JCU students join race against extinction

A projection of a breaching humpback whale on the side of the Empire State Building, as shown in Racing Extinction. Credit: Oceanic Preservation Society

Half of the Earth’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton, and rising acidity in our oceans means our phytoplankton levels are dropping.

Jayde Baguley and Andrew Sands

This was the warning issued to students at James Cook University’s screening of Racing Extinction, a Discovery documentary by Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyo on the impact of mankind’s globalisation and rapid destruction of the natural world

A projection of a breaching humpback whale on the side of the Empire State Building, as shown in Racing Extinction. Credit: Oceanic Preservation Society

A projection of a breaching humpback whale on the side of the Empire State Building, as shown in Racing Extinction.    Credit: Oceanic Preservation Society

The 2015 film features harrowing scenes of the extensive and disastrous effect of hunting, pollution, habitat destruction and carbon emissions that has led to the decay of the planet and the resultant rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and acidification of our oceans.

It is these consequences of the damaging ways of man, of which we are only just realising the full extent, which have led to the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals. Never before has the Earth seen such a spike in its atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as it has right now with levels now well over 400 ppm. Increased levels of CO2 within the air can have had such damaging effects as increasing the acidity of the ocean, which has caused extensive coral bleaching and endangered marine biology, such as phytoplankton, to which we owe 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe.

The team from Racing Extinction have set out to highlight some of the most note-worthy of endangered species and the ways in which their numbers have declined with the five major drivers of extinction: habitat destruction, pollution, over-consumption, climate change and introduced species.

The urbanisation and growth of agricultural land has immense pressure on the growth of many species across the world. While it may be difficult to accurately determine when a species is extinct or an accurate rate of extinction, it is clear that habitat destruction is still a vital issue. According to the WWF, habitat loss and destruction affects up to 85% of all animals on the IUCN Red List.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, a bird native to Florida, is one example of an animal that has become endangered due to the loss of habitat. According to the documentary, Racing Extinction, 91% of the Grasshopper Sparrow’s habitat has been destroyed. Audubon describes the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow as, “perhaps the most endangered bird in the continental US…”

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The sparrow is so highly endangered due to its dependence on the Florida prairie habitats that has been to make way for grazing pastures that is suitable for some types of prairie wildlife, however, is not suitable for the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

The link attached is a video recorded by OPS that highlights the challenges facing the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, and how conservation efforts may help:

http://racingextinction.com/#grasshopper-sparrow

Another well-known example that demonstrates the damage caused by habitat destruction is the Orangutan. Orangutans are listed as an endangered species and they face many challenges. The habitat that Orangutan’s live in are under threat from logging, fire, deforestation and mining.

However, more well known, Orangutan’s are threatened by the destruction of the forest to turn into palm oil. There are many benefits to the use of palm oil, according to National Geographic, palm oil is versatile, is cheaper and more efficient to grow, and the trees produce fruit year round. But around 85% of palm oil comes from forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. The numbers of Orangutans in the wild are significantly dwindling with only 45,000 in Borneo and 6,500 estimated to be remaining the wild. The Orangutan Land Trust estimates that around 3,000 Orangutans are lost each year to hunting and the loss of habitat.

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Of course, the palm oil industry is not the only threat to the habitat of the Orangutan. In 2015, Indonesia was faced with its worst fire season since 1997. Drought and El Nino drove bushfires that destroyed 8,000 square miles (around 21,000 square km) of forestry.

Below is a picture series found on National Geographic that shows the devastation wrought by the bush fires:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/151105-indonesia-fires-orangutans-photos/#/09orangutanfires.ngsversion.1459868219270.jpg

Man’s pollution of the natural environment has been devastating to the balance and function of its intricate parts and systems. Since the burning of fossil fuels for our ever-increasing demand for energy and our rapid increase in population across the planet (and the levels of waste this generates), we have seen the natural environment suffer and crumble under the strain of our impact. This waste, including unrecycled plastics and metals, accounts for extraordinary amounts of land and oceanic waste each year. According to National Geographic, eight million tons of plastic trash made its way to the ocean from coastal countries around the world in 2010. This number is far greater than the total amount of trash that has already been recorded floating on the surface of the ocean’s “garbage patches” – locations where oceanic currents meet and waste and debris collect in vast expanses. This number is projected to increase tenfold in the next decade unless the world’s waste begins to be managed more effectively. A study has claimed that China is the worst offender of oceanic trash.

