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01.

The Anthropocene: Age of Genocide

“Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.”

Center for Biological Diversity

We're used to this: fossils of prehistoric animals. What if this is happening just now, and we're not realising it?

The good news is: we have experienced it before – and survived. Not us as humanity, but us as planet earth. Indeed our planet has been through mass extinctions of flora and fauna before. 

The bad news, however, is: for the upcoming mass extinction we, humans, are entirely at fault. 

In fact, human activity is the driving factor behind 99% of species currently at risk of extinction: habitat loss, the introduction of exotic species, global warming and toxic waste are all at play here. 

We are facing the sixth mass extinction of species on our planet, and as it stands, hardly anyone is aware of its scale or phenomenon at all.

So, what exactly is a mass extinction?

The scientific definition of the term is that in a geologically short period of time, at least 75% of all animal and plant species die out. In the history of the earth, this has occurred five times so far:

The first mass extinction

At the End-Ordovician age, 443 million years ago, a severe ice age caused sea levels to drop by approximately 100 meters, wiping out up to 86% of all species – at that time this consisted of predominantly ocean dwellers. After the ice melted once again, the species existing at the time died from the shortage of oxygen in the oceans.

The second mass extinction

In the Late-Devonian age, 360 million years ago, earth suffered a prolonged climate change event, hitting life in shallow seas again, killing about 75% of species, including almost all corals.

The third mass extinction

During the Permian-Triassic age, 250 million years ago, the third mass extinction, namely ‘the big one’ affected more than 96% of all species, including trilobites and giant insects. It was linked to large-scale volcanic eruptions in Siberia, causing a savage period of global warming.

The fourth mass extinction 

In the Triassic-Jurassic age, 200 million years ago, 80% of species were lost, again most likely due to another large volcanic outburst, leaving earth clear for dinosaurs to flourish.

The fifth mass extinction 

And in the Cretaceous-Tertiary age, 65 million years ago, 76% of the species disappeared after a giant asteroid impacted the land we now know as Mexico, following large volcanic eruptions around India, which led to the end of the dinosaurs, resulting in ammonites, mammals – and eventually humans – taking advantage and thrive.

The sixth mass extinction

It is said that there is a sixth mass extinction already underway – or on the brink of beginning. (The question, whether it has already started or will start shortly is at the centre of serious discussions among scientists.)

Disputes regarding the timeline of the sixth mass extinction are abundant, but as for its cause, there is widespread agreement. Volcanism, ice ages and climatic changes, lack of oxygen, the impact of asteroids, or – most likely, a concoction of them all – was to blame in the past, but it is mankind that is to blame for what will come next.

Why are we responsible?

Mankind with its overindulgent attitude: rising populations, high consumption, infrastructure dominance is dangerously restricting the habitat land and resources for other species. It is the responsibility of human beings, as the current dominant species, to ensure the fate of all living beings on our planet. This is the geological era of the Anthropocene (deriving from the ancient Greek word ‘Anthropos’ which means ‘man’).

We have reversed our role on planet earth by 180 degrees: in the beginning of mankind, tens of thousands of years ago, animals were both feared of and worshipped. Animals were portrayed as can be seen in the Chauvet Cave. Back then, nature dominated us. Today, we push nature to its boundaries for our own convenience and profit; we domesticise the wild, we – if at all – tolerate its existence.

We dominate the world and its wilderness; we treat nature and animals as our property – not as creatures that cohabitate our planet.

As the human population grows, our infrastructure and consumption need to expand alongside, nature and the animals living within it are forced to exist for our catering and supply. We breed them, farm them, kill them in industrial scale, we sacrifice them for our beliefs, and we enclose them in wildlife conservations if the mood strikes compassion. 

“Today, wild animals have become refugees on our planet, they will soon have nowhere left to go.”

From the documentary “Terra” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. A Rhinoceros being relocated to a safe area as being seen in the documentary.

We are disrupting a process that has taken billions of years to evolve. Unlike past mass extinctions, the speed at which species are disappearing from the terrain plays a crucial role.

In the first four extinctions, death came over a period of 20,000-100,000 years, which in geological terms is just a wink of time. For longterm condition changes like those nature seems to be able to adapt through mutations or migrations. 

In the case of the asteroid, on the other hand, disaster came overnight, so to speak. Animals that survived the direct impact only had a period of a few weeks or months left. As vegetation was erased on the darkening earth, the large herbivores were left with no food to survive, leaving large carnivores without prey. The delicate food chain finally collapsed.

Although today’s situation is far less dramatic in terms of natural disasters, with mankind spreading around the globe, sealing soil, polluting air and water, claiming natural habitat for cultivation food shortage is a crucial factor. But is the current situation really comparable to the previous five mass extinctions?  

Humans claiming almost earth’s entire habitat

The absolute numbers of all extinct animal and plant species have so far been comparably low. In the last 500 years, just 1-2 percent of all species have disappeared, and this value refers to the 1.9 million known species.

Even today, new species are being discovered almost every day somewhere in the world. Estimates of the actual number of species range from 3.6 million to well over 100 million. 1-2 percent loss of known species appears to be rather small compared to 75-96 percent loss in the previous five mass extinctions.

It’s the extinction rate – and it’s dramatic 

But is it that easy? Is it possible to compare the historical mass extinctions with the ongoing and expected losses in the Anthropocene? As for the role of human beings, another value is crucial: the rate of disappearance of species, that is the extinction rate.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

“The rate of extinction is currently 1,000 to 10,000 times the value of the normal rate of extinction.”

The normal value is the rate that would occur without the influence of man. Usually, up to five species a year a being lost forever. Currently, a dozen species disappear from our planet – every day!

According to recent studies by Dr Gerardo Ceballos from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the situation is dramatic.

“Up to 50 percent of all individual animals, both endangered and not endangered were lost over the past decades.”

Ceballos claims that a third of all species currently losing population are not listed as endangered – a „biological annihilation“.

Whether or not the sixth mass extinction is already underway or about to start, it is clearly man-made, scientists agree, therefore claiming the dawn of the Anthropocene.

Biological diversity is key to our existence – and economic asset as well

The massive extinction of species is undermining the biological diversity and, thus the fundament of life on our planet, including us, humans. If we don’t want to destroy what has been evolved over billions of years on earth and be responsible for what we created the term genocide, we need to act without further hesitance. 

The task is difficult as it relies on a complex set of measures which concern our economy, our social behaviour and ethics – on both, global and local scale. It is a race against extinction facing the dilemma between our current understanding of economic development and preserving nature and species. 

In this developing story, we at FAIRPLANET will look into the complex problem of saving the species of Rhinoceros.  In particular, we will follow the work of the non-profit organization Hemmersbach RHINO FORCE operating on the ground in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Although there are more endangered species than this prehistoric mammal, the Rhino’s time is very limited. Out of 30,000 living animals, three are killed every day. Experts say they might be extinct within a decade.

With the vast majority of the rhino’s global population living in Africa, the continent holds a unique treasure. Wildlife has disappeared in most parts of the world. But if we don’t succeed to protect these animals and support local communities to make a better living by benefiting from wildlife at the same time, this iconic creature will be lost forever – and with it, the opportunity to create a sustainable future for communities in Africa whose biggest asset may be their wildlife.

Credits: Mass Extinction illustration by the World Science Festival / Visual.ly 

 
Credits:
Photos: Rohan Nel, Frank Odenthal, Murat Suner, Imke Lüders
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