutrophication when excess nutrients not absorbed by plants run downstream and deplete dissolved inorganic carbon in the water. This also increases ocean acidity that impairs the chemosensory abilities of ocean organisms critical to their survival.

A World Economic Forum study projects that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the seas. The Great Pacific garbage patch extends to 1.6 million square kilometers composed of plastic waste as old as 50 years, much of which has disintegrated into microplastics that threaten to undermine all marine life. Other similar garbage patches are forming across the oceans, such as the North Atlantic garbage patch and smaller ones formed in other ocean current gyres. Whales and fish eat plastic or get entangled with them, causing prolonged suffering before death, while marine flora and ocean bacteria which are photosynthetic organisms are deprived of sunlight essential to their survival. Since 1945, the patch in the Great Pacific is believed to have become ten times larger every decade. Just in January last year, WWF reported that there will be around 300 million tons of plastic waste in the oceans by 2030. With the onslaught of online shopping and wearing of disposable face masks and plastic face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic period, could this increase already be considered conservative at this point?

Plastic is also killing both land animals and birds. Apparently, animals are not able to tell plastic from food. As only less than 10 percent of plastics generated are actually recycled, we can expect a greater threat of plastic on biodiversity in the years to come. Projections show that peak plastic could be as late as 2100, while plastic packaging is seen to quadruple by 2040.

Natural and human-caused forest fires, together with the impacts of anthropogenic climate breakdown are also destroying wildlife and their habitats. The Australian bushfires that raged in 2020 continue to do so in the new year and already affected or killed nearly three billion animals. Extensive wildfires such as this have been occurring across the globe in the last few years. From 1958 to the present, the Keeling Curve illustrates the grim future in the planet’s climate. Atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015 greatly surpassing the tolerable limit of 350 ppm. Given this trajectory, all of the earth’s ecosystems could suffer severe impacts in the coming decades and the current effects to flora and fauna we are witnessing could even seem benign.

To make matters worse, anthropogenic climate breakdown drives positive feedback loops in biodiversity loss. Its effects such as increasing temperature, extreme droughts, forest fires, super typhoons, widespread flooding, and decline of polar ice all contribute to massive loss of habitats and their flora and fauna. Destruction of natural ecosystems ensure difficulty and, in some cases, even impossibility of biodiversity bounce back. The loss of these natural carbon sink ecosystems in turn contribute to the climate crisis creating a vicious hyper cycle that could be cataclysmic in the future.

Scientists claim that the climate crisis tipping point is only a few years away, and most countries are hardly on track in achieving their Paris Agreement targets. The next decade will be critical in slowing climate impacts and similarly sends a fair warning on biodiversity loss.

There is great variation of biodiversity loss across the world. As acceleration of environmental change is hastened by unbridled human activity, we need to understand how these changes would continue to play out in the future. The business-as-usual scenario is grim. Biodiversity loss could impact major facets of the environment and human life as we know it. Are countries willing and able to institute policies and programs to reverse these frightening trends? Will neighboring countries and regions recognize the importance of geographical biomes beyond political borders and propel concerted action? We should and we must, for if we don’t, our own survival might be at stake.

© Shiela R Castillo 2021

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