Attenborough – We are Now in an Extinction Event

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

David-Attenborough-4-Beach - Hero image for One Tribe story - Attenborough - We are now in an extinction event - Pt 2
photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In this 2nd part of 3, Attenborough explains why humanity is now in an extinction event, with much of the natural world at threat. First, David discusses how overfishing is affecting global fish stocks and plastic pollution affecting our oceans. Followed by discussing the link between global deforestation and habitat loss, and a number of global pandemics that have occurred in the last decade. All based on the transcript from the programme ‘Extinction: The Facts’ first broadcast by the BBC in 2020. 

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Attenborough – We are now in an extinction event

In this second part of 3, Attenborough explains why humanity is now in an extinction event, with much of the natural world at threat. He starts by discussing trawlers, with as many as 100,000 operating in our seas. Modern fishing, run as a large industrial enterprise is rapidly depleting fish stocks. In China, there remains around 16% left of stocks compared to what was available 120 years ago. There was also only about 5% of trawler codfish left at the turn of the 20th century. 

David then went on to discuss how overpopulation is a massive issue, as are the laws around manufacturing in ways that are polluting our air, land and water. Whilst in the UK laws around this are very strong, it is not the same in other countries, or laws simply don’t exist. David discusses how PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) have caused massive health issues for killer whale populations. We placed in a short supplementary video explaining PCB chemical pollution from the  ITV. 

David also speaks about how climate change is creating an ‘escalator to extinction’ wherein some species can’t handle the hotter climates. Such as those living in the Australian wet tropics, like birds and possums, 50% of which are now facing extinction as our climate becomes hotter. 

The heat is on beyond the wetlands 

90% of wetlands have already been lost around the world. 75% of the grasslands and forests not covered by ice have already been converted for human use. Every year 3.8 million hectares of forest are cleared. David then focuses on Brazil where soy and cattle farming have led to significant animal and habitat loss, the country having one of the world’s largest cattle herds. When parts of the amazon were lost, the same devastation moved to a new landscape, called the Cerrado, of which 50% has been converted for farming. 

David begins concluding that pandemic diseases such as swine flu, SARS, Ebola and now Covid-19 can all be attributed to environmental changes around the world. 31% of all emerging diseases linked to changes in land use, which can be evidenced to the last 20+ years of human activity. 

Some of those key facts again: 

  • Up to 100,000 trawlers are now be operating in our waters at any one time 
  • 16% of fish stocks are left in China vs. 120 years ago 
  • PCB’s are killing the reproduction rates of killer whales 
  • 50% of all species dwelling in wetlands face extinction 
  • 90% of wetlands around the world are gone 
  • 75% of  grasslands and forests not covered by ice are being used for farming 
  • 3.8 million hectares of forest are cleared every year
  • Brazil has one of the world’s largest cattle herds (200 million +)  
  • Brazil accounts for 12% of beef exports to the EU, but mainly China 
  • In Cerrado, over 50% of the land has been turned into farmland
  • Over 31% of all disease events can be linked to humans changing land-use around the world  

Attenborough – We are now in an extinction event

The scientific community has long identified that there is a mass extinction now occurring on earth, the 6th extinction in the planet’s history. More alarming than that, that in our oceans we are causing it due to overfishing, and that many of the pandemics we have experienced in the world are linked to habitat loss and environmental changes caused by humans. And now, over to you David . . . 

Part 2 of 3 

There is another huge trade that is driving the loss of biodiversity, and this one happens in plain sight. We have created a database that has world fisheries statistics, and we were the first ones to study fisheries on a global basis. This global view shows that we have massive and widespread overfishing. 

In the last 40 years, the scale of global fishing has dramatically increased. At any one time, there could be as many as 100,000 trawlers operating in our seas. Modern fishing is an industrial operation run by huge corporations, boats, factories, ships. Some (supertrawlers) sweep up the ground with a net that might be as big as this house. And you can put four jumbo jets in the mouth of a big trawl. And everything that is in the path goes in. 

