Monday, 2 May 2011

Will humans be the cause of the Sixth Mass Extinction?

Extinct species is becoming an increasingly apparent environmental issue due to the amount of endangered species all over the world. This essay will argue if humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction by looking at endangered animals, the causes of extinction, the previous mass extinctions and various theories.

The issue currently highlighted in the media that made me decide to concentrate on endangered animals is the poaching of rhinos in South Africa. This is a growing issue in our country due to the fact that the figures are only increasing and it is not being solved. 71 rhinos have already been killed this year between January and March. Measures are being taken to prevent it, for example soldiers now patrol the Kruger National Park, but these are not enough since the poacher’s tactics have only gotten more advanced with the use of helicopters, night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles. Humans are the cause of this since we use their horns for ivory, and the demand for it is growing due to humans using it. The use for ivory is as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine and their horns are sold for more than gold. This displays how the poachers are getting a great deal out of killing these rhinos for their horns, showing even less promise of them stopping. This issue has been seen in the news and there is even a new series on Mnet called 'The Wild', which has some scenes that feature the poaching of rhinos.

A rhino that has been a victim of poaching

A series on Mnet called 'The Wild'



Extinction is defined as “the state or process of a species, family, or larger group being or becoming extinct” (Wikipedia, 2011). When discussing extinction, it is just as important to look at endangered animals because of the fact that that is what leads to extinction, and it shows the state of the world and a country when looking at how many endangered animals there are. In order to display the amount of endangered mammals, and the severity of it, I created a map that indicates how many endangered animals there are in each country (figure 1). I chose to mainly concentrate on mammals because when looking at figure 2, it shows that the highest amount of extinct species in each continent is mainly mammals. When looking at this map we can see the critical areas of endangered mammals, which are the continents Asia, Africa and South America (figure 3). And more specifically, the countries with the highest amount of endangered mammals which are Indonesia, China, Mexico, United States, Brazil, India and Malaysia. To understand why humans will be the cause of the next mass extinction, the causes of extinction in our current time have to be explored and further applied to the amount of endangered mammals.
Figure 1: A map displaying how many endangered mammals there are per country. Zoom in to see the amounts.
Figure 2: A graph displaying the amount of extinct species in various continents

Figure 3: A graph displaying the amount of endangered mammals in each continent


The causes of extinction and endangerment are habitat destruction, alien species, over exploitation, disease, pollution, taking animals for profit, competition from other species, predation and hunting. Most of these are linked with humans, only three (disease, competition and predation) are natural causes for extinction. The leading causes of extinction, in order, are habitat destruction, alien species, pollution and over exploitation. The fundamental cause of extinction is “human demand, either for animal resources directly, or for the natural resources constituting the animals’ habitats” (Tropical Rainforest Animals, 2011).  Therefore the root of it all is to do with human intervention. Even though natural extinction does take place continuously, it is estimated that current extinction rates are on thousand times higher than the usual natural extinction rate.
When looking at pollution, to see if there was any link to the amount of endangered species in a country to the amount of pollution in a country, I researched the top 5 most polluting countries because it is one of the main causes of extinction and endangered species. These are China, United States of America, Russia, India and Japan (figure 4).  A direct link can already be made because of the fact that China, United States of America and India all have the highest amount of endangered mammals in the world. This proves that human intervention, since pollution is not a natural factor, plays a massive role in the amount of endangered animals in these countries.
Figure 4: A graph displaying the top 5 most polluting countries
When further researching the link between human intervention and endangered and extinct species, I also looked at the most populated countries because when a country is over populated, there is less land for animals (destruction of habitat), and more animals are used for consumption to meet the needs of the growing population (over exploitation). Also “the last two centuries have witnessed accelerated rates of animal extinction which took place alongside industrial progress and rapid growth in human populations” (Tropical Rainforest Animals, 2011). When looking at the top ten most populated countries (figure 5) we see that China, India, United States and Indonesia have the highest which is in direct relation to the countries with the most endangered mammals since Indonesia has the highest and China, India and the United States are close behind.
Figure 5: A graph displaying the top 10 most polluting countries
When looking at the cause of taking animals for profit for endangered species, figure 6 is a good source. It is a screenshot of a Google map that displays all the zoos around the world. The high amount of them depicts how many animals are kept in captivity and used to make profits by making people pay to see them. This also links with over exploitation.

