In critical condition

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Nanyuki, 200km north of Nairobi, Kenya, in May last year. The 45-year-old giant died this week after months of illness, sending the species hurtling ever faste
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Nanyuki, 200km north of Nairobi, Kenya, in May last year. The 45-year-old giant died this week after months of illness, sending the species hurtling ever faster towards extinction. Just two females now remain. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Scientists release sobering report card on planet's biodiversity and ecosystems

MEDELLIN (Colombia) • Humanity is risking its own well-being by overharvesting and harming nature's bounty, said a comprehensive survey released yesterday.

It warned that animal and plant species were in decline in every world region.

Four mammoth reports that took more than 550 scientists three years to compile warned that Asia-Pacific fish stocks could run out by 2048 and more than half of African bird and mammal species could be lost by 2100.

Up to 90 per cent of Asia-Pacific corals will suffer "severe degradation" by 2050, said the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Pollution, climate change and the clearance of forests to make way for farmland were among the worsening threats to nature, according to experts that the IPBES brought together from around the globe to assess four regions: the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia. The report covers the entire planet except for the Antarctic and the open seas.

The volunteers combed through some 10,000 scientific publications. Subsequently, envoys from the IPBES' 129 member countries approved summaries of the four reports, which will guide governments in policymaking.

Around the world, ever more animals and plants were under threat, ranging from elephants in Africa to rare mosses in Europe.

  • 0

    Exploitable fish stocks in the region by 2048 if current fishing practices continue

  • 80%

    Of most plastic-polluted rivers in the world are in Asia - accounting for up to 95 per cent of the global load of plastics in the oceans

  • 71%

    Of fish populations declined in Europe over past decade

Two species of vertebrates - animals with a backbone - have gone extinct every year on average for the past century. Just this week, the death of Sudan - the world's last northern white rhino male - served as a stark reminder of the stakes.

On current trends, over-fishing means there could be no exploitable fish stocks in the Asia-Pacific region by mid-century.

For the Americas, the survey warned that species populations - already 31 per cent smaller than when the first European settlers arrived - will have shrunk by about 40 per cent by 2050.

Meanwhile, eight in 10 rivers around the world with the most plastic waste were in Asia.

Scientists say mankind's voracious consumption of biodiversity has unleashed the first mass species die-off since the demise of the dinosaurs - only the sixth on our planet in half-a-billion years.

"We're undermining our own future well-being," said IPBES chairman Robert Watson. "If we continue the way we are... the sixth mass extinction, the first one ever caused by humans, will continue," he added.

Separately, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said the number of types of mega-fauna on the planet - carnivores weighing more than 15kg and herbivores weighing more than 100kg - was set to shrink to from 101 to double digits.

Three-fifths of these iconic creatures are already listed as threatened with extinction by the IUCN.

More than a dozen are in the wildlife equivalent of intensive care, tagged as "critically endangered" or "extinct in the wild".

"We are facing the very real possibility of seeing these titans of nature go extinct in the wild in our lifetime, on our watch," said Ms Inger Andersen, director-general of the IUCN, which tracks the survival status of animals and plants on the planet's Red List.

Many forces are pushing megafauna - especially vulnerable to such pressures - towards the edge, including habitat loss, poaching, conflict over livestock and, in the case of polar bears, climate change. But the common denominator behind all this is a single cause: humanity's inexorable expansion.

But the scientists do point to possible solutions: creating more protected areas, restoring degraded zones, and rethinking subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. Ending food waste - as much as 40 per cent of all that is produced - is also key. Consumers, too, must be more responsible, by reducing their intake of meat, for example.

"Can we stop all of it? No. Can we significantly slow it down? Yes," concluded Mr Watson.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'In critical condition'. Print Edition | Subscribe