The problem is, as you remove more and more of the adult fish, particularly the larger sized fish, you end up with fewer and fewer of the eggs and the fry, and there’s simply not enough for the population to recover.

There are ways of sustainably managing fish stocks

Reducing fishing in an area can get a population back to sustainable levels. But you have to choose whether you want to extract a sustainable, modest catch or have a big catch for a short term. And we have always opted for the big catch for a short term. 

Even where fish quotas are put in place, often they’re not being implemented. And in some parts of the world, there’s not even good regulations to limit the catches. The waters around the edge of fishing countries are being emptied. We found that in China, we have about 16% left of what we had 120 years ago. And studies suggest that some British waters, where industrial fishing began, have been decimated. There is now about 5% of trawler codfish left before the turn of the 20th century. 

This is a really big problem for the species of fish that prey upon the fish that we’re harvesting, and this has a huge impact on marine ecosystems. We have completely destroyed the natural balance of fish in the world’s oceans. 

How the world's oceans could be running out of fish - Full credit to BBC future - One Tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
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Population growth is much, much higher in the developing world than in the developed

Across the globe, the pressures faced by the natural world are becoming ever harder to solve because of our growing demand for nature’s resources. 

When I was a kid in the 1960s, there were three billion people in the world. So I watched it go to six billion around 2000 or so, and I’m now probably going to see it actually reach, you know, nine billion in my lifetime, which is pretty startling.

Population growth is much, much higher in the developing world than in the developed. But it’s problematic to just talk about population because there are two things which are going on. It’s population, but it’s also consumption. And in terms of impact on the planet, what’s much more important is the growth in consumption levels, and these are far higher in the developed economies. 

Who is at fault? Who is causing the 6th mass extinction? 

That’s why I call it a taboo topic, because who’s at fault? Is it a very large number of people, or the small number of people with very few children who are actually driving negative impacts? 

The average person in the UK consumes nearly four times the resources of the average person in India, and in the United States, it’s about seven times as much. One of the problems is that many of the products we use are manufactured in ways that pollute our air, land and water, making pollution another of the drivers of biodiversity loss. 

While in a country like the United Kingdom, where some very strong laws on how to reduce pollution, we do have to realise we’re no longer a major industrial country. Most of the things that we actually use are produced abroad in countries where the laws can be non-existent or not implemented. So we are simply moving our footprint on destroying nature to another country. 

union of concerned scinetists - Each country's share of CO2 emissions - From one tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

‘In my lifetime, we’re looking potentially at the complete loss of killer whale population’ 

Pollutants can have a lasting impact on species – an impact that may take time for us to fully understand. PCB stand for polychlorinated biphenyls. They’re used in the electrical industry. We invented them in the ’20s and then we began to ban them from the ’80s onwards because we realised they had quite a serious and toxic effect on life. They affect the immune system and they also cause reproductive impairment.

If PCBs are not disposed of appropriately, then you can get leaching out from the landfill site, into river courses, river beds and back out to sea. Animals at the base of the food chain might absorb very small amounts. But then as animals above them eat more and more of the small animals, they’ll concentrate up the food chain.

In the UK, we have a really striking example of that. The last remaining pod of in-shore killer whales up in north-west Scotland, where they only have eight individuals left. That population has been studied for about 30 years. In all that time, they’ve never had a calf. Lulu was a part of that pod. She died due to entanglement in fishing gear. When we had her blubber levels analysed for PCBs, they were quite shocking.

One of the highest levels ever recorded in any killer whale on the planet. And when we looked at her ovaries, we found they were non-functional. In my lifetime, we’re looking potentially at the complete loss of that population. And then we’ll have no more killer whales left around the coast of the UK. 

The escalator to extinction – Now occurring in the Australian wetlands 

In addition to these threats, many ecosystems are increasingly feeling the impact of another driver of biodiversity loss. Climate change. Our world is getting hotter. 