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

Pesticides and fertilizers may not be first considered a pollutant but can in fact have serious impacts on the natural environment. The use of these products has increased by 26 times over the past 50 years as the global population expands and there is an ever-increasing demand for food. Without correct use and precautions put in place, these products can wash into groundwater or nearby waterways with rain or flooding. The pesticides may kill other organisms that were not initially targeted such as fish, insects, and beneficial soil microbes and bacteria. Fertilisers are not necessarily toxic but their presence may lead to an unbalance of the nutrient levels within the waterway, resulting in an increased algal growth due to the higher nutrient levels. The algae then deplete the water of oxygen and this can in turn lead to the death of fish and other aquatic species.

Mankind’s over-consumption of animals has long lead to the mass reductions and extinctions of countless species of creatures for centuries. The problem is just as prevalent today as ever and we currently risk losing even more iconic animals within only a few years.

Unfortunately for many animals in the world, such as rhinos, tigers, manta rays and pangolins, the poaching that critically endangers them is due to the demand for the use of these animals in traditional Asian medicines – many of which have no associated scientific health benefits. Yet the high price tag on many animals for use in these medicines means that increasingly extensive lengths are taken to hunt and capture these species.

Rhinos have been subject to extraordinary levels of poaching in recent decades; at least 5, 490 have been killed since 2008 alone for the use of their horns in Asian medicine, believed to treat a wide variety of conditions. It was only as recently as 2011 that the western black rhino was declared extinct with poaching being named the primary cause.

The bones of tigers are also used in Asian medicines and their fur, teeth and claws are sold on the black market. Similarly, extensive numbers of manta rays are poached every year for their gills, which are cut out and used in Chinese medicine to “treat” cancer, illness and increase circulation. The claim that the mana ray gills were an effective “treatment” for these illnesses was even supported published in a book by the Chinese government.

Another often-overlooked issue with man’s over-consumption of animals is that of the risks and endangerment of secondary casualties – the animals that share a close link with the organisms being consumed. For example, the high demand for fish to feed the increasing world population has led to lower numbers of fish for aquatic life such as other species of fish, dolphins and seals. The catching of krill for western health supplements means less food for whales and whale sharks. The demand for beef and other livestock has not only led to deforestation in search of more land (reducing natural habitats) but also the killing of predators that may prey on the livestock, such as big cats, wolves and other carnivores across the globe. Likewise, the demand for palm oil for food production has led to extensive deforestation around the world, resulting in further habitat loss for many species.

Photograph by Tomas Munita/AP Photos

Photograph by Tomas Munita/AP Photos

It is not difficult to understand that the driving motivation for all of this consumption is, of course, money. Companies are earning fortunes by investing everything they can, including natural environments and animal species, into being able to supply to the demand for animals for meat, medicines or trinkets. It seems unlikely that big corporations will feel compelled to stop their destructive ways when such a high price tag still hangs from these creatures and until drastic and immediate action is taken, it is only a short matter of time before we see more and more species wiped of the face of the Earth.

Air pollution is one of the more visible environmental pollutants that contaminates our skies as a result of man’s staggering production and industrial activity. Fossil fuels burnt in vehicles, factories and energy plants sends enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which has been blamed as the leading factor in climate change. Other pollutants include particulate matter such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gases released from industrial or utility plants. Some of these chemicals can cause smog and acid rain, which damages crops, forests, and even buildings and can turn lakes and rivers acidic – endangering marine life. Short-term exposure to such air pollutants can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and induce headaches, nausea, allergic reactions or even upper-respiratory infections.

The consequences of long-term exposure can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer and heart disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that seven million people die each year from air pollution, making it the biggest environmental health risk on the planet.

Climate change is a leading factor in the deteriorating health of the planet. Already a popular issue with governments and groups around the world, it has been widely recognised for its effects on the health and balance of the world’s oceans, forests and weather function.

