Another page torn from the glossary of life



Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, was euthanased in March at the age of 45. He survived the near-extinction of his species in the 1970s, when he was brought to a Czechoslovak zoo. He returned to Africa in 2009, where he lived the rest of his life on a conservancy in Kenya.

White Rhino (JWPhotowerks via Flickr)With two females still alive (though old), there is hope that the subspecies might yet be saved through in-vitro fertilisation, cellular technologies and gene editing. Nothing is certain.

In some respects, human life takes precedence. We rightly pay attention to brutalising political-economic systems, natural disasters and wars without end.

But the impending loss of an animal that evolved over six million years, and once grazed in hundreds of thousands, is worth noticing. There can be room in our hearts to lament.

When we gaze at other creatures, we arrive eventually at our own reflection: as fragile and connected, our life a gift among gifts. For people of faith, subtractions from the natural world tear at a divine vision of beauty. This is not how it is meant to be.

Off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, not a single right whale calf has been spotted in what is meant to be the winter calving season. This has left scientists more than concerned, following recent high mortality.

The number of hedgehogs in the British countryside is less than half what it was in 2000. In rural France, populations of once-ubiquitous birds like the Eurasian skylark have fallen by at least a third. On the plains of Kazakhstan last spring, around 200,000 saiga antelopes died spontaneously, a mass mortality event (MME).


"Even if animals were mere embellishment to the planet, what a gift to let go of, and how cruel and hollow we are prepared to be, leaving even more of nothing to future generations."


According to an Australian Conservation Foundation report, Australia has lost 29 mammals since colonisation, three of them quite recently: the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the Christmas Island forest skink, and the Bramble Cay melomys. There are fears that the koala is effectively extinct in parts of New South Wales and Queensland.

We can go on and on. 'The situation has become so bad,' says ecology researcher Gerardo Ceballos, that 'it would not be ethical not to use strong language'. He led a study published last year, which refers to 'biological annihilation'. It concludes that 'humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe'.

Other scientists offer the laconic view that we can't be in the middle of a sixth mass extinction because if that were the case, there wouldn't be a point to conservation. It'd just be over.

Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin prefers the language of non-linear network collapse, in which food webs unravel rapidly and in unexpected ways. This more clearly frames not just risks to humans but responsibility, requiring systemic thinking about pressures on the natural world.

We are inextricable from that world. Animals aren't just dropping dead. The saiga died from bacterial blood poisoning, brought on by unusually warm and humid weather. Hedgehogs and skylarks are vanishing due to corporate farming, which pushes insecticide. Ships and fishing nets routinely kill whales and other cetaceans.

As Mark Rounsvell, one of the authors of a UN-backed intergovernmental report on diversity, puts it: 'We are responsible for all of the declines of biodiversity. We need to decouple economic growth from degradation of nature. We need to measure wealth beyond economic indicators. GDP only goes so far.'

What we have been calling development is nothing more than consumption, one underwritten by species loss. Today wildlife constitutes only three per cent of all land animals. The rest of it is us, our livestock and pets. It is hard to see this as life-giving. We still need pollinators.

'Biodiversity is not just the abundance of life on Earth,' says ecology researcher Elizabeth Boakes. 'Rather, it is what maintains the resilience and flexibility of the environment as a whole, so that life can weather the storms ... It is the apparatus that holds us steady.' This puts the onus on governments, having the size and power to preserve these conditions.

Even if animals were mere embellishment to the planet, what a gift to let go of, and how cruel and hollow we are prepared to be, leaving even more of nothing to future generations. Not a pangolin, an Amur leopard or Sumatran orangutan, perhaps not even a bee. A torn glossary of life.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

White rhino image: JWPhotowerks via Flickr

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, white rhino, wildlife, extinction



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Existing comments

Human beings in their selfishness are not going to give up eating to excess and restoring the lands cleared for agriculture and food production, they will not stop fishing to excess, they will not abandon technology and mining which contributes the luxury many enjoy in the modern world. Asian nations will not abandon the primitive beliefs in the health benefits of parts of slaughtered exotic animals like ground rhino horn and desiccated tiger penis or the money earned from trinkets fashioned from elephant ivory. Humanity is not about to make any sacrifices which might prevent its own ultimate demise if such sacrifice reduces individual comforts, possessions and money. All very sad. Heaven must be aflood with tears at the sight of this magnificent artwork we call creation being wrecked and defaced by what is the greatest of all the creation. We need to make the sacrifice and suffer the death of our ways in the hope of Resurrection to new life in this creation as it was intended to be.
john frawley | 29 March 2018