  • At this moment, we do have the Paris Agreement that says all governments should try and limit climate change to no more than two degrees Celsius. All of the calculations show we’re on track for a three to four-degree world. And the more the Earth warms, the worse the problem is. 
  • There are lots of ways that climate change will impact on species – changing food sources, how they breed and whole patterns of migration and movement. 

Increasing temperatures mean some species are unable to survive in their normal habitat. They’re forced to move higher and higher where it’s cooler, and eventually, there’s nowhere left to go. 

  • It’s been called the escalator to extinction, and we see it all around the globe. 
  • In the Australian Wet Tropics, we’re already seeing that with possums and birds that just can’t handle the heatwaves. About 50% of the endemic species that live in these mountaintops are on that escalator to extinction. These are no longer predictions. We are seeing it happen. 
Australian wet tropics - Tropical north queensland - From One Tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
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Three-quarters of the land surface of the earth has been converted to serve humans 

Scientists predict that in the future, as temperatures continue to rise, climate change will become the greatest threat faced by species. But right now, the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss is the destruction of habitats. 

  • Many people imagine there’s this untouched wilderness because they see it on their TV screens. But the reality is there’s really not a lot of wild left out there. 
  • We’ve already lost nearly 90% of the wetlands around the world.
  • We’ve transformed the forests and grasslands, we’ve converted 75% of the land that is not covered by ice. 
  • Three-quarters of the terrestrial surface has been changed, a lot of it just to feed one species. 

Obviously, if you clear a rainforest or natural savanna and you replace it with monoculture agriculture, of course, it’s unsurprising you’re going to lose most of the species that evolved to survive there. The critical thing is that there is now enough land that’s already been cleared to sustain the levels of production that we need. But new land is still being cleared because often it’s quicker and cheaper to do so. 

It’s estimated that every year around 3.8 million hectares of forest are cleared

A lot of that clearance is driven by demand on the other side of the world. We want cheap food and we want to have a choice on offer all year round. These commodities often provide the mainstay of countries’ economies, but many are produced in ways that are not sustainable. 

So a consumer walking into a supermarket may unwittingly be contributing towards loss of biodiversity. What we’re doing is taking customs data, shipping data, and for the first time, we connect them all together and ask who is buying from the hot spots where we’re really losing biodiversity. We now have enough data to be able to identify the main drivers of biodiversity loss.

Soy, cocoa, coffee, palm oil and beef. 

A new danger - Brazil sets sights on palm oil - From one Tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
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Brazil has one of the world’s largest cattle herds 

Conversion of land for cattle is probably the greatest single cause of habitat loss. Of the total mass of mammals on Earth, livestock has been found to account for 60%, humans for 36%, and wild animals just 4%. 

The UK doesn’t import much beef, but we do import another product from Brazil which is driving the destruction of the habitat – Soy. 

Soy is a bean. It’s a very productive form of plant protein that’s widely used. The majority goes into animal feed. Since 2006, efforts have been made to reduce deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon, so production has moved to another part of the country. 

Cerrado – The forgotten landscape 

The Cerrado is very special and in many ways, it’s a forgotten landscape. At first glance, it may not seem attractive. It’s basically scrub grasslands, scrub forests.

Yet the Cerrado has many unique species. Giant anteaters have been around for millions of years, but they have gone extinct from many areas. They only have one pup at a time, so this one pup is very precious. So the mothers carry their pups on their backs, but their habitat is being lost in front of our very eyes. Over 50% has now been transformed into agricultural landscapes. 

The greatest expansion of agriculture, the destruction of habitat in the Cerrado, is in this northern area. And here we can see the exports of soy from this area are predominantly going to China. But some of it is actually imported into the UK. We’re buying as much as half a million tonnes produced in the Cerrado per year. 

The Increase in deforestation coincides with the growth in the demand for meat 

The majority of this is used to make feed for chickens that are sold by many British supermarkets. 

Some supermarkets and some manufacturers are starting to shift, but what our data show is that the consumption of soy in the UK, even though it’s a small amount of the total exports, because of where we’re buying it from, is having a disproportionate impact on certain species. 

