New research shows that many large herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceroses, camels, zebras, lowland tapirs, Eastern gorillas and European bison are dying at an alarming rate. Scientists estimate that as many as 60% of these animals are in danger of going extinct.
An international team of researchers led by Professor William Ripple from Oregon State University conducted a study on 74 species of large herbivores more than 220 pounds (100 kilograms) on average.
They looked at endangerment status, key threats and ecological consequences of populations decline, and concluded that even without any negative human intervention (hunting, destruction of habitats), these animals will still continue to die out in many regions of the world. The authors of the study calculated that currently 25 of the largest species of herbivores only occupy 19% of their historical ranges.
William Ripple released a statement saying “I expected that habitat change would be the main factor causing the endangerment of large herbivores […] But surprisingly, the results show that the two main factors in herbivore declines are hunting by humans and habitat change. They are twin threats”.
The discovery does not only point out the danger that the herbivores are in, but the carnivores as well. As their prey becomes harder and harder to find, carnivores face starvation and a significant decline in population, leaving the planet with many empty landscapes that once displayed rich ecosystems full of variety.
But the gravity of the situation doesn’t stop there. Scientists say that the entire ecosystem could become unrecognizable as many of the services these animals provide will be gone once they disappear – reduced seed dispersal, more frequent and intense wildfires, a weaker nutrient cycle between plants and soil, but also changes in habitat for smaller animals.
Professor Ripple stressed that “The scale and rate of large herbivore decline suggest that without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. We have progressed well beyond the empty forest to early views of the “empty landscape” in desert, grassland, savanna, and forest ecosystems across much of planet Earth”.
He went on to suggest a method of remedy saying that “Saving the remaining threatened large herbivores will require concerted action. The world’s wealthier populations will need to provide the resources essential for ensuring the preservation of our global natural heritage of large herbivores. A sense of justice and development is essential to ensure that local populations can benefit fairly from large herbivore protection and thereby have a vested interest in it”.
Many of the endangered herbivores live in developing countries such as Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, and are excessively hunted for their meat (about 1 billion people across the world consume wild meat), fur, ivory or horns. Most European and American large herbivores have been driven into extinction a long time ago for the exact same reasons.
Ripple however remains optimistic and believes that there’s still time to stop a tragedy from happening: “We hope this report increases appreciation for the importance of large herbivores in these ecosystems. And we hope that policymakers take action to conserve these species”.
Image Source: andybiggs.com