Figure 6: Map displaying the amount of zoos all over the world

When looking at over exploitation, habitat destruction and taking animals for profit, the documentary The Cove is a valuable source. The Cove is a documentary about dolphin slaughtering in Japan and is a successful source when displaying the effect of human intervention in relation to the endangerment of species. When looking at the map showing the amount of endangered species in every country (figure 1), Japan only has 28 and doesn’t feature as on e of the countries with the highest amount of endangered mammals, yet it plays a massive role when looking at the causes of endangerment and extinction since Taiji is one of the largest suppliers of dolphins to marine parks in the world. This links to two of the causes of endangerment and extinction which is over exploitation and taking animals for profit. The slaughtering takes place in Taiji every year from September to March and a total of 23 000 dolphins are slaughtered every year. Selected dolphins are sold to aquariums around the world for up to $150 000, whereas they only receive $600 for a dead dolphin, showing that it is the captivity business that’s enabling this slaughtering to carry on. This shows how the intervention of humans has led to the endangerment of a species. The International Whaling Commission is a group whose purpose “is to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry” (IWC Office, 2011). But they don’t protect dolphins because they state that they are not whales, further displaying the severity of the situation since it is not being solved. Ian Campbell said in an interviewed on The Cove, “If saving cetaceans species from extinction lies upon the IWC then there is no hope.” This shows how the over exploitation of dolphins and using them for profits will lead to the extinction of their species and there is no sign of it stopping anytime soon.

Dolphin slaughtering for the documenatry The Cove


Another notable point was made in The Cove by the director, Louie Psihoyos, who is also the cofounder of the Oceanic Preservation Society.  In the beginning he stated that “there’s major extinctions going on right now in our lifetime” when discussing how he documented degradation of reefs all around the world which displays habitat destruction, another cause of extinction and endangerment.  This documentary only dealt with one country; therefore it shows to how big the threat of a mass extinction due to human intervention is.
To further strengthen my point that the sixth mass extinction will be caused by humans, it is important to look at the country with the most endangered animals and why, as well as the most endangered animals and why they are endangered. Indonesia has the highest amount of endangered animals (figure 1) as well as a great biodiversity, with 300 000 animal species as well as 50% of all the worlds fish species. The main reason for the high amount of endangered species is the trading of wild animals, which links to the cause of over exploitation and taking animals for money, once again to do with human demand. The fact that Indonesia is home to so many of the world’s species, yet has the highest amount of endangered animals, displays how real the possibility of another mass extinction is.
Some of the most endangered animals are African Elephants, African Rhinos, Giant Pandas, Tigers and Bonobos. The reason for all of the mentioned animals being endangered is, once again, because of human intervention. The African Elephant is endangered because of poaching (hunting), habitat loss and conflict with humans. The African Rhino is endangered also because of poaching. The Giant Panda is endangered because of habitat destruction, due to the construction of roads and railroads in its forest habitat, and poaching. Tigers are endangered because of overpopulation, poaching, hunting and habitat loss. Bonobos, a type of chimpanzee, is endangered because of bushmeat hunters and habitat loss. None of these animals are endangered because of natural causes; every reason for their endangerment is because of the action of humans.
Now that endangered species and the causes of extinction have been discussed to prove that humans will be the reason for the next mass extinction, it is also important to look in more detail at extinction as well as explore the five mass extinctions.

When looking at the amount of extinctions each year (figure 6), we can see how the amount is increasing each year since there were only 4 animals that went extinct in the 1500s compared to the 43 animals that went extinct in the 1900s. This displays how the amount of animals that are going extinct are increasing due to the growing demands of humans as well as global warming. In 2011 alone there have been a great number of mass animal deaths, see map in figure 7. This shows that the amount of animals dying and becoming extinct is only increasing, “Recently, however, the rate of them dying out increased dramatically. It is estimated that 27,000 species become extinct each year, about 3 an hour. Since 1996, scientists calculated that 124 types of amphibians, 1,108 types of birds, 734 types of fish, 1,096 types of mammals, and 253 types of reptiles became endangered” (Think Quest, 2010). Looking at the growing amount of endangered species is also important since leads to extinction if not stopped. Figure 8 also displays how the amount is growing. From 1996-1998, there were just over 10 000 species that were threatened, whereas in 2009 there were 17 000 therefore it increased by 7000 species. The more species that are endangered, the likelier the amount of extinct species will rise. Therefore there is a greater chance of a mass extinction. "If currently threatened species – those officially classed as critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable – actually went extinct, and that rate of extinction continued, the sixth mass extinction could arrive within as little as 3 to 22 centuries" (Physorg, 2011).
Figure 6: A graph showing the number of mammals that went extinct each year


Figure 7: A map displaying the mass animal deaths in 2011
Figure 8: A graph showing the amount of threatened species

