Review: extinction: the facts

In recent years the BBC has stopped trying to cover over the threat to the natural world in their world famous documentaries. This once as you can see, deals with the fact that there are so many species currently threatened with extinction on earth- and virtually all are our fault either directly through hunting and ecosystem loss, or indirectly through climate change.

David Attenborough presents this important documentary , stating the threats as they are and avoiding watering down the warnings as they often are.

As I watched the documentary, I wrote a list of the subjects covered. If you live in the uk the documentary is well worth a look, however I am going to give a quick overview below of the subjects covered. I am sure that it will also be shown around the world.

Pangolin poaching- current thinking suggests that pangolins possibly being the underpinning cause of the current Covid 19 pandemic. Unfortunately, continual assertions to the contrary from the scientific community, there the belief that pangolin scales can cure a whole range of illnesses persist. Scientifically, there is no medicinal benefit of the scales, indeed as the scales are made of the same substance as our own fingernails, it seems odd that this belief had ever got started. Pangolins do indeed have far more keratin on their body, being the only mammal covered in scales, however this substance does nothing to heal the human body of anything. Sadly despite the fact that this is increasingly scientifically indisputable the belief continues to exist. Unfortunately in the rapidly growing wealth of China and Vietnam this medicine is seen as a status symbol (again strange as it is a complete waste of money). However, unfortunately this belief is leading to many pangolins being taken from the wild to be shipped into a handful of asian countries. 

There are 8 pangolin species, 4 in africa and 4 in asia. Four are found is Asia—Chinese, Sunda Indian, and Philippine pangolins—and they’re listed by the IUCN as critically endangered. The four African species—the ground pangolin, giant pangolin, white-bellied, and black-bellied—are listed as vulnerable. The problem is that these animals live at low densities in the wild which means there is not really any safe take rate. These animals are fascinating, eating insects, but are rarely seen- indeed generally wildlife guides will only see one in their career.

The next subject David Attenborough addressed, was the over exploitation of our seas fish populations. The problem with this, is that obviously it cannot go on forever. Any ocean or body of water that is overfished eventually ceases to be able to continue to produce any fish at all. 

In the open sea, there are other problems which are making this problem worse. Sharks and predatory fish are being caught for food, wiping them out in specific areas. However, this allows specific fish species to dominate and inevitably leads to substantial damage of the underlying ecosystem, which can make it incapable of supporting any fishing in the long term. What is being argued for is to set fishing stocks based on a scientific analysis of the fish available so that fish can continue to sustain large numbers of people into the future. It should be noted that overfishing is not a poor country problem, indeed the waters around the uk are some of the most overfished around.

The programme then moved on to deal with PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls. These chemicals are used in industrial processes. The problem is that they leak into the environment. While it is true that the animals at the bottom of the food chain are largely unaffected, these chemicals get passed up the food chain, and so by the time you reach the top of the food chain often the animals have significant quantities of these chemicals in their bodies. This can lead to all sorts of conditions (including death) but one of the most common is infertility. One such example is the killer whales (or orca) pod that live around north west scotland. They have not had any calves in 23 years, and are likely doomed to disappear.. Unfortunately these chemicals have heavily infected much of the water around europe and in particular the UK. The dolphins that share these waters, also show adverse effects of exposure to these chemicals as well.

The next problem dubbed Escalator too extinction is a direct impact of climate change. In mountains around the world as the environment warms plants and animals are moving up the mountain to escape the heat and changing conditions. However, obviously this is not possible for ever, and there are many species threatened with extinction as a result of essentially running out of mountain to escape to.

They also looked heavily at destruction of habitats. This is caused by various forces, including new areas being settled, and the land being turned into farmland. Often this happens in stages. In forests, loggers move in and start clearing the valuable timber trees. They build roads to allow them to get this wood out. These roads cut up the remaining habitat, which leads to the extinction of species that wont cross the roads, and road kill for the species who will try. Another simple problem is the fact that these roads give easy access to the forest interior for other people to settle, clear land and expand the problem

We already have cleared enough land to live and eat. Yet 3 million hectares a year are still being cleared (for those in the uk this is the equivalent of one and a half Wales lost each year. Obviously this cannot continue indefinitely. More irritating, much of this land while well suited to rainforest, is terrible land for farming, and after a few years is largely useless.

