Attenborough – We are Now in a Mass Extinction

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

Extinction the facts - David Attenborough
photo credit:

In this 1st part of 3, we are going to explain the facts behind why the world is now facing a 6th mass extinction, and how humanity is the cause for it. Told beautifully with narrator David Attenborough through a program called ‘Extinction: The Facts’, aired first on the BBC in 2020.  

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Attenborough – The facts behind the world’s sixth mass extinction 

In this 1st part of 3, Attenborough explains the facts behind why humanity is the cause of and now in global mass extinction. Told using a transcript from a program aired first on the BBC called, Extinction: The Facts. Over the course of an hour, David, with the help of leading academics and industry experts, will explain some of the causes of the extinction. And the short version of that explanation goes as follows: 

Biodiversity is vanishing at rates never before seen in human history. The cause, human activity which is generating a climate extinction, threatening one in four species on earth with animal extinction. David speaks of how scientists have linked man’s destructive relationship with nature to the Covid-19 virus, habitat loss leading to disease transference from animals to people. And with that habitat loss, vertebrate animals are the first to face species extinction, many unable to sustain themselves. 

Extinction is also now facing 25% of all plant species 

Extinction is noted as a normal and natural process, but the rate of extinction taking place is 100 faster than normal and accelerating. David focuses on a species of northern white rhino and how through the acts of illegal poachers only 2 remain left in the world. David goes on to discuss how 30% of the Earth’s land surfaces have been degraded, attributed to a lack of biodiversity. This has led to a potential extinction facing 25% of plant species that rely on diverse soil conditions. Humans are factually and solely blamed for this, with David and the team turning their attention to a multi-billion global industry – Illegal wildlife trading. 

In 2019, over 100 tonnes of African pangolin scales were traded or 175,000 pangolins. The creature is an important pest controller, consuming 70 million ants a year. Despite traders claiming their scales have medicinal value, they are made of keratin, the same substance human fingernails are made of. in spite of such evidence, and the link between Pangolins as a potential source of Covid 19, trading of the animal has not ceased.

And that is where we finished the short version of part 1. Here are some of those stats again: 

  • 1 million plant and animals now face extinction out of 8 million 
  • Since 1970, vertebrate animals (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) have declined by 60% 
  • Species evolve or die out, a bit like businesses do in the free market . . . 
  •  . . . Except the rate of ‘die out’ is now 100 times faster than normal, and accelerating 
  • 30% of the land’s surface globally has been degraded
  • 25% of all plant species are now at threat of extinction 
  • In 2019, 100 tonnes of African Pangolin scales were traded 
  • That’s 175,000 pangolins 

Attenborough – The facts behind the world’s sixth mass extinction 

In this 1st part of 3, Attenborough explains the facts behind why humanity is the cause of and now in a global mass extinction. Told using a transcript from a program aired first on the BBC called, ‘Extinction: The Facts’. Over the course of an hour David, with the help of leading academics and industry experts, explains some of the causes for the extinction. 

Part 1 of 3 

Our planet is home to a seemingly infinite variety of species. From ocean giants to the tiniest insects. We call this abundance of life, biodiversity. But today, it’s vanishing at rates never seen before in human history. 

The evidence is that unless immediate action is taken, this crisis has grave impacts for us all. 

The conversation - Failure of earth's global systems - Supports story Attenborough - We are now part of a mass extinction
photo credit: iurii/ shutterstock

Scientists have even linked our destructive relationship with nature to Covid-19

  • We are encroaching further and further every day into wildlife habitat, and that drives emerging diseases. 
  • If we carry on like this, we will see more epidemics as bad as this, and some of them could even be worse.

The decisions made as we rebuild our economies are critical. 

  • Get it wrong and we will be in deeply dangerous territory. 
  • Get it right and we still have the ability to pull back and rein in the collapse of biodiversity. 
  • We have a moment when we can change our world and make it better. This is that moment. 

Over the course of my life, I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals. Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever. We’re facing a crisis and one that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate. It even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as Covid-19.

It’s never been more important for us to understand the effects of biodiversity loss, of how it is that we ourselves are responsible for it. Only if we do that will we have any hope of averting disaster. 

