• Flux Magazine

"What Really Happens When an Animal Goes Extinct" by Katherine Breeher

What is your immediate reaction when you hear something on social media or the news

about an endangered species? As the last members of a species die off, you probably don’t

think much of it on the daily. You may think to yourself, “wow that’s sad, they’re so cute”. But

outside of that, it's not something that keeps you awake at night. And that’s not a bad thing,

necessarily. We do not need to burden ourselves with all the world’s problems constantly.


However, I believe the average American does not fully understand the impact of an

entire species going extinct. It’s logical to assume the food chain might be momentarily

disrupted. But other than that, what would the average American think were the consequences of a species going extinct? Probably not much. It's difficult to grasp the brevity of the situation.


The extinction of one animal could cause rapid degradation of its habitat and start a

chain reaction of endangering other plant and animal species. People are impacted by this

everyday, whether they realize it or not.


And people are the #1 cause of these extinctions and endangerments. Whether its

human caused climate change or poaching and trophy hunting, people have been killing off

species for centuries. The tourism industry, demand for exotic animal byproducts like furs and

tusks, and human-wildlife conflict also contribute to this.


This phenomena is not new, it's been building up for over a century. Colonialism and

imperialism, especially in places like Africa, created the idea that colonial powers could and

should dominate everything they ‘owned’- people (via slave labor), land (via unsustainably

extracting resources), and animals (via trophy hunting for pleasure and sport). This complete

and total disregard and disrespect for the natural world are what caused species like the Huia

bird of New Zealand, considered sacred to the Maori people, to go extinct (the last credible

sightings were between 1907 and 1963). The Huia bird was hunted relentlessly by European

settlers to be displayed in museums because it was considered exotic and beautiful. The

Tasmanian Tiger was extinct by the 1930s due to European settlers hunting them for money,

and also other factors like habitat destruction and the introduction of dogs into their

environment.


But people know better now, right? I wouldn’t be too hopeful.


It is difficult to make blanket statements about the consequences of animal species

going into extinction because each species and their habitat are so unique. African elephants,

for example, are a keystone species. Elephants maintain the savannah by clearing trees, which herds do for feeding and during migration. Without this, the savannah would quickly become a woodland area. Every species living in the savannah is not at all adapted for a woodland environment. The extinction of the African elephant would mean the extinction of every animal in the savannah and every animal that feeds on those who rely on the savannah. In the early 1900s there were an estimated 12 million elephants living in Africa. Only about 350,000 are left, meaning their population has declined by 97% in about 100 years. Sustaining or rebuilding the elephant population is difficult because elephants only give birth to 1 offspring at a time with a gestation period of almost 2 years.Elephants are poached in order for people or groups to sell ivory. Ivory, which these elephants’ tusks are made of, is a very valuable material. Terrorist organizations, like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, poach elephants to make money for purchasing weapons. The biggest market for ivory is China, where consumers are falsely assured that the elephants are not killed to obtain the ivory.


An example that hits closer to home for Americans are the grey and red wolf species.

Deforestation and hunting have led to the endangerment of the grey wolf and the near extinction of the red wolf. Between 1850 and 1900, about 1 million wolves were killed for sport in America. The hunting of wolves was government sanctioned as a form of pest control. Habitat destruction pushed wolves to begin hunting livestock. When predators go missing from an ecosystem, things get out of control. As wolves disappear from areas like Yellowstone, the species they prey on, such as moose, overpopulate and destroy vegetation which birds make their homes in, thus causing those birds to also disappear. Because wolves leave behind the carcasses of their kills, they help feed dozens of other animal species, like mammals, insects, and birds.


Every species depends upon one another for survival. Biodiversity is vital to the health of

our planet and every species living on it. Having a variety of ecosystems helps perform the

functions of: “purifying water, generating fertile soil, breaking down wastes, helping control pests and moderating weather extremes”. Biodiversity is also important for genetic diversity within 1 species. With a larger gene pool, it is easier for a species to adapt to changes in environment without dying out completely. Another thing biodiversity impacts is economics. Humans rely on natural materials for food, medicine, water, shelter, and more.


The most critically endangered species as of this moment include the Amur Leopard and the Vaquita. There are around 80 Amur leopards left on earth and their status as critically

endangered is a result of poaching by humans in order to obtain their valuable fur. There are

less than 10 Vaquitas left on earth. This porpoise is endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California and

was only discovered in the 1960s because they are quite shy. The miniscule number of vaquitas left is a result of fishery bycatch, or, they become entangled and die in gillnets belonging to illegal fisheries mostly hunting for the totoaba fish.


Extinction does happen naturally, with the last mass extinction event being about 66

million years ago. There have been 5 known mass extinction events in our earth’s history but

those were caused by natural occurrences like glaciation and volcanic activity. The rate of

extinction we are seeing today is unnatural and artificial. There is a scientific consensus that

“Human activity is triggering a change in global climate which has increased species extinction to between 10 and 100 times faster than the norm. The evidence is pretty clear, we are headed toward the 6th mass extinction”.


If you want to help stop wildlife crime, do not purchase any items made from poached

animals such as ivory products and exotic furs.


You can also sign this petition:


https://support.worldwildlife.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=664&fbclid=I%20wAR0C4UwLUCPv-5O9dsyeM8h808X9Pu24X1wxLglN3-k2Ls1emh2QeS6U7Ww


and explore WWF’s website for other ways to help.


Sources:

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/vaquita

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/amur-leopard

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-timeline-of-the-mass-extinction-events-on-earth

https://www.globalissues.org/article/170/why-is-biodiversity-important-who-cares

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/conservation/issues/biodiversity-import

https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2011/04/10-reasons-protect-wolves-climate-c

hange/

https://africageographic.com/blog/elephants-decline-97-less-century/

https://www.exploringnature.org/db/view/Keystone-Species-The-African-Elephant

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/animals-that-went-extinct-in-the-20th-century.html

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