People easily forget “last of” stories about individual species, but the loss of nature also threatens our existence.
The first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Year’s Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George. George, who was about an inch long, had a grayish body, grayish tentacles, and a conical shell striped in beige and brown. He was born in captivity, in Honolulu, and had spent his unassuming life oozing around his terrarium, consuming fungi. Researchers with Hawaii’s forestry department had tried to find a partner for him—George was a hermaphrodite, but he needed a mate in order to reproduce—and when they couldn’t they concluded that he was the last of his kind, Achatinella apexfulva. A few days after he went, presumably gently, into that good night, the department posted a eulogy under the heading “farewell to a beloved snail . . . and a species.” “Unfortunately, he is survived by none,” it observed. George’s passing prompted a spate of headlines, and then, it seems safe to say, was forgotten. Americans have, by now, grown inured to “last of” stories, which appear with the unsurprising regularity of seasonal dessert recipes. (George the snail was named for Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos, also the last of his kind, who died in 2012.) In February, the Australian government declared a ratlike creature known as the Bramble Cay melomys to be extinct. The melomys, found on a single low-lying island between Australia and Papua New Guinea, appears to have been done in by climate change, which has shrunk its habitat and brought ever more damaging flooding. Then, in April, Chinese state media reported that the last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle had died. “Her species might die with her,” the Washington Post noted. Last week, an international group of scientists issued what the Times called “the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity.” The findings were grim. On the order of a million species are now facing extinction, “many within decades.” “What’s at stake here is a liveable world,” Robert Watson, the chairman of the group, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, told Science. The U.N.-backed I.P.B.E.S. is to flora and fauna what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to the atmosphere. Based in Bonn, it is funded by a hundred and thirty-two member nations, including the United States. More than three hundred experts contributed to its latest assessment, which runs to more than fifteen hundred pages. The authors trace two diverging trend lines: one upward-sloping, for people, and one sloping downward, for everything else. During the past fifty years, the planet’s human population has doubled. In that same period, the size of the global economy has quadrupled, and global trade has grown tenfold. If hundreds of millions of people around the world are still mired in poverty, there are many more people living in prosperity today than ever before. To keep nearly eight billion people fed, not to mention housed, clothed, and hooked on YouTube, humans have transformed most of the earth’s surface. Seventy-five per cent of the land is “significantly altered,” the I.P.B.E.S. noted in a summary of its report, which was released last week in Paris. In addition, “66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” Approximately half the world’s coral cover is gone. In the past ten years alone, at least seventy-five million acres of “primary or recovering forest” have been destroyed. Habitat destruction and overfishing are, for now, the main causes of biodiversity declines, according to the I.P.B.E.S., but climate change is emerging as a “direct driver” and is “increasingly exacerbating the impact of other drivers.” Its effects, the report notes, “are accelerating.” Watson wrote last week, in the Guardian, that “we cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”
Read the whole essay here.