The Web of Life
Our planet's living creatures face an uncertain future as changes in climate, habitat, pollution and human consumption disrupt and endanger them.
Life abounds on Planet Earth. From the Arctic to the Amazon to the deepest depths of the seas, some 8-10 million species of living things have figured out how to adapt and thrive. Together, they form an intricate web of competition, cooperation and co-existence that has been millennia in the making. Today, however, these creatures are at a crossroads not of their own choosing. Due to human activity, there are 60 percent fewer living creatures on Earth as there were just 45 years ago.
Africa is losing 40 elephants a day to poachers, killed primarily for their tusks.
Why does it matter?
Why should we care that other living things are in danger of being lost to our planet? How about beauty, biodiversity, medicinal plants, and the pollinators that are critical to all kinds of food we eat. Plus, bats, frogs and snakes keep down mosquito and rodent populations. Man-eating tigers protect some of the last mangrove forests along coastal areas of India, which sequester carbon, stem erosion and combat rising sea levels. Fish are an important source of protein for half the world’s people. Wolves bring tourists to Denali. As keystone predators, sharks keep a lid on skate and ray populations, not allowing them to over-eat shrimp and scallops (which some of the rest of us like). Scavengers give waste a second life. Ants, earthworms and bacteria enrich the soil, from which springs the plants that are the foundation of the food chain. Insects pollinate our food and the flowers we enjoy - and are food for birds. Birds, one in eight species of which are in danger of extinction, may truly be canaries in the mine—harbingers of environmental threats to our own health.
Populations of winged insects are down by as much as 75 percent globally - habitat loss, pesticides, monoculture crops (lack of year-round food sources), car windshields...
The disappearance of so many living things is no magic act – it is directly related to human actions, with habitat loss leading the way: forests cut for palm oil, swamps giving way to sugarcane in the Everglades, ice caps melting as the planet warms, grasslands giving way to fields and subdivisions, drastically affecting things like insect populations.
....also takes a toll. Two-thirds of global fish stocks are now considered at risk. When roads are made into forested areas in Africa, animal populations plummet as local hunters clean out forests to supply urbanites’ longing for “bush meat". A different kind of harvest is that done by house cats on the prowl. A recent Smithsonian report claimed that 1-3 billion birds and up to 15 billion small mammals are killed by let-loose and feral cats every year in the USA.
Yet another kind of over-harvesting is carried out by the world’s poachers and other illegal wildlife trade. This $19 billion global industry further depletes already-threatened species.
Pollution is another issue, as runoff from mines, farms, industries, roads, and lawns kills stream life and creates Dead Zones in the world’s oceans and bays—400 at last count. The oceans also average46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile—a deadly hazard to marine life—some scientists say causing more death to living things than climate change. Pesticides and other pollutants increasingly threaten aquatic species, with 90 percent of US urban streams affected; pesticides also are a contributing factor to dramatic declines in bird populations in the USA.
And climate change: one-quarter of the world’s reptiles and amphibians are at risk of extinction by 2100 if present warming trends continue. The clock is ticking for moose, native fish are losing ground, darker colored insects are having to get outta town.
Moose in the Lower 48 states are declining by 10 - 15 percent per year, mostly due to tick infestations, a result of warmer winters.
What to Do....
Learn all you can about threats to your favorite critters (frogs and other amphibians, monarch butterflies, desert tortoises, gorillas, tigers, bats, penguins,
birds, elephants, bees and other pollinators, moose) or ecosystems (coral reefs, the Chesapeake Bay, the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon, Indonesian forests, Congolese rainforests, Madagascar, oceans, prairie, Southwest forests)— then educate others!
Find ways to make the area near you more creature-friendly by planting trees, shrubs and other native plants for critters to use as habitat and food, and by keeping roaming house cats indoors. NCP's Lawns to Ladybugs program offers grants to schools and congregations who want to turn lawnspace or other non-insect-friendly space into natureplace.
Drive less: on average every mile we drive emits a pound of CO2 and kills .0001 terrapins, birds or other small creatures. Push for bike lanes and Greenways in your community (see what we did in Harrisonburg!).
Use clean paper of any kind only when necessary—paper comes from trees—which provide habitat and stem climate change—and we cut 6 million every day to supply the USA with paper products.
Explore a stream near you; work with Trout Unlimited or other local conservation groups to remove invasive species and restore native fish, plants and amphibians.
Grow your own organic food or buy organic—fertilizers are the leading cause of Dead Zones, and pesticides "unintentionally" kill millions of birds, birds, fish and beneficial insects every year. Avoid products with palm oil - even those with the "sustainable" label, as this may be meaningless.
Call on local and national officials to enact climate change legislation to force greenhouse gas reductions.
Join NCP in restoring forests and building wood-conserving stoves in badly deforested areas of the world through our If a Tree Falls… program.
Read Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming, reviewed on the Reading List page of our website.
Visit amazing and endangered ecosystems on an NCP Learning Tour