Wild creatures our grandchildren will never experience in person stare back at the camera with haunting eyes and evocative expressions. Even if they themselves are oblivious to the impending demise of their species, these gazes are freighted with meaning to those of us who think that their continued existence on this planet and in this universe matters.
U.K.’s newspaper The Telegraph reports on “the vanishing animals that future generations will never see:”
“Habitat loss, poaching, hunting and disease are pushing many species to the brink to such an extent that the world has now entered a sixth mass extinction.”
The “sixth mass extinction” follows on the five previous great extinction episodes in the history of life on Earth. The last of these crises happened 65 million years ago when an asteroid or fragment of a comet slammed into the ocean near the Yucatan Peninsula; the abrupt climate change this cataclysm unleashed closed the Cretaceous period and extinguished the dinosaurs, which had ruled the planet for 165 million years. The Age of Dinosaurs yielded to the Age of Mammals.
Yet now the Age of Mammals (and other vertebrates such as birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) is imperiled by the vertiginous rise of just one mammal in particular: Homo sapiens.
All of the direct, proximate causes of the extinction crisis listed above – habitat loss, poaching, hunting and disease – are themselves direct and indirect effects of human overpopulation: of too many people, en masse, overexploiting and impacting essentially the entire Earth, from the frigid waters off Antarctica to the steaming jungles of the Amazon, and the thin air of the stratosphere to the melting sea ice of the Arctic. Our reach is planet-wide.
Only a hundred or so of the critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur survive in a tiny pocket of forested habitat remaining in northern Madagascar. This four-pound primate is the victim of habitat loss due to widespread deforestation on Madagascar, as its soaring human population clears shrinking forests to convert them to farmland. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries and its population has quadrupled over the last 50 years.
The black-faced golden tamarin monkey of Brazil is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because only 400 individuals split into three isolated subpopulations survive in the wild. Two nature reserves conserve remnants of its habitat but provide little protection from illegal hunting (poaching) and collection for the illicit pet trade. Ongoing infrastructure development is also a long-term threat.
The vaquita’s population has plunged by 90 percent over the last decade. So few now remain that they could well go extinct this very year, “becoming yet another mammal forced off the face of the Earth” by human rapacity.
These are just three of the more than 23,000 species on the IUCN Red List threatened with extinction, including 41 percent of the world’s amphibians, 25 percent of its mammals and 13 percent of its birds.
At a time when human needs and problems are so pressing, some question why non-human species should receive any attention, any effort, or any funds at all.
It is our very capacity to care about others, and to care about Creation in general, that defines and elevates us as human beings. Even Pope Francis, no slouch when it comes to compassion for his fellow man, is deeply concerned by the extinction crisis now engulfing other species, as he expressed so eloquently in his 2015 papal encyclical Laudato Si (“On Care for Our Common Home”).
We should heed his wise words while there may still be time, although sadly, for some species, it may already be too late.