The next area that this documentary looked at was pandemics. While still in the grip of one of the worst pandemics in living memory, This should be of great concern to everyone. Furthermore this should destroy the arguments against doing something- the cost of doing something is dwarfed by the cost of the pandemic we have just faced. It is though that 31 pandemics have emerged from destroyed ecosystems directly, and there could potentially be hundreds more hidden in our remaining rainforest. Loggers also don’t usually take food into the forest, they hunt while they are there. That often means that when they return home, they take whatever viruses they have been exposed to, back to their families and so they rapidly work their way into the human population. Along similar lines, the bushmeat trade consists  of hunters going into wild areas with the intention of killing wildlife and bringing home for either their family or customers to eat. The Coronavirus is a good example, coming from bats in rural South China. With the rapid growth of infrastructure and populations in these wild areas there are huge numbers of places that new infections can enter the population. In the case of Coronavirus either a person was infected and then carried it back into Wuhan, or wildlife brough into Wuhan was infected, while they are not yet sure which was the cause, it is largely irrelevant as food markets such as Wuhan leave so many risks on this infection front, viruses are likely to enter the human population relatively regularly (indeed while less virulent, it is not though that this is the first time for an infection to start in the Wuhan area. If we continue living in this way, more viruses are highly likely to emerge. Scientists expect 5 new illnesses a year, with a potentially covid size outbreak once a decade.

Along similar lines fur farms in asia have a similar outcome. You throw a large number of scared animals close together and due to stress they shed viruses, which can be picked up by other animals and by humans working around them.

Unfortunately when ecosystems are destroyed, usually all the big and most of the small predators disappear, this allows the mice, rats and other rodents to grow in number very rapidly. This animals spread viruses very effectively.

Protect biodiversity 1992 un, failed. Tried again 2010 targets mostly missed.

Denial, particularly from American republicans

There have been several ideas put forwards by scientists. It is certainly true that these solutions are not going to be cheap, running to perhaps 20 billion dollars a year. However the most exciting proposal suggests spending it on a series of things

  • Invest in a significant network to give early warning of interesting pathogen appearances, allowing rapid response, more effectively containment and a more cohesive response. This would likely save far more money than it would cost
  • By halting deforestation, and spending billions replanting forests around the world, but particularly where they were recently lost, we can sequester huge amounts of carbon, save watersheds, return to standard climate (halting desertification)
  • Finally halt biodiversity loss. This in the short term is likely to require direct financing from rich countries. In the long term, when travel is safe again, tourists are likely to be able to fund much of the biodiversity protection measures.

Must charge polluters heavily: up until now, countries around the world have operated a free market, where pollution does not cost anything. This has to change now. If polluters are charged for the mess that they make and the full cleanup cost, it will never be cheaper to pollute. It must simply become too expensive to be bad for the environment.

Back in the 1980s humanity realized the dangers of CFCs, and the damage they were doing to the ozone layer. There was a huge effort by the human race, and we managed to eliminate these from the manufacturing process. We need a similar effort. Globally, it must become unacceptable to deny facts (be in climate change or extinction or anything else): perhaps 5 years ago we might have believed this to be the case already. Unfortunately in America the population elected someone who does not believe in scientific facts, and then shortly after a similar person was elected in Brazil. We are not going to be able to succeed if people who dont believe what is going on are allowed to be in charge.

The documentary ended on a more positive note, looking back at one of the most famous moments in a wildlife documentary, when david attenborough sat with the mountain gorillas in Uganda.. This population of Gorillas has doubled in size in the last 40 years. This is an example for the world- when a human population benefits from wildlife protection, both thrive.

My thoughts

THis documentary with the title they gave it, was clearly not going to water down the threat that we face, and this proved to be true. It did not use exaggeration (there is no need) but laid out the threats and what we can do about them.

We must demand more from our politicians, and not as has been “only when everyone else gets on board” we must act now.

My small effort towards this is just getting going. Goodness knows if it will ever be successful, but my aim is to simplify wild travel so that there is a financial reason to protect the wild throughout the world. We have currently listed large destinations, but are about to start going live with places with people and animals living side by side. Travel is not possible at the moment, though I am about to add 3 destinations in the uk.

We must get to the point where destruction of wildlife and wilderness is simply not the viable option most of the time.

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