A group of scientists have said that the rapid trend of declining wildlife populations could lead to ’empty landscapes’, the science and environment team at British public broadcaster BBC has reported today.
According to population figures published in the scientific magazine Science Advances, there has been a worrying 60 per cent drop in the number of large herbivores (plant-eating animals) such as giraffe, elephant and rhinoceros, leaving them at greater risk of extinction. The figures covered 74 herbivore species and attributed much of the decline to poaching and other forms of illegal hunting, as well as destruction of natural habitats.
A study on large carnivores such as lions, tigers and wild dogs also reported similar declines in population.
The population research was led by Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University. His research covered large herbivores with a weight above 100 kilograms, from the reindeer up to the African elephant.
He explained in the research: “This is the first time anyone has analysed all of these species as a whole,”
“The process of declining animals is causing an empty landscape in the forest, savannah, grasslands and desert.” he said.
“The big carnivores, like the charismatic big cats or wolves, face horrendous problems from direct persecution, over-hunting and habitat loss, but our new study adds another nail to their coffin – the empty larder,” he said.
“It’s no use having habitat if there’s nothing left to eat in it.”
The research indicates that much of the population decline in both prey and predators is being driven by various causal factors, including habitat loss, unregulated hunting and poaching, particularly the killing of large animals for ‘bushmeat’ or body parts in Far Eastern medicine, and pressures on their habitats from livestock, involving competition for resources and the swallowing of their habitats by farmland. This problem is being escalated by a rapidly increasing human population with its greater demand for resources and land.
The various species of African rhino were one particularly sad case reported by the BBC. With ivory made from rhinoceros horn worth more than gold, cocaine, and diamonds on the black market and with increasing and illegal demand from nouveau riche buyers in Asia, it is feared that under current levels of population shrinkage, the wild rhino could cease to exist in the wild within 20 years, the researchers claim.
The consequences of large wild herbivore decline include:
*Loss of habitat: for example, elephants maintain forest clearings by trampling vegetation.
*Effects on the food chain: large predators such as lions, leopards, and hyena rely on large herbivores for food.
*Seed dispersal: large herbivores eat seeds which are carried over long distances.
*Impact on humans: an estimated one billion people rely on wild meat for subsistence while the loss of iconic herbivores will have a negative impact on tourism.
The impact of the extinction of large herbivores, and the large carnivores that feed on them, could see the collapse of food chains globally. Many African countries rely on these animals heavily for tourism purposes, leading to huge economic fallouts if they were to vanish.
The report places particular concern for large animals residing in South East Asia, India and Africa. These areas have long-established populations of big animals as well as increasing human habitation. Many governments are struggling to protect animal habitats due to increasing demands for homes and land to build on, as well as lax regulation of national parks and wildlife reserves.
Europe and North America lost many of their own large mammals after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Animals such as the mammoth, woolly rhino and sabre-toothed tiger were wiped out by early hunters or changing habitats as the ice sheets retreated. More recently, the wolf, lynx and some species of deer have all but disappeared from the United Kingdom, after being hunted to extinction. There has been some success in reintroducing smaller mammals, such as the beaver, to Britain, centuries after they vanished.
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“Wildlife decline may lead to ’empty landscape’ ” – Helen Briggs, BBC News – Science & Environment/BBC (2 May 2015) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-32549898
“File:Etosha elefant.jpg” – Ikiwaner, Wikimedia Commons (27 September 2009) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Etosha_elefant.jpg