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Living on the edge

Is the planet on the brink of a mass extinction? Recent reports present a scary picture

Living on the edge

The first ever global database of trees released recently reveals that of the 60,065 trees that are in existence, up to 9,600 are threatened with extinction. Simply put, around 15% of all tree species are under threat. As per the database, ‘GlobalTreeSearch’, created by the London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the conservation status of only about 20,000 tree species (or 30% of the world’s trees) is currently known. Researchers have also concluded that more than 300 species are critically endangered, with just 50 or fewer individual trees for each species left in the wild.

The database, considered the world’s first “global, authoritative list of tree species”, represents an estimated 2,500 botanic gardens around the world. It used data from more than 500 published sources to create the list. The idea is to “support global research, conservation, and botanically-based interventions, including forest landscape restoration”.

A particular species, Karomia gigas, also known as ‘Chinese hats tree’, has only one population of trees still living; six of them are located in the remote area of Tanzania. The tree became extinct due to over-harvesting for construction and furniture-making. Deforestation and over-exploitation are the major threats for tree species worldwide.

The figures paint a scary picture. In 2015, another report by the Ecological Society of Australia said climate change was responsible for killing trees around the world, including in western Australia, where 25% of mature trees found across more than 17,200 acres of forest died due to heat waves between 2010 and 2011.

It’s not just trees. As per a new report, State of UK Birds, produced by a coalition of three non-governmental organisations and the UK government’s statutory nature conservation agencies, more than a quarter of the country’s birds, including the puffin, nightingale and curlew, require urgent conservation efforts to ensure their survival.

Since the last review in 2009, an additional 15 species of bird have been placed on the ‘red list’, a category that indicates a species is in danger of extinction or that has experienced significant decline in population or habitat in recent years. The total number of species on the red list is now 67 out of a total of 247.

On top of this, eight species are considered at risk of global extinction: the balearic shearwater, aquatic warbler, common pochard, long-tailed duck, velvet scoter, slavonian grebe, puffin and turtle dove. In fact, the extinction threat is looming large across the board. A damning report from the World Wildlife Fund released last year found a precipitous decline in the world’s animal populations as thousands of species scramble to survive against a sole enemy—humans. The 2016 version of the WWF’s biennial Living Planet Report, published in October last year, found a 58% overall decline in vertebrate populations from 1970 to 2012, the latest year with available data.

The non-profit warned that if current trends continue, the world could lose more than two-thirds of wildlife by 2020.
Humans have affected the entire spectrum of vertebrate life—fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—the report says. The document’s warning of vanishing wildlife refers to total population size, not the number of species that will go extinct.

Rampant deforestation in parts of the world has spurred habitat loss for vulnerable wildlife populations, the WWF warns. Freshwater species have been hit the hardest, with populations declining 81%, as per the report. The freshwater biome covers less than 0.01% of the planet’s surface, but holds about 1 in 10 known wildlife species.

Closer home, India tops a list of 24 countries in which at least 40% of large herbivores and carnivores are threatened, an international team of wildlife biologists recently said, iterating a call for fresh conservation efforts. The scientists said India, among these countries, has the largest number of terrestrial megafauna species—carnivores heavier than 15 kg or herbivores above 100 kg—but 18 of these 28 species are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria.

Such megafauna typically need large habitats and could serve as ‘umbrellas’ to conserve other species and ecosystems, the 43-member team of wildlife experts from Australia, China, India, Kenya, the US, etc, said in the report published in the journal Bioscience in March this year.

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First published on: 16-04-2017 at 06:49 IST