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Winners and losers: The human face of species loss

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Published : July 05th, 2019
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I recall hearing on the radio on October 31, 2011, that, according to the United Nations, world population had just reached 7 billion. I then went online to get details, and discovered Index Mundi – a data portal that turns facts and statistics into easy-to-use visuals. Since that day, the number of people on our planet has risen by another ten percent, and now increases by about 135 individuals per minute.

This vast and exponentially growing change in human population has fundamentally changed the biomass on our planet. Livestock (mostly cattle and pigs) now represent 60 per cent of the world’s mammals; people, 36 per cent; wild animals, 4 per cent.

This explains a dilemma facing humankind. As I suggested in a Critica commentary titled This is for the birds, I am one of a vast tribe of people around the world who get considerable enjoyment from birding – bird-watching to the uninitiated – and contributing in my small way to global databases about the health of our world’s bird populations.

For example, during the vast North American bird migration last spring, I was part of a group of 14 birders from Calgary who spent five days at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park – so named because of ancient Indigenous carvings on local cliffs – to do five days of birding. The areas we explored were near Milk River – little more than a creek in that area, which originates in Montana, turns south and joins other streams flowing south. Eventually, its waters flow into the Mississippi.

 

eBird: The purpose of our visit was to count the number of species present in a few well-defined regions at the border between Canada’s province of Alberta and the American state of Montana. By foot, at least, we could cross these open borders at will. However, we stayed on the Canadian side of the border, and spent those days identifying species and counting the numbers the individual birds in each species. We then submit detailed reports – a dozen of them in all – to Cornell University’s eBird website – a network the school launched in 2002, in conjunction with the National Audubon Society. This site accumulates and produces geographical data on birds throughout the year and around the world. Based in Ithaca, New York, Cornell also helps maintain a fleet of birdcams positioned to video active nests. This enables the curious to observe birds around the world raising their young.

Increasingly the centre of the ornithological world, eBird enables birders and ornithologists to record and enumerate bird populations from every habitat. Enthusiasts like our small band do bird counts within given geographical regions. Like others on our expedition, enthusiast Jennifer Solem was passionate about the value of these expeditions. “I fear bird counts may become very important for identifying the effects of floods and now, again, fires in crucial boreal breeding areas.” She was hopeful, she said, that the data emerging from bird counts could serve as “motivation for prioritizing conservation in [forest] habitat.” For birds and other species, habitat is everything.

For ornithology as much as the birds it studies, the issue is more serious than it is in the vast, sparsely populated provinces of Canada. Globally speaking, one in eight bird species face possible extinction, according to a riveting recent report by Birdlife International. Calling birdlife “nature at its most enthralling, the report describes that Birds are one of the best known and most highly valued elements of the natural world.” They comprise more than eleven thousand different species, “ranging from hummingbirds to ostriches, from penguins to eagles.” These species are unique in appearance, habits and habitat. Some still occur in vast flocks, while others are now down to a few remaining individuals. Some spend their entire lives within a few hectares of land. Some undertake annual migrations that cover half the world.

With those bits of knowledge under my hat, I drove down with the expedition’s de facto organizer, a long-time friend named Dave Russum. We talked about the not-too-obvious reality that the days are now long gone when you were likely to drive along rural roads and find your windshield covered with the remains of bugs.

A geologist by training, Russum reminded me that “The first insects on earth evolved about 400 million years ago while birds, as we know them, first evolved about 60 million years ago.Insects were therefore well established around the globe when birds showed up.” For many bird species, they were an obvious food source. He added that many species are “only reliant on insects for part of the year.” Such species as swallows and flycatchers, however, “are dependent on insects for most of their nourishment, not just on their breeding grounds and wintering grounds, but also during their migration in the spring and fall.”If natural habitat and the associated insects are destroyed over a significant area, many of the birds dependent on those insects cannot survive. “Their populations will rapidly decline.”

 

Bugs in the ecosystem: I reflected on that a bit. When I left Toronto for Calgary in the 1970s, the car that reached this city was a mess, with splattered bugs covering the windshield. I can’t remember when I last noticed such a thing, even after a long drive into rural Alberta.The reason is that the absolute number of insects (not species) on our planet is in rapid decline, from Arctic to Antarctic, and virtually everywhere in between. That idea led to this commentary. Today, more than 40 per cent of insect species are threatened with out-and-out extinction.

Why is that important? Animals, mostly insects, pollinate 87% of flowering plants, according to a commentary in The Economist. “Without insects, most plants could not reproduce. They break down and recycle the nutrients that plants need for photosynthesis. They decompose organic waste and feed a large proportion of all birds and bats.”

In terms of the number of species, insects are by far the most abundant life forms. They are so numerous that they contain three times as much mass as humans and 30 times that of all wild mammals. There are more than one million insect species, compared to some 6,000 varieties of mammal, and 18,000 classes of bird.

Insects live in almost every habitat on the planet – on all five continents, in lakes and rivers, seas and oceans, sloughs and deserts. And they are vital contributors to the food chain everywhere. Mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and insects themselves can all be wholly or partly insectivores. The rapid decline in these food sources is contributing to rapid declines in other species of many types.

In Canada, efforts to save threatened species are failing badly. Of the more than 700 plants and animals currently listed under the Federal Government’s Species at Risk Act, most are losing ground at an alarming rate. According to World Wildlife Canada, on average those species have declined by another 28 per cent since the act came into effect in 2002. So, is being listed for federal protection a rescue operation or a recommendation to enter a ward for incurables? The act requires Ottawa to protect listed species. However, the law does not offer best practices on how to save them. Nor does it advise conservation groups on what to do when confronted with competing needs. With so many species in peril, and limited funds available, Canada’s conservation efforts to date look like a patchwork of measures guided as much by intuition and chance as by science. And so it goes around the world.

 

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Peter McKenzie Brown is the vice president of a resource company. He has written several volumes of history, and has worked in the corporate and academic worlds. He is British by birth, American by upbringing and Canadian by choice. Disclaimer : Although the writer is a director and officer of Stratabound, the thoughts and views herein are his only and not those of Stratabound. He is not registered in any jurisdiction as a broker or investment adviser, so nothing herein should be construed as advice on whether to buy, sell or hold shares of Stratabound or any other company mentioned herein.
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