Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded. The 1,500-page report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization. A summary of its findings, which was approved by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries, was released May 6th, 2019 in Paris.
Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.” At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.
Biodiversity Loss is Projected to Accelerate through 2050, Particularly in the Tropics Unless Countries Drastically Step up their Conservation Efforts
Cattle Grazing on a Tract of Illegally Cleared Amazon Forest
Pará State, Brazil
In most major land habitats, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. The report is not the first to paint a grim portrait of Earth’s ecosystems. But it goes further by detailing how closely human well-being is intertwined with the fate of other species. “For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.”
A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines. But as these natural landscapes wither and become less biologically rich, the services they can provide to humans have been dwindling.
Humans are producing more food than ever, but land degradation is already harming agricultural productivity on 23 percent of the planet’s land area, the new report said. The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding. The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for “transformative changes” that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.
“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”
Scientists have cataloged only a fraction of living creatures, some 1.3 million; the report estimates there may be as many as 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have blinked out of existence, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands and the Guam flying fox. Though outside experts cautioned it could be difficult to make precise forecasts, the report warns of a looming extinction crisis, with extinction rates currently tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years. “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report concludes, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.” Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.
Over the past 50 years, global biodiversity loss has primarily been driven by activities like the clearing of forests for farmland, the expansion of roads and cities, logging, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species around the globe. In Indonesia, the replacement of rain forest with palm oil plantations has ravaged the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In Mozambique, ivory poachers helped kill off nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone. In Argentina and Chile, the introduction of the North American beaver in the 1940s has devastated native trees (though it has also helped other species thrive, including the Magellanic woodpecker). All told, three-quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by people, the report found, and 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have vanished since the 18th century. And with humans continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy, global warming is expected to compound the damage. Roughly 5 percent of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the report concluded. (The world has already warmed 1 degree.)
“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.” The dwindling number of species will not just make the world a less colorful or wondrous place, the report noted. It also poses risks to people. Volunteers collected trash in March in a mangrove forest in Brazil. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.
Volunteers Collecting Trash in a Mangrove Forest in Brazil
The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding. Today, humans are relying on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals to produce food. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have gone extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. That means the food system is becoming less resilient against pests and diseases. And it could become harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with the extreme heat and drought that climate change will bring.
“Most of nature’s contributions are not fully replaceable,” the report said. Biodiversity loss “can permanently reduce future options, such as wild species that might be domesticated as new crops and be used for genetic improvement.” The report does contain glimmers of hope. When governments have acted forcefully to protect threatened species, such as the Arabian oryx or the Seychelles magpie robin, they have managed to fend off extinction in many cases. And nations have protected more than 15 percent of the world’s land and 7 percent of its oceans by setting up nature reserves and wilderness areas. Still, only a fraction of the most important areas for biodiversity have been protected, and many nature reserves poorly enforce prohibitions against poaching, logging or illegal fishing. Climate change could also undermine existing wildlife refuges by shifting the geographic ranges of species that currently live within them. So, in addition to advocating the expansion of protected areas, the authors outline a vast array of changes aimed at limiting the drivers of biodiversity loss.
Farmers and ranchers would have to adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries would have to waste less food and become more efficient in their use of natural resources. Governments around the world would have to strengthen and enforce environmental laws, cracking down on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment. The authors also note that efforts to limit global warming will be critical, although they caution that the development of biofuels to reduce emissions could end up harming biodiversity by further destroying forests.
An elephant in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya Outside Nairobi
More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival. None of this will be easy, especially since many developing countries face pressure to exploit their natural resources as they try to lift themselves out of poverty.
But, by detailing the benefits that nature can provide to people, and by trying to quantify what is lost when biodiversity plummets, the scientists behind the assessment are hoping to help governments strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.
“You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park,” said Emma Archer, who led the group’s earlier assessment of biodiversity in Africa. “But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.” In the next two years, diplomats from around the world will gather for several meetings under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, to discuss how they can step up their efforts at conservation. Yet even in the new report’s most optimistic scenario, through 2050 the world’s nations would only slow the decline of biodiversity — not stop it. “At this point,” said Jake Rice, a fisheries scientist who led an earlier report on biodiversity in the Americas, “our options are all about damage control.”
