A report by 43 wildlife experts warns that without changes now, many of Earth's most iconic species will be lost forever.
Gorillas, rhinoceroses, elephants, lions, tigers, wolves, bears. These majestic large mammals have not only become iconic symbols of the wilderness, but they also play vital roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems; as keystone species and ecological engineers, the generate "strong cascading effects in the ecosystems in which they occur." And without “bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide,” these important animals will be lost forever.
A world without these glorious creatures is such a depressing concept. But such is the conclusion of a group of 43 wildlife experts, representing six continents, who have collaborated on a report published in the journal BioScience.
Among the most serious threats to the planet’s remaining large animals, the team writes, are illegal hunting, deforestation, habitat loss, expansion of livestock and agriculture into wildlife areas, and human population growth.
"The loss of these magnificent animals would be a tremendous tragedy," says co-author Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "They are all that is left of a once much more diverse megafauna that populated the planet only 12,000 years ago. And more importantly, we have only just begun to understand the important roles they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems."
Under a business-as-usual scenario, conservation scientists will soon be busy writing obituaries for species and subspecies of megafauna as they vanish from the planet. In fact, this process is already underway: eulogies have been written for Africa's western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) and the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus). Epitaphs will probably soon be needed for the kouprey (Bos sauveli), last seen in 1988; and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), which now numbers three individuals. The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is already extinct in the wild in Malaysia and is very close to extinction in Indonesia, with the population collapsing during the last 30 years from over 800 to fewer than 100. The Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is down to a single population of approximately 58 in a single reserve. The Critically Endangered Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) and African wild ass (Equus africanus) are not far behind. Even in protected areas, megafauna are increasingly under assault. For example, in West and Central Africa, several large carnivores (including lions, Panthera leo; African wild dogs, Lycaon pictus; and cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus) have experienced recent severe range contractions and have declined markedly in many protected areas.
The paper reports the grim reality that 59 percent of the largest carnivores and 60 percent of the largest herbivores have been classified as threatened with extinction.
Lead author William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, says that the animals’ declines are happening quickly.
"The more I look at the trends facing the world's largest terrestrial mammals, the more concerned I am we could lose these animals just as science is discovering how important they are to ecosystems and to the services they provide to people," says Ripple.
But how to reverse this disastrous demise? The team is urging comprehensive action, including expanding habitats and revamping conservation policy. The experts note that some conservation initiatives have proven successful and if action is taken now there may still be time to save these animals from extinction.
We have "an abiding moral obligation to protect the Earth's megafauna," they write. "We must not go quietly into this impoverished future."