One in four species are at risk of extinction - IUCN Red List & BBC - Supports story - Attenborough - We are now part of a mass extinction
photo credit:

One million out of eight on earth now face the threat of extinction 

Last year, the United Nations asked over 500 scientists to investigate the current state of the natural world. 

  • This is the first time there’s been a global assessment where all the evidence has been pulled together. Thousands and thousands of papers. 
  • We’re losing biodiversity at a rate that is truly unprecedented in human history. 
  • All groups in the natural world are in decline, which means their populations are getting smaller, day by day. 

Since 1970, vertebrate animals – things like birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles – have declined by 60% in total. Large mammals have on average disappeared from three-quarters of the range where they were historically found.  What’s different is that it’s happening simultaneously in the Amazon, in Africa, in the Arctic. It’s happening not at one place and not with one group of organisms, but with all biodiversity everywhere on the planet. It means that one million species out of eight million species on Earth are now threatened with extinction. 500,000 plants and animals and 500,000 insects. 

Extinction is a natural process. Things come, they grow, their populations get huge and then they decline. But it’s the rate of extinction. That’s the problem. So when you look at previous groups in the fossil records, then it’s over millions of years they go extinct. Here we’re looking at tens of years. 

Studies suggest that extinction is now happening 100 times faster 

Since 1500, 570 plant species and 700 animal species have gone extinct. Studies suggest that extinction is now happening 100 times faster than the natural evolutionary rate, and it’s accelerating. Globally, there was a shock. Because you hadn’t pulled all that data together, people hadn’t realised that we have a very serious crisis on our hands. 

Many people think of extinction being this imaginary tale told by conservationists, but I have lived it. I know what it is. I am a caretaker of the northern white rhinos. We only have two left on the planet. They are mother and daughter. This is Najin, the mother, who is 30 years old. She is very quiet. And her daughter is Fatu. This is Fatu. Hey, come on. Hey, Fatu. Fatu, no, come on. She’s 19 years old. She’s pretty much like a human teenager. She’s a little bit unpredictable and can be feisty sometimes, especially when she wants something.

Now only 2 survive 

Northern white rhinos were once found in their thousands in central Africa but were pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss and hunting. By 1990, just seven known individuals survived. I’ve seen these beautiful rhinos count from seven down to two. They’re here because we’ve betrayed them. And I think they feel it, this threatening tide of extinction that is pushing on them. They feel their world is collapsing. Unless science saves them, when Najin passes away, she’ll leave the daughter Fatu alone forever.

The last northern white rhino. And their plight awaits one million more species. Once we lose these species, we do not have hope of accumulating them back on a timescale that we exist on. Unique animals with complex and varied lives disappearing from our planet forever aren’t just disturbing. It’s deeply tragic. But this is about more than losing the wonders of nature. The consequences of these losses for us as a species are far-reaching and profound. 

The problem is we’re changing ecological systems on a massive scale

What we now know about the natural world is that everything is joined up. From a single pond to a whole tropical rainforest. All of the biodiversity is interlocked on a global scale and all parts of that system are required to make it function. We tend to think that we’re somehow outside of that system, but we are part of it and we are totally reliant upon it. 

The problem is we’re now changing those ecological systems on a massive scale, right across the globe. And it’s threatening food and water security. We’re losing many of the things that nature provides us. One of the big threats is the loss of insects. We’ve estimated 10% are at risk of extinction. Other scientists believe the number could be much larger. Driving around, we don’t have moths, butterflies, bees, all sorts of insects on our windshield any more. And that is scary. Because they form the food chain for hundreds of thousands of other species. And they are extremely important for pollination. 

Three-quarters of the world’s food crops rely partly on pollination by insects to produce the food that we need. 

Land degradation neutrality - Part of UN agenda - Supports story about Attenborough - We are now part of a mass extinction

30% of the land’s surface has been degraded

Another threat is the loss of diversity below ground. Soil should be teeming with life. But reports have suggested that up to 30% of the land’s surface globally has been degraded and has soils of low biodiversity. One of the most important things that animals in the soil do is break down organic matter which can then be used for plant growth. So if we lose the diversity of the soil, the consequences of that can be catastrophic. 

