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Humans are accelerating the next mass extinction, study says

In case the latest news cycle wasn’t already worrying enough, scientists warned Tuesday that Earth’s sixth mass extinction event is already underway, representing a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”

According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, almost half of the land animals studied have experienced “severe population declines” since the start of the 20th century – and with our overconsumption and growing population, human beings are the ones to blame.


While there has been some debate recently about whether a mass extinction event was underway, the wording of this report leaves readers in little doubt about the view of its authors. Lead author Gerardo Ceballos, an ecology professor from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

What’s happening?

Billions of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have been lost across the planet in recent decades — and the problem is accelerating. Given that we aren’t constantly counting individual animal numbers, the report makes visible a trend typically unseen by scientists or the public. Crucially, it reveals that the problem is not confined to a few high-profile species but also affects populations of many more common species.

Here are some of the shocking statistics from the report:

  • Nearly half of a well-studied group of 177 mammal species lost more than 80 percent of their distribution between 1900 and 2015
  • 50 percent of Earth’s wildlife has been lost in recent decades
  • There are just 400,000 African elephants left, down from over a million in the early part of last century
  • Species are going extinct at a rate roughly 100 times what would be considered normal
  • Nearly one-third of the 27,600 land-based mammal, bird, amphibian, and reptile species studied are shrinking in terms of their numbers and territorial range


“The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic, and social consequences,” the report concludes. “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

Why is this happening?

The report gives a number of reasons for the dramatic fall in wildlife across the globe, but all are caused by humans.

Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is sending toxic chemicals into the environment; forests and other habitats are being repurposed for agriculture; and poachers are continuing to endanger the survival of animals such as elephants, pangolins, rhinos, and giraffes – driven by consumer demand.

This mass extinction event is being caused by two things, the report suggests: “Human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich.”

How does the future look?

“All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life,” the report says. However, the scientists do offer some small hope.

“These results show it is time to act. The window of opportunity is small, but we can still do something to save species and populations,” Ceballos said.

With such stark figures, the report gives scientists a true sense of the problem. But according to Stuart Pimm, chair of conservation ecology at Duke University in North Carolina, the findings do not have the granular mapping detail that would be useful for conservationists, meaning it’s hard to know where to start fixing the issue. “Given there’s a problem, what the bloody hell are we going to do about it?” Pimm told CNN.