As the impact of humans on land habitats, on oceans, rivers, and lakes, and on the overall climate increases, we hear more about species extinction. It’s difficult to grasp the true meaning of the extinction of an entire species. It’s one thing for us to see fewer individuals of some species or another than we used to see, but quite another thing to realize that no human being will ever again see an example of that species. Some scientists think that if there is no great change in the way humans care for creation, half of all species of living things on the Earth will be extinct by the end of this century.
This post talks about species that live primarily on land or in the air. Next post will look at what is happening in the oceans, and a final post in this set will look at some of the things we humans can do to minimize species extinction and keep these grim predictions from becoming fact.
A few days ago, I was sitting outside listening to the morning bird chorus in my neighborhood – cardinals, doves, and a Carolina wren among them – and suddenly thought about what it would be like to sit outside and never hear any birds. What if these birds became extinct? What if they disappeared not only from my neighborhood, but I knew there was nowhere in the world where I could go to hear these familiar songs? Wouldn’t it seem lonely to lose that background of song, chatter, and splashes of color?
Some of the more familiar birds in North America have declined greatly in numbers. Using numbers from annual bird counts since 1967, the Audubon Society has compiled a list of twenty common birds in decline, including the Eastern meadowlark (cousin to our state bird), the common tern, and the whip-poor-will.
Besides the birds, there are all the other animals: from polar bears to the Tasmanian devils in Australia, from the Caspian seal to Holdridge’s toad in Costa Rica (not seen since 1986), we face the possibility of losing some of our companions on this planet, maybe during our own lifetimes.
Scientists know some things about how the disappearance of entire species of animals and plants affect the remaining species in a habitat. At some point, depending on the habitat and the sorts of things that become extinct, this can have a cascading sort of effect. Something that feeds on a plant, insect, or small animal that has become extinct also becomes endangered; something that was the prey of a now distinct predator increases in numbers, perhaps endangering another species by an upset of the ecological balance in the habitat. Ultimately, of course, the survival of our own species is linked to the survival of others.
The question of human survival alone should be enough to make us pay attention to what is happening and find the will to make changes to help avert this ecological disaster. But apart from that, there is the question of our charge from God to care for creation, for the other animals and the plants. The possibility of losing a large number of species of other living things impacts our spiritual health as much as our physical survival. This is God’s creation; experiencing the wonder and beauty of God’s creation can connect us with God, revealing the presence of The Holy. The other animals and plants are more than a means of physical survival; they are companions that can reveal something of their Creator, something of God. Without them, the world would be a very lonely place even if we were able to find a way to survive.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes an annual list Red List of Threatened Species. Their website includes a section of case studies of particular animals, including a few encouraging stories of animals whose survival chances increased after strong conservation efforts were begun. A video from the 2008 World Conservation Congress opening summarizes the challenge and lets the viewer see many of the endangered species.