What do bison, brown bears, beluga whales, cottontails, cougars, gray wolves, kangaroo rats, killer whales, Mexican bobcats, narwhals, right whales, flying squirrels, fur seals, ocelots, polar bears, red wolves, sea otters, Steller sea lions, volcano rabbits and wolverines have in common? They’re all endangered North American mammals.
There are more endangered mammals on this list – a lot more – and even more reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects, crustaceans and corals that could be added to it. Overall, humanity has done an uncanny job of bringing all these animals to the brink of extinction.
Today, May 15, is Endangered Species Day, and most environmental news agencies will tell you it’s a time to go out and do what you can to help conserve and protect the animal kingdom.
You’ll also be reminded of the anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973. This Act charges the federal government with protecting endangered and threatened species as well as preserving their critical habitats. As of this writing, there are at least 1,361 plants and animals in the United States alone that are listed as threatened or endangered.
And while celebrating Endangered Species Day and participating in conservation are both fine and necessary things, it’s also a stark reminder that humanity is, in many cases, solely responsible for wiping entire species off the face of the Earth.
There are two prominent species that will disappear in your lifetime, and likely within the next two decades. The Yangtze River dolphin was declared functionally extinct in 2006, meaning there are a handful of the dolphins left but not enough to survive. The dolphins were wiped out through a combination of shipping, sand mining and illegal fishing in the Yangtze, and the accompanying pollution that went with it. After the deaths of two white rhinos in 2014 and 2015, the total population has been reduced to five – only one of which is a male.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were some 500,000 rhinos roaming the African content. There are less than 26,000 today. Elephants, too, are swiftly disappearing. Groups of Africa’s most iconic animal may go extinct as early as 2020, according to one expert. Both elephants and rhinos are vanishing at breakneck speed due to the high value of their ivory and horns respectively and the unbridled greed of mankind.
In fact, man’s tremendous impact on both the planet’s animals and environment has led some to dub this era the Anthropocene Age.
Scholars debate the validity of naming this epoch after humans, but what is beyond dispute is that flora and fauna species are declining at a rate one-thousand times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene. That was the finding of Duke University’s Stuart Pimm in a study he published last year in the journal Science.
The geologic record shows that there have been five mass extinction events in Earth’s past – catastrophes that wiped out at least half of all known species at the time. According to Pimm, humanity may very well cause the next one.
“We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” he said. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”
So while Planet Experts encourages you to learn how you can prevent exploitation of the environment and the needless slaughter of its inhabitants, we also encourage you to reflect on why it has taken so long to recognize how much life we’ve left behind.