The sixth mass extinction of species is now happening and this mass extinction is caused by humans. Climate change is one of the major causes, yet we still have politicians advocating for new coal mines such as the proposed Adani Mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin.
Grant Allen | 29 March 2018

Thank you Fatima for a very sad but timely reminder of the 6th extinction we are living through. I have been teaching and reading about this now for over twenty years and am still moved by your article, Yet, as John says, we are continuing with our way of life that is killing all other ways of life. thanks again for this chilling reminder that we all need to act and act now.
Tom Kingston | 03 April 2018

Thank you for stating the case so well. Consumption has never been as rampant across the planet as it is now; in respecting, conserving and caring for other species and the network of all living things we respect and care for ourselves.
Laura Murray Cree | 03 April 2018

A timely article Fatima, and alarming to say the least. However Prof. Ceballos says mass extinctions of specific species remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. He pointed to the fact that as many common species lose populations due to their ranges being reduced, they remain present elsewhere. Yes, the sixth mass extinction is progressing at an accelerated rate and society as we know it must change too. The newest generation is where our hopes lie for a world where sustainable lifestyles take precedence over ego status. The use of cosmetics and fossil fuels must decrease and the obscene imbalance of wages must be changed so that the mega rich cannot trash the earth as their privileged playground. Genesis 1:26 got it wrong when the author stated that humankind could have dominion over fish, birds, cattle and wild animals. The church too must review its teaching on birth control and instead teach nurturing stewardship of all life forms.
Trish Martin | 03 April 2018

Krill as I understand it are at the bottom of the food chain yet I read recently that they are being harvested as an ingredient in a cosmetic or health supplement. This is crazy and unthinking. When will we learn that there are not 'many more fish in the sea'?
Joanna Elliott | 03 April 2018

It's a pretty sad tale you tell, Fatima. I suppose many of us know it but feel there's little can we do. The comments express a degree of helplessness and hopelessness. Someone said that the majority of human beings in their selfishness won't do anything to address this great problem. But there is a group of human beings who can show another way. They are Christians; baptized into Christ they are no longer Greek or Jew, African, Asian, European....male or female, they are all one in Christ. They live differently, they pray for the wisdom to know and the courage to do. In the early days of Christianity the Christians stood out in the way they supported the outcasts and the poor. Today we are called to live different to the consumerist culture and pray. How about: Look at those Christians they are all going Vegan.
John Pettit | 03 April 2018

John Frawley's comment is unfortunately a very apt reality check. I wish I could find a split, a narrow tear in the fabric of his statement through which one could have some hope for a change of human behaviour while there is still time. The shocking statistic for me in Fatima's article is that "wildlife constitutes only three per cent of all land animals." I believe the proportion remaining of old growth forest is probably something similar. Because the wealthy nations consuming the greater proportion of the world's forests and animals derive from a Christian history, I cannot agree with John Pettit's idea that Christians could show the way. But no, the example for Christians to follow in minimising loss in the natural environment is from India - ahimsa - non-violence to all living beings, demonstrated most notably by the Jains, whose priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk, so they would not stand on an ant. Like many examples, a difficult act to follow, but an ideal that challenges us to take seriously our individual impact on other living creatures.
Ian Fraser | 03 April 2018

Too much alarm! The Earth and nature are remarkably resilient and robust. Humans are very intelligent and that will ultimately solve our problems; if not it is still the Earth that will win. Species have always come and gone and will continue to do so.
Eugene | 05 April 2018

Bats and birds are routinely slaughtered by wind towers and on youtube you can watch birds being fried (6000 per year) by the Ivanpah solar plant in California. On the other hand whales were saved from extinction by the discovery of oil, thanks to John D Rockefeller. I share Fatima's concern for extinctions. But I believe capitalism is the way humans can de-couple from nature in the most effective way. It's no coincidence that the developed capitalist countries are the ones most concerned about the environment and extinctions, whereas socialist countries have the most appalling record in this area.
HH | 05 April 2018


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