We’re seeing already that due to soil degradation and changes in the Earth’s climate, food production in some parts of the world is going down. Unfortunately, most affected would be poor people in developing countries. But there’s no question everybody in the world, one way or another, is being affected by the loss of biodiversity. 

One of the really big problems is what’s happening to plants. The picture is grim. 25% of the plant species that have been assessed are threatened with extinction. One in four plants. I find that terrifying. Plants underpin almost every single thing that we require. Think about the air we breathe, the concentration of CO2 in the air, clean water.

Humans are destroying the ecosystems on which we depend

Trees regulate water flow across landscapes. Intercept the rainfall and the roots hold the soil in place. So you chop all those trees down, there’s nothing doing that, you end up with a landslide. We’ve learnt that many, many times, and yet we carry on making the same mistake. Even in the UK, we’ve converted many areas that have been natural wetlands, which would absorb the water. What we’re now seeing are major floods. 

The impacts of biodiversity loss are no longer a threat to future generations to face. We ourselves must do so. It’s never been more critical for us to understand what is driving this crisis. Scientists have identified the key ways in which we humans are destroying the ecosystems on which we depend.  There are many ways to remove pieces of the puzzle. The most obvious way is to kill something, and we do a lot of that. 

Humans destroying ecosystems - Supports story about attenborough - We are now part of a mass extinction
photo credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

In the last 20 years, illegal wildlife trade has become a multi-billion dollar global industry

  • News reports – “One of the biggest ever hauls, worth more than #4 million”… “326 pieces were seized”… “was found in a shipping container”… 
  • Poaching is still sort of like a war, a constant battle that we have to fight. Every day, we lose between two or three rhinos in Africa. And it is not just rhinos. 
  • We’re talking about millions of animals being snatched from the wild, from thousands of species. 
  • Illegal wildlife trafficking ranks fourth of transnational crimes after human trafficking, arms and drugs. 

One of the drivers for increasing demand is increased income in China, Vietnam or elsewhere. If you have money, if you have internet, you can literally order anything that you want. It could be a status symbol or it could be for medicinal purposes. But it’s all made up. People claim these are cultures and traditions, but a lot is really just a marketing scheme by traders looking for the next animal to exploit.

In 2019, over 100 tonnes of African Pangolin scales were traded 

Today, the most trafficked animal in the world is one few people have ever seen and many have never even heard of. Pangolins are nocturnal animals found throughout Asia and Africa. They are natural pest controllers. Each one can consume 70 million ants a year. Pangolins are the only mammal covered in scales, and this is their downfall. 

  • The massive demand in Asia for pangolin scales is driving the decimation of pangolins. 
  • Traders claim that they have medicinal purposes, but, you know, pangolin scales are made of keratin. It’s like our fingernails. So they have no medicinal properties. 

There are 8 pangolin species in Asia and Africa – All are threatened with extinction

The numbers of African pangolin scales that have been intercepted going into Asia has dramatically increased over the last few years. Last year, 2019, it was just over 100 tonnes of scales. That’s 175,000 pangolins that have been killed for the scale trade. We work closely with law enforcement officials. This little pangolin came in off the trade, and they’re usually dehydrated and emaciated. This pangolin’s still got the little white tips at the end of each scale which shows his use. And this is a particularly pretty little pangolin. Poaching is a brutally cruel business. I have seen video footage of them being boiled alive. It’s extremely distressing to see how these animals are killed. 

Last year, when Covid-19 first emerged, pangolins were pointed to as a potential source of the virus. And everybody hoped that this would cut down the trade straight away, but unfortunately, that’s not happened. The trade is highly profitable and it’s unlikely to stop. 

We can end the mass extinction

At One Tribe we continue to be in awe of the work of David Attenborough. We completely agree with his positivity and hope that people can and will take action to end the current climate crisis. Together, as one tribe we can protect and restore the natural world, starting with our forests. We will conclude with a few lines from David that have stuck with us over the years. 

“Saving our planet is within reach. We have worked out all the problems. We are working on all the solutions. Most of them we can do now, and, over time, all of them help the economy. We have a plan. We know what to do. There is a path to sustainability.”

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