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  August 1, 2017

Biological Annihilation: Earth's Sixth Mass Extinction Event is Under Way

Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction event, posing a "frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization," says a new study co-authored by Professor Gerardo Ceballos at the University of Mexico
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Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing 6th Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences - Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo


Professor Gerardo Ceballos is a researcher at the Institute of Ecology of the National Autonomus University of Mexico. Professor Ceballos is both very well-known and distinguished environmental scientist in the world. That status is the result of (1) his pioneering and extraordinarily diverse ecological and conservation research, (2) his unparalleled efforts to bring ecological knowledge to bear on crucial societal issues, (3) his building of bridges between ecology and conservation in order to humane find paths to ecological sustainability, and (4) his untiring efforts to increase the ecological literacy of the general public.


DIMTIRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for the real news. According to scientists there have been five mass extinction events over the past 500 million years. Each has caused a wide range of species to die off. We are now in the middle of the sixth extinction caused in this case by human activity. A new study has found that the current mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume. The authors warn that this extinction poses a "frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization, and that the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most." They go on to say, "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 study is entitled, "Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines." It was published in the journal proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences and its lead author professor Gerardo Ceballos is joining us today to discuss this important study. Dr. Ceballos is a distinguished environmental research scientist and a professor at the institute of ecology in the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He is also the co-author of the book "The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals" He joins us today from Mexico City. Welcome to the Real News Network, Professor Ceballos.

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Good morning, thank you very much for having me here.

DIMTIRI LASCARIS: Now you suggest that as much in your study is 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations. Within what time frame has this happened, and based on past records what would the natural time frame be in which we would normally see this level of species of population loss?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Well what we have done in this paper was to look at population extinction because it gives us a much better idea what's going on in nature. In 2015 we published a paper on species extinction and we found out that the species that were lost in 100 years would have been lost in up to 10,000 years following the previous extinction rates in the last two million years. In this particular case what we did is to look at populations of birth rates, 27,000 birth rates and we found out that 1000 of them are losing populations.

And what is very unique about our paper is that we look at the species that are endangered with extinction already, but we also look at many species that are still common, like the brown swallow that has lost more than 10% of the population in the last 10 years and that species is found probably in one-third of the globe and is very abundant or is losing population mass. I look at the species and we say bad enough, that extinction crisis, when we would look at populations, this is really, really bad. We have to be incredibly careful and aware, of results and aware in the publication, not to be alarmist and say something that really doesn't hold up by the data. But on the other hand, it would be incredibly irresponsible from our part not to use this strong language to show what is really happening. But we think, and many other studies have shown similar things with different groups of animals, groups of different data sets, is that the massive loss of a species and populations really is signaling that we have entered the sixth mass extinction on the one hand, but also that this massive loss of species that we call biological annihilation made pose a really important thread to humanity.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Before we deal with that threat, we certainly want to talk about that. But what aspects of human activity have contributed the most to species and population loss?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Historically the most important one has been habitat destruction. We have lost 50% of all the natural habitats in the last 100 years, 50 years and just in the last 20 years we lost more than 10% of our natural forest. So habitat destruction is the number one I would say, that or [inaudible 00:04:57] overexploitation. There are right now, there is a massive trade, legal and illegal trade of a species for many reasons. That have been used for food, that have been used as pets, that have been used for aphrodisiac because many of these species are believed to have aphrodisiac powers. Just to give you an idea, the statistics shows that every 50 minutes an African elephant is being killed legally for tusks and we have lost 30% of the population in the last seven years. If we follow this trend, we probably will lose elephants in the wild in the next one two decades. And this is the same for lions and so many of these [crosstalk 00:05:51]

DIMITRI LASCARIS: That's 30% of the global population of elephants have been lost in the last seven years?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Yes, 30% of the global population have been lost in the last seven years. And there are many stories like that, the penguins, orangutans, jaguars, so many species are being lost the populations, and if we put the also a pollution and toxification, toxification is putting chemicals that are detrimental for wildlife into the environment and other problem is diseases transmitted by domestic animals and finally invasive species. Invasive species has been the cause of more than something like 50% of all the extinctions of animals, particularly on islands. SO those are the main problems in the last decade, global warming is becoming an incredibly important problem too. And what we have, we know now, the scientific community knows now, that when you put so many pressures on assistance, hunting, habitat destruction, diseases, global warming, you put it in so many stresses that there are so many species that simply cannot survive under those conditions. [crosstalk 00:07:17]

DIMTIRI LASCARIS: What parts of the world, Dr. Ceballos have these stresses caused the greatest species and population loss?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Well we have to remember that the many areas in the world has been destroyed or has been impacted so much that they're really have a little biodiversity. The most concerning places right now are the area that we have large concentrations of animals on the one hand. For instance Africa, all the Savannahs and the forest in Africa are incredibly important to maintain biodiversity on Earth than South America, the forest of the Amazon basin that are Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and so on are incredibly important in Meso America that is central American Mexico that we have still a very large forest area between Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, almost three and a half million hectares of forest on the big threat also. Where particular concern were Borneo and Southeast Asia that still have a good forest but they are going really, really fast. I would probably say that the most concern right now would be some places in Africa and some places in southeast Asia in terms of the impact on the destroying the habitat. In terms of the trade of the species, species have been decimated everywhere but also Africa and Asia are some of the hottest spots. Asia, especially China and other countries around there are having an incredible appetite for an endangered rare species and for instance pangolins and lion bones or tiger bones are being used there and their prices are really amazing.