Entrants in this year’s contest were invited to submit images that showcase Earth’s biodiversity and show some of the mounting threats to the natural world. These images originally appeared on bioGraphic, an online magazine about science and sustainability and the official media sponsor for the California Academy of Sciences’ BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition. The organizers were kind enough to share some of the winners and finalists here, selected from nearly 6,500 entries. The captions were written by the bioGraphic editorial staff, and lightly edited for style.
Daniel Dietrich / BigPicture Photography Competition
Boneyard Waltz: Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist. A trio of polar bears lumbers past a forbidding pile of whale bones along the coast of Barter Island in northern Alaska, their bloodstained noses hinting at a recent, fresher meal. As top predators, polar bears rule the Arctic ecosystem and are typically solitary hunters, except when learning from Mom, like the siblings pictured here. Eventually, the cubs will venture out on their own to patrol the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness area encompassing more than 30,000 square miles. But these epic hunting grounds may not stay pristine forever: The region holds an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Moreover, climate change is forcing the bears to travel much longer distances in search of food. For this trio, however, there’s a more imminent threat. The smallest in the trio turns to catch a glimpse of a large male following the group before all three slip into the still chilly, though warming, waters of the Beaufort Sea.
Jinggong Zhang / BigPicture Photography Competition
Bohemian Skirt: Aquatic Life Finalist. Looking lavish and looming large are key survival strategies for this female palmate octopus. While males of the species are dwarves, measuring only about 15 millimeters (less than an inch) in length, fully grown females often stretch up to 2 meters (6.6 feet), trailing eye-catching membranes from two of their elongated arms as they cruise the open ocean. When threatened, a female will extend her skirtlike membrane and wave it like a billowing banner. This dramatic display increases the size of her silhouette and is often enough to deter predators. In the face of a fiercely determined attacker, however, the octopus can quickly detach parts of her membrane along visible “fracture” lines and send a distracting chunk spiraling through the water like a bullfighter’s cape, giving her time to make her escape.
James Gifford / BigPicture Photography Competition
The Human Touch: Human/Nature Winner. It’s no exaggeration to say that André Bauma, the head caretaker at the Senkwekwe Center for orphaned gorillas in Virunga National Park, risks his life daily for the animals in his care. In recent decades, more than 170 rangers have been killed in the park, and the Senkwekwe Center has been overrun by rebels on multiple occasions. Even in these moments, Bauma has never abandoned the center’s gorillas. "Gorilla caretakers with those gorilla orphans? We are the same family," he says. "They know we are their mums."
Buddy Eleazer / BigPicture Photography Competition
Traveling to the Edge: Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist. In the Namib-Naukluft Desert of Namibia, a gemsbok sends a spray of fine sand cascading down the sheer flank of a rust-red dune. Although the ascent is strenuous and the sun blazing hot, relief awaits at the top. Along the ridge line, the antelope will find a cool, moist inland breeze blowing in from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. By simply inhaling this cooler air through its convoluted nasal passages, the animal is able to reduce the temperature of the blood destined for its brain, helping the desert dweller avoid overheating in this otherwise relentless environment.
Armand Sarlangue / BigPicture Photography Competition
Duality: Landscapes, Waterscapes, and Flora Winner. Although it’s not the country’s best-known destination, Norway’s Senja Island is quickly growing in popularity. One mountain in particular is largely responsible for that fame. Towering nearly 650 meters (2,100 feet) above the sea, Segla is a peak that epitomizes the ruggedness and wildness of northern Norway. Here, reindeer still roam the tundra while humpback whales, orcas, and sea eagles pursue herring along narrow fjords. Until recently, these ecosystems, which provide sustenance and a haven for wildlife as well as livelihoods for many Norwegians, were at risk from a fossil-fuel industry seeking another kind of bounty. Then, in April of this year, Norway’s Labour Party, the country’s parliamentary majority, surprised many by committing to permanently protect Senja and nearby islands and waterways in the Norwegian Arctic from oil drilling and exploration—a move that promises to keep these wild places wild for generations to come.