The leading cause recognised as contributing to climate change is the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases – such as methane – through industrial processes, transport emissions and livestock farming across the globe. An increase in the natural “greenhouse” layer of gases in the Earth’s atmosphere leads to an increased amount of solar radiation being deflected back to the surface of the Earth, instead of escaping back out of the atmosphere. This is what causes the “greenhouse effect” and is the reason for the rising temperatures of the planet.

Image courtesy of NASA at http://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

Image courtesy of NASA at http://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

In such an industrial age as we are now currently facing, CO2 levels have never been so high and only continue to climb. When the ever-increasing human population is considered, it becomes clear that the transport sector deservedly sits at the second-most leading cause of climate change. In 2014, 1.2 billion motor vehicles were calculated to be in use across the globe, with a projection for that number to rise to 2 billion by 2035.

The global agricultural sector is the primary source of methane (the second most prevalent greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. Emitted by livestock, farming and other natural sources such as decomposing organic matter in wetlands and marshes, methane is more effective at trapping solar radiation within the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Although the lifetime of atmospheric methane is shorter than that of CO2 and there is less of it, the comparative effect on climate change of methane is 25 times that of CO2.

The primary and secondary effects of global warming are numerous but perhaps the most obvious is an increase in the average temperature of the planet. This can lead to an increase in average ocean temperatures, causing coral bleaching and hence, the destruction of reefs and marine habitats. Weather patterns around the globe may also be disrupted with the warmer temperatures causing more evaporation and precipitation, leading to some regions getting dryer and others wetter and glaciers and polar ice caps partially melting, resulting in rising sea levels.

No other country can demonstrate the impact of non-native species quite like Australia can. As such a bio-diverse country, the damage caused by introduced species is exaggerated and widespread.

In fact, Australia is home to more species than any other developed countries; and we have one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world.

Feral animals can provide many obstacles for native wildlife to overcome, this includes predation, destroying habitats, spreading disease, and competing for food and shelter.
One example of this happening is the Bilby:

bilby

The Bilby was once widespread across many habitats in Australia, however, they are now threatened with extinction and only occupy less than 20% of their former habitats.

Bilbies, as part of the Bandicoot family, rely on spinifex grasslands and shrublands to hide from predators. The expansion of farmlands, and the spread of feral rabbits has significantly diminished the Bilby population.

In Queensland alone, the population of Bilbies only ranges from 400 to 600 in a 100,000 square kilometer area and the Bilby is the last remaining member of the six bandicoot species that were found in Australia.

In similar fashion, meet the Woylie:

woylie-bettong-australia

Listed on the IUCN red list, Woylie’s are a critically endangered Australian species. Like the Bilby, Woylies once covered 60% of Australian mainland up until the mid-19th Century. Today, the Woylie only inhabits 1% of land.

Researchers suspect that a parasitic infection in early 2000’s damaged the remaining population of Woylie’s after introduced foxes (among other factors) decimated their population.

The population of the Woylie is widely believed to have dropped from 225,00 to about 10,000-20,000 in the past 15 years alone.

Feral foxes, a knowing cause of this rapid decline in population are now joined by the predation of the Woylie by feral cats, who are estimated to kill and/or eat 75 million native animals a night.

The difficulties facing our native animals are far from over, but there are widespread conservation efforts by government agencies and independent groups aiming to eradicate the danger posed to native animals by introduced species. These initiatives range from dealing with feral foxes and cats, to dealing with the widespread invasion of cane toads.

You can help or find more information by visiting these websites;
https://www.savethebilbyfund.com/
http://www.australianwildlife.org/
https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/conservation
https://www.wilderness.org.au/articles/australias-biodiversity-summary

The world’s population is currently sitting at just below seven and a half billion people, and rising. With an ever-increasing population it becomes apparent that now is the time we recognise the strain we’re placing on our home, the Earth, and the environment around us.

We live in an enlightened age, science is at the forefront, and we can measure the effects of climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, over-consumption, and introduced species.

While much of the damage has been done, there is still time to implement change and work to minimise effects and repair what we can. There is no bringing back species already extinct, but we can regrow forests, and slow down climate change.

At our current rate of expansion and globalisation, we need to encourage and inspire change, whether it be in the form of educating others about the dangers or global warming, or donating and providing care for endangered species.

Be a part of something big, change starts with you.