We have the case in Mexico, the vaquita porpoise, there are probably less than 30 animals left, and those animals are being killed by incidentally get caught in gill nets and the gill nets have been used to capture the totoaba fish. That is a fish is being sold illegally in China for up to 100,000 dollars per kilogram.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So as I mentioned at the outset, the study says quite starkly that the population loss and species loss that you've identified constitutes a "frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization." Why are the authors of the study of that view?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Well you know it is, most of the time people ask us, well what's happen if we lose one species, is it too sad to lose them but we need to continue prosperity of humanity. Just remember the following, all these plants and animals are the basis for maintaining life on Earth. In other words, I mean all these species, are the basis for the hydro hydrological cycle, the nutrient cycle and so on. We scientists test for these, their environmental services. And environmental services are those benefits that we received free from the well function of nature. For instance, the proper combination of the gasses of the atmosphere on air that allowed to be, to have life, requires this set of plants and animals but the quality and quantity of water, for instance, the fertilizations of all the soils, the pollinization of all the plants including many crops, are required wild animals. I give this example many times so people can understand, just see my end that there is a wall made of bricks. If you take one brick, one species, the wall won't collapse but the wall will start to work less properly.

So if you think they start to take many of those weeks, eventually the wall will be so bad that it won't be working as a wall and one time, eventually you take one of those bricks and the wall will collapse. What we're doing with nature, with all taking, eradicating, annihilating, so many plants and animals, so many populations of plants and animals is we're taking the foundations of the ecosystem to work properly and that is the basis to us having the proper weather, water and sun. So our main concern is that there are many reasons to save those species, philosophical, analytical, and so on. But the most important one from the human point of view is that if you still continue using the species they will be eventually a point where the natural system won't be able to provide us with basic benefits like proper air, water, and sun that allow us to survive as humans on this plant. And our main concern is that there is many other studies showing up what we found, that there is the window for opportunity to see there, but it's very, very short. Probably two ...

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let's talk about what has to be done within that window of opportunity, you know some parts of the world, most notably in the United States where the Trump administration is, seems to be targeting the US endangered species act almost a movement away from the sorts of things that we need to be doing in order to prevent this collapse that you've warned about. What would ideal conservation policy look like in your view in order to stave off that collapse and help restore these populations?

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Well, we have to do I mean people can do things that the household and the regional level and then on an international level. At the household level we have to reduce the work consumption and to use more efficient energies. I just read recently that the amount of garbage that is in the sea could make a pile three kilometers high covering all Manhattan. Just imagine that. So reducing the amount of plastic that we use will be very important. Reducing the number of phones that we change every year will be important. At the most international arena what your president has done from retiring from the Paris agreement has been the country who support was because what has happened right now, it has given the problem again at this [inaudible 00:14:11] that requires we discuss it at the proper level. So it is very important to understand that the only way that we have to enable to restore these populations and save them from extinction, and from that help humanity to continue its course is by having international agreements that reduce the illegal trade, for instance, of endangered species on the one hand. There is the convention of [inaudible 00:14:40] the convention of the trade of endangered species but that's not enough. We need to have a new organization that we provide resources to the most developing countries so they can do better efforts to conserve the forest.

I just read recently, and I don't know how accurate it is, but I read that the Brazilian government has indicated that is willing to save most of the Amazon forest that is left in this country if we receive some help from the international community to pay this internal debt. So what we need now is a change in attitude and to understand that this global problem is so big that the only way to solve it is having these agreements between all nations on Earth. The Paris agreement can give us perhaps some leads on how to do it. On the other hand at a national level it's incredibly important that we continue pushing for having more protected areas. Pushing for saving endangered species, for better management of many of these species. It is important to understand for instance that [inaudible 15:46:00] don't properly conserve species. That it's important to also to understand that instead of getting birds for the bird trade we can raise much more money by having bird in wild areas throughout the world. So we know now enough and we have all the science and technology to do a much better job than we are doing, but it requires a huge effort that I think hasn't been done ever in the history of humanity perhaps except from one of the wars to really help with this huge problem.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Professor Gerardo Ceballos of the Institute of Ecology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico about a new study showing that we are now in the sixth mass extinction. Thank you very much for joining us today professor Ceballos.

GERARDO CEBALLOS: Thank you very much Dimitri.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News.


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