Julie Fletcher / BigPicture Photography Competition
Resilience: Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist. In 2018, Australia experienced its third-hottest year on record—temperatures that, coupled with historic droughts, created prime conditions for bushfires. For slow-moving koalas, the odds of surviving fast-burning blazes like these are slim. Which made photographer Julie Fletcher’s discovery on this day all the more surprising. Having set out to document the desolate, fire-ravaged forests on Kangaroo Island off South Australia, Fletcher watched as the determined koala, its fur tinged burnt sienna, climbed a tree and began to munch charred, crispy leaves. "He was watching me the whole time," she says, "with an intensity that told the story."
Audun Rikardsen / BigPicture Photography Competition
Taking Center Stage: Grand Prize Winner. While the beauty of Norway’s spectacular northern coastline might be lost on this male black grouse, the prime vantage point offered by its perch is certainly not. For a ground-dwelling bird known for exuberant territorial displays during the breeding season, what better place to see and be seen than this branch, which provides an eagle’s-eye perspective of the terrain below. What initially drew photographer Audun Rikardsen to this spot high above the sea was, in fact, a resident golden eagle that frequented the perch. Having constructed a blind nearby, Rikardsen spent many frigid winter days photographing the eagle. But by spring, it had been replaced by a new subject: a black grouse in proud display. Not only did the grouse quickly become accustomed to Rikardsen’s rapidly firing camera shutter and flash, he says, it was almost as if the bird enjoyed being in the spotlight.
Pier Mané / BigPicture Photography Competition
Sea Dragon: Aquatic Life Winner. The bottom of the ocean seems an unlikely place for a lizard to find itself. In fact, marine iguanas of the Galápagos Islands are the only lizards to venture beneath the waves—and they make a habit of it. With food options scarce along the islands’ volcanic coastlines, marine iguanas have evolved to forage at sea. Diving to depths of up to 25 meters on a single breath, they graze on algae that grow in the cold, nutrient-rich waters here. A carpet of healthy green and red algae like that seen in this image by Pier Mané makes the dive itself and the time spent sunbathing on the shore to regain body heat worthwhile.
Piotr Naskrecki / BigPicture Photography Competition
Losing Wings: Winged Life Winner. Most mound-building termites in sub-Saharan Africa are eyeless, wingless, subterranean creatures. But once a year, termite queens produce winged offspring that are destined for a different existence. When the first heavy rains mark the end of the dry season, millions of these ecosystem engineers make a dramatic appearance, emerging en masse in a synchronized, if short-lived, nuptial flight. “A few minutes after landing on the ground, most individuals break off their wings and start looking for partners,” says the scientist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki. Within a day, the ground can literally be carpeted with discarded wings, providing padded walkways for a variety of other creatures—including the small, winged carpenter ants in this photo, which had just completed a mating flight of their own.
Chiara Salvadori / BigPicture Photography Competition
Clouds of Salt: Art of Nature Winner. On the high plains of northwestern Argentina, the photojournalist Chiara Salvadori encountered a truly magical scene. Standing at an elevation of 3,900 meters (12,795 feet) surrounded by the stark beauty of the Salar de Antofalla, one of the world’s largest salt pans, she watched as the landscape’s colors changed and were shaped by the shadows of clouds that flowed fast overhead. One of the things that stood out most to Salvadori was the absence of humanity here. Indeed, the Salar’s dry salt bed supports little in the way of life. Even along its edges and on the slopes of towering volcanoes nearby, only the hardiest plants and animals survive. Shaped largely by wind and drought, the region’s harshness will, in all likelihood, continue to guard its surreal beauty.
Mikhail Korostelev / BigPicture Photography Competition
Curiosity: Terrestrial Wildlife Winner. Capturing an underwater photograph of a massive brown bear as it fishes for salmon might seem like an impossible—and impossibly dangerous—feat. But with ingenuity, patience, and an abundance of bears, the wildlife photographer Mikhail Korostelev managed to do just that. To improve his chances, Korostelev ventured to the South Kamchatka Sanctuary, an isolated, 795,000-acre federally protected reserve on the tip of Russia’s easternmost peninsula. Not only is this home to the largest of all protected brown-bear populations in Russia, the sanctuary’s rivers see some of the largest salmon runs along the Pacific Coast. Along the Ozemaya River, one of the bears’ favorite fishing haunts, Korostelev submerged a remotely operated camera and waited. Before long, a curious bear happened upon the unusual object sitting on the river bottom, and, as it began to investigate, Korostelev snapped this breathtaking photograph.