Humans are turning the world into a “lonely planet” depleted of its rich biodiversity, and there could soon come a point when the mass extinction of species turns into an irreversible spiral of decline, according to a leading ecologist.
Professor Ed Wilson, an authority on biodiversity at Harvard University, said that the extinction rate of species is running at between 100 and 1,000 times higher than in pre-human times and that we are on course to lose half of all animals and plants by the end of the century.
“We’re making a lonely planet. More than that, if we continue to destroy the biosphere it becomes a very dangerous planet,” professor Wilson told i on a recent visit to Britain.
“If you wiped out enough species, all of those say in South America, then that may be a tipping point where you get enough changes globally to begin a downward spiral,” professor Wilson said.
“A tipping point will come, but we don’t know when. However, the important thing is that it will come, and maybe sooner than we thought if we continue to destroy the natural habitat, and in particular the species,” he said.
“You can rehabilitate a damaged habitat to some extent, but you can’t do that if you have gotten rid of species. We would lose them forever, and I think that would be a tipping point in human existence,” he added.
Animals in decline
Animals in decline
1/8 Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)
Where: Orkney Islands. What: Between 2001-2006, numbers in Orkney declined by 40 per cent. Why: epidemics of the phocine distemper virus are thought to have caused major declines, but the killing of seals in the Moray Firth to protect salmon farms may have an impact.
2/8 African lion (Panthera leo)
Where: Ghana. What: In Ghana’s Mole National Park, lion numbers have declined by more than 90 per cent in 40 years. Why: local conflicts are thought to have contributed to the slaughter of lions and are a worrying example of the status of the animal in Western and Central Africa.
3/8 Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Where: Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica. What: Numbers are down in both the Atlantic and Pacific. It declined by 95 per cent between 1989-2002 in Costa Rica. Why: mainly due to them being caught as bycatch, but they’ve also been affected by local developments.
4/8 Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Where: South Atlantic. What: A rapid decline. One population, from Bird Island, South Georgia, declined by 50 per cent between 1972-2010, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Why: being caught in various commercial longline fisheries.
5/8 Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica)
Where: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. What: fall in populations has been dramatic. In the early 1990s numbers were over a million, but are now estimated to be around 50,000. Why: the break up of the former USSR led to uncontrolled hunting. Increased rural poverty means the species is hunted for its meat
6/8 Swordfish (Xiphias gladius)
Where: found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate seas. Why: at risk from overfishing and as a target in recreational fishing. A significant number of swordfish are also caught by illegal driftnet fisheries in the Mediterranean
7/8 Argali Sheep (Ovis mammon)
Where: Central and Southern Asian mountains,usually at 3,000-5,000 metres altitude. Why: domesticated herds of sheep competing for grazing grounds. Over-hunting and poaching.
8/8 Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)
Where: the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands (Polynesia), north to the Ryukyu Islands (south-west Japan), and south to New Caledonia. Why: Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and trading of the species
During his visit to the UK, professor Wilson, 85, broke the ground on a £30m construction project on the Isle of Portland on the south coast of England to commemorate the 460 species that are known to have gone extinct in the past 500 years, from the dodo to the Tasmanian devil.
The Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory will be built from the Portland limestone of the Jurassic Coast, which was used extensively in re-building St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London.
“We need a transcendent moral decision to stop species extinction, and that should be made to include the stopping of the destruction of the biosphere,” professor Wilson told i.
Professor Wilson has spent a lifetime studying the biodiversity of rainforests and other wild habitats.