The Web of Life
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. The web extends underground, with fungi not only key to healthy forests, but also to the global climate. Today, however, these creatures are at a crossroads not of their own choosing. Due to human activity, there are 70 percent fewer living creatures on Earth as there were just 50 years ago.
Interview with NCP's David Radcliff highlighting human impact on biodiversity.
Africa is losing 30 elephants a day to poachers, killed primarily for their tusks. There are some 350,000 now, down from 26 million in 1800. Elephants are actually a keystone species, as they rearrange the ecosystem by pushing over trees to eat the branches and fruits, and as they can use their tusks to dig for water - good for them and for other species who get a drink as well.
Populations of winged insects are going down by 2.5 percent per year - habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, monoculture crops (lack of year-round food sources), car windshields...
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.
Protecting and restoring eight species - from whales to sea otters - could sequester over
6 billion tons of carbon annually. 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.
And, of course, COVID-19 emerged from
NCP's David Radcliff leads a global photo
tour to look at the reasons why the
numbers of other living things are declining
by 10 percent per decade -->
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 destroyed (along with use of child workers and threats against anyone opposing them) by the palm oil industry; swamps giving way to sugarcane in the Everglades; ice caps melting as the planet warms; farms, shopping malls and subdivisions drastically affecting things like insect populations. Speaking of bugs, our lawns are death zones for other living things. With 40 million acres - 2 percent of US land - in yards, it's our largest "crop". How can we cut down on the amount of grass we cut, giving it back to nature? Farther afield, the planet is losing 50 million acres of forests per year due to (by rank) agribusiness, lumbering, fires, local agriculture. Countries like the USA have no net loss of forests, but this is typically due to reforesting tree plantations - which are biodiversity deserts.
....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. There's also the issue of Under-harvesting: that is, too many deer or other species whose natural predators, from cougars to native people, are no longer present to control their populations, at great cost to the environment. Here's what happened when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, putting pressure on elk herds and restoring local ecosystems, benefitting even beavers!
Yet another kind of over-harvesting is carried out by the world’s poachers and the illegal wildlife trade. This $15 billion global poaching industry further depletes already-threatened species. Related to this
is the bush meat trade, as hunters follow logging and mining roads to kill wildlife for local or urban or even foreign markets in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Humans and their goods travel - and they take their rats, nonnative grasses, snakes, lantern flies and other plants, animals and insects with them. Indeed, 60 percent of all extinctions are connected to invasive species. Here are some of invasives that are the biggest threats in the USA.
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 average 46,000 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 then there's noise pollution, affecting everything from bird song to whale communication (and stress levels!).
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. All told: "As climate change continues...a potentially catastrophic loss of global biodiversity is on the horizon." (excerpt from this study)
NCP's Tom Benevento is working with the Jane Goodall Institute and others to enable farmers in the poor world to find ways to grow sufficient food while also preserving wildlife corridors and habitat.
Palm oil plantations are a leading cause of deforestation from the Amazon to Indonesia. The oil is cheap, versatile and in half the products at the grocery store.
Thanks to climate change, bark beetles are destroying forests all around the northern hemisphere. The winters aren't cold enough to kill off their larva, and heat and drought weaken trees' defenses. What follows are often forest fires that not only destroy more habitat but exacerbate climate change.
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. Live and let live with household spiders - they're on our side!
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
In our first 20 years, NCP supported our partners in planting over 3 million trees in Africa, Asia and the Amazon.