The 5 mass extinctions were Cretaceous-Territory extinction, Triassic-Jurassic extinction, Permian-Triassic extinction, Late Devonian extinction and Ordovician-Silurian extinction. The timeline of these events can be seen in figure 9. The causes for the Cretaceous-Territory extinction was climate change and asteroids, for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction the cause was said to most likely be volcanic activity, for Permian-Triassic extinction the cause is unknown but possible reasons are the dramatic climate change, methane eruptions and poisoned seas. The Late Devonian extinction was caused by a period of global cooling, rise of oxygen-free water from the deep oceans and falls in sea levels. Lastly, the cause for the Ordovician-Silurian extinction is not certain but a proposed theory is a sudden burst of gamma rays. It is important to look at the 5 mass extinctions and their causes to understand fully why the 6th one will be caused by humans. By looking at their causes and seeing that how vastly they differ from what is causing species to go extinct and become endangered now, we see the role that humans are playing in it and that they are the reason.
Figure 9: A graph showing the timeline of the 5 mass extinctions
An article, The Sixth Extinction, written by Niles Eldredge explains the sixth extinction will be a direct result of the physical changes humans have done to the earth. Eldredge divides the sixth extinction into two phases. The first one is when the first humans began to move to different parts of the world and the second one is when humans started to turn to agriculture. The reason for phase one was that the arrival of humans led to the disruption of various ecosystems by over hunting. The reason for phase two is that “agriculture represents the single most profound ecological change in the entire 3.5 billion-year history of life” (Action Bioscience, 2008). Agriculture led to habitat destruction, over exploitation and overpopulation. When looking at Eldredge’s thoughts, it becomes even more apparent that humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction.

It must be taken into account that there are organisations that are working towards lessening the amount of endangered species by helping them and trying to put a stop to the factors causing them to be endangered. An example of this is the World Wildlife Foundation which is an organisation that works towards the “conservation, research and restoration of the environment” (Wikipedia, 2011). Advertising is a strong tool for all these types of organisations because it allows them to create awareness and find more ways and people to help. An example of an advertising campaign that creates awareness of endangered animals and the organisation’s efforts is the ‘When They Speak, We Listen’ campaign for ONG Conservacao Internacional (figure 10), a Brazilian conservation group. Just by the simple technique of painting a human’s lips to look as if it is another animal, it creates a strong and motivational message about what the organisation does and what it stands for. Even with these kinds of effort, the questions still remain if it will be enough and it it’s not too late? “Conservation measures, sustainable development, and, ultimately, stabilization of human population numbers and consumption patterns seem to offer some hope that the Sixth Extinction will not develop to the extent of the third global extinction, some 245 mya, when 90% of the world’s species were lost” (Action Bioscience, 2008). Therefore, even if these efforts don’t stop the sixth mass extinction, they will change the extent to which the extinction occurs.


Figure 10: Advertising campaign for ONG Conservacao Internacional

Other efforts are also apparent, but take a hands on approach. For example, a Cape Town case study on managing the ecosystems of Robben Island deals with preserving the Penguin species that inhabit this land. The point of the project was to increase the population of penguins on the island due to the fact that they plummeted by 80% in the last 50 years. Because of this fact, African Penguins were then classified as endangered. In order to do this, Professor Peter Barham and Les Underhill began the Earthwatch project in 2001, which examines the penguins population and how the handle a changing environment. The main cause of the decrease in the population of penguins was an oil spill, which is caused by humans once again showing that it is human interference that harmed this species. Even with the project aimed to help the penguins, their initial tagging efforts actually killed penguins because of how it got in the way of their natural way of living. In the end they did find some useful information that will benefit the population of the penguins. The fact that humans are the only ones that can save species, such as the African Penguin, displays that they are the cause of them being endangered in the first place. Humans have upset the natural balance, therefore they have to try to make it right again. Even thought there are such efforts, it doesn’t mean the cause is being eradicated. For example, when looking at this case study they investigated ways to increase African Penguin population, but did not find ways to stop things such as oil spills from depleting it again. This means that humans are not solving the underlying problems, so even if they are rectifying it, they are not solving it forever. It would be more beneficial if the case study also looked at ways to prevent oil spills from happening all over the world. By doing this, humans will not have a negative effect on a species.