Anteaters have to be able to move freely throughout its environment. This is important for males to find mates or when young will go find new territories. If there are barriers to movement, this can cause very serious consequences. 

As the Cerrado is being cleared, anteaters can be driven into isolated islands of habitat. And the surrounding areas become a lethal territory. The land is being crossed by highways. Sometimes when a female giant anteater dies on the road, her pup will survive. But we have found roadkill decreases the population growth rate of anteaters by half. 

Worst epidemics in recent history - From One Tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
photo credit: WHO

Humans are behind every single pandemic, changes in environment driving disease

The unprecedented impact we are having on the planet is not only putting the ecosystems we rely on at risk. Scientists believe that our destructive relationship with nature is actually putting us at greater risk of pandemic diseases. 

We’ve seen an increasing rate of pandemic emergence. We’ve had swine flu, SARS, Ebola, and we’ve actually looked back over every emerging disease and said, where did it originate on the planet? And what are the things going on there that could have caused it? And we’ve found we’re behind every single pandemic and its the human impact on the environment that drives emerging diseases. 

Animals have lots of different viruses that circulate inside their bodies, just like we do. And so one of the most obvious ways that we’re making it more likely that a virus would jump is that we’re having lots of contacts with animals. 

Fur farms act as a breeding ground for deadly diseases 

The wildlife trade is at unprecedented levels. We have huge markets with tens of thousands of live animals, shedding their viruses through faeces and urine, being killed in front of you. These are incredible places for viruses to spread. And we’re connected to that trade through things like the fashion industry. We’ve seen this huge increase in the use of fur trims for winter jackets. And that means hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in fur farms. 

You have large densities of animals put in a situation with a lot of people. To make things worse, those animals are very stressed, and we know that animals that are stressed shed viruses at higher rates. 

Land-use change, agriculturl expansion and urbanization cause more than 30 percent of emerging disease events - From One Tribe story about how we are now in an extinction event
photo credit: ipbes

31% of all emerging diseases have originated through the process of land-use change

What also drives emerging diseases is that we are encroaching further and further every day into wildlife habitat. 31% of all emerging diseases have originated through the process of land-use change. Forests around the world, where there’s a lot of bio-diversity, have thousands of viruses that we’ve never come into contact with yet. The minute we build a road in there, we start getting exposed. The first people into those logging camps go out and hunt bushmeat and pick up the viruses.

That’s how HIV emerged. Then we bring our livestock in. Viruses move from wildlife into livestock, into people. At every step of the process, we’re bringing people closer in contact with wildlife and their viruses. It’s easy to imagine that we’re so far away from these diseases’ origins that it’s nothing to do with us. But we drive it, actually. Our consumption of beef drives this, our consumption of poultry and the products that are used in poultry drives this. 

covid-global - Humans the cuase of the pandemics - From One Tribe story about how we are now in a n extinction event
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This exploitation of our environment is driving global pandemics

My research is showing that when humans convert habitat, there’s also something else at play. It’s not all species that are likely to make us sick. Often the best reservoirs for the pathogens that can jump to humans are smaller-bodied species, like rats and mice and certain kinds of bats. When we have intact natural systems with high biodiversity, these species are kept in check.

When humans destroy habitat, the large predators and herbivores disappear first. Which means the smaller-bodied species are the big winners. They proliferate wildly. They live at super high density and are the ones far more likely to make us sick. So we’ve been saying for 20-plus years that this exploitation of our environment is driving pandemics. But what we didn’t think was it was going to happen so quickly and so devastatingly. 

Throughout the programme and in many of Attenborough’s works, he speaks of great hope. A hope that people across the world can and will act collectively to address the picture. By documenting the facts and educating people to be aware of how human activity is impacting the world, we might move closer to addressing it. We completely agree and believe we can correct that picture, starting with our forests and ecosystems in Latin America. We only have around 9 years lefts to protect these areas and affect our global footprint, but we believe passionately that with enough people acting, we can protect and restore our natural world. 

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