To further explore why humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction, we have to look deeper into human’s relationship with nature and animals and how it came about to be like this. When looking at it historically, we can see the root of it is the separation from humans and animals over time. It is this separation that led to the actions of humans today and the state the environment is in. When looking at a Why Look at Animals? by John Berger, we see how this separation came about and the consequences of it. In the beginning of the article, Berger describes the look shared between humans and animals before capitalism, “The eyes of an animal when they consider man are attentive and wary” (Berger, 2009), whereas in the end of the article he describes how the look no longer exists, a separation has occurred mainly because of capitalism. Before this separation, there was more of a spiritual connection between humans and animals. Humans did not immediately see the animals for the uses we do today, they were both “like and unlike” man (Berger, 2009). They were seen as mystical, “Everywhere animals offered explanations, or, more precisely, lent their name or character to a quality, which like all qualities was, in its essence, mysterious” (Berger, 2009). This then changed with Descartes, who implied that animals were soulless. The separation between humans and animals then began, seen mainly by the industrial revolution where animals were seen for their uses. For example, a pig is seen for their meat. Animals went from being seen as machines in the industrial revolution, to raw materials in the post-industrial revolution. It is this that has led to one of the causes of endangered and extinct species today because of overexploitation and the destruction of their habitat that came with the industrial revolution. The way humans came to view animals overtime was the cause of it.

When looking at the various discourses of nature, we understand which one has led to what the state of the environment is today and what shapes the way we regard nature. Hannigan puts forth two important discourses I will discuss, the first being Arcadian discourse and the second is Ecosystem discourse. Arcadian discourse is to do with the spiritual connection to nature, which at first seems like a positive thing because it displays the important of it and the need to preserve it, but in some cases it has negative outcomes. For example, when watching the documentary The Cove, Richard O’Barry states that it is the need for people to touch and interact with dolphins that has created such places as aquariums, and the captivity business is what is allowing these fishermen to carry on slaughtering dolphins each year because of the amount of money the make for a live dolphin.

The second discourse is Ecosystem discourse, which is to do with “human interference in biotic communities (that) upsets the balance of nature” (Hannigan, 1995). This discourse basically deals with how humans use and manipulate nature for their own benefit, proving once again how humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction.

Another important aspect to prove this is the age we live in, the Age of Enlightenment. This age is where nature is a resource for humans. This meant, at first, that humans saw nature as something that could be bettered by them, “It (nature) was self-balancing, but it could be managed even better by Man, cultivated in a rational way using the new sciences” (Dickens, 2004). Looking at the outcomes today, we see the flaw in this was that they only saw how nature could be bettered for their benefits, not for nature as well. Private ownership of land was one of the aspects that is a good display of how they set out to do so. Through private ownership of land, humans were taking away land bit by bit that once belonged to species of all kinds. Overtime, things like the industrial revolution took this to the extreme. Destruction of habitats to own land for the benefit of humans, for example destroying forests to make paper or build a factory, is the one of the detrimental outcomes that branched off private ownership of land. Habitat destruction is also one of the main causes of endangered and extinct species. Enlightenment’s core is about the control of nature for “Man’s best interest” (Dickens, 2004) but the fact that humans didn’t take nature itself into consideration, is the reason we are facing the environmental problems we are today.

A response to Enlightenment is Romanticism, a movement that is still apparent today. Romanticism views nature as “a source of wonder, humility and awe” (Dickens, 2004). This is, once again, to do with a spiritual connection with nature. This came as a result of the fact that, because of Enlightenment, wild nature became rare. Human’s built up so much of the land and controlled as much as they could therefore wild nature became less and less. Romanticism recognises the need for humans to have a connection to nature and appreciate it for more than just a resource. The fact that such a reaction came about is proof of how the way we are living today is going to be unsuccessful. Because there is such a strong movement that goes so against the way we live today in relation to nature, shows that there will be regrettable outcomes, such as the sixth extinction.

Capitalism is another crucial reason as to why humans will be the cause of the sixth extinction. Capitalism is “an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit” (Wikipedia, 2011). The basis of it, consumerism, is what plays the biggest role in all the causes of endangered and extinct animals.  It is the need for various industries to make a substantial profit that fuels the degradation of habitats, for example to make space for factories to be able to make more therefore make more profit. Animals are being killed to meet the never ending demand of the food industry, for example the dolphins on The Cove. Animals are being put in captivity all over the world so they can make profit off of people coming to view the animals. Capitalism is a system created by humans, and it is the underlying reason to all the causes of endangered and extinct animals, proving even further that humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction. 

Overall, it becomes obvious that humans will be the cause of the sixth mass extinction. The proof of this lies in the fact that all the cause of endangered and extinct species is directly to do with the action of humans. When looking deeper into these actions and the reason for them, we can see that the Capitalist system is what the driving force behind all of this is. Therefore, if humans carry on to live the way we do now, a mass extinction will arise directly because of how we live. But, if we revaluate capitalism and find a way to live that benefits both humans and nature, we may be able to avoid a mass extinction.

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