Good while it lasts – I: 6th mass extinction in progress, human courtesy


The Earth is losing species at an unprecedented rate; This marks the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch, a self-aggrandizing nomenclature that highlights our disproportionate and irreversible impacts on the environment.

This is the first part of a four part series.

My youthful years on the banks of the Mahanadi – one of the oldest rivers on earth, flowing for 160 million years through the land we now call Odisha – gave me more ecological and geological experiences than I would never meet later in life. As I refresh my memory, it becomes clear that our lives have been marked, in fact dictated, by ecological indicators.

Every tree, every creature, even the speed and direction of the wind, announced the arrival and departure of something.

When the dragonflies were swarming in September, we looked forward to the arrival of winter festival season. In the post-monsoon season, around every puddle or wetland, they had their happy world. Just before that, when the damsels were flying around our house, it was monsoon time.

Old umbrellas were dusted off and sent to a mechanic for repair, and people thronged the market to stock up on onions and potatoes – the two staples to eat during the lean monsoon season. We have accepted them as natural cycles. We can say that there was a rhythm in our natural life.

During the many excursions along the river, which included compulsory sessions of open defecation, a peculiar dung beetle, which appeared out of nowhere, chased our excrement with astonishing precision. Perhaps this specific beetle had not developed a taste for cattle manure, we deduced.

Soon hundreds of them would start rolling balls of our shit for food and for the propagation of their species. The poop balls have great nutritional value for them and are also saved for future use. They are also a safe place for their partner to lay eggs, again with plenty of food for the foster mother.

Later, I discovered that dung beetles use the Milky Way as a navigator to locate human localities – all to satisfy their taste for our excrement.

These experiences are part of Earth’s complex ecosystem, where every existence has a purpose and is rational. The latter is essential because in the ecosystem, an existential rational means an interdependence that intertwines species to collectively maintain the existing system.

Each has an ecosystem service for the other that has evolved with them over billions of years as they have carved out their own society or ecological niche. If one fails, the other stutters.

This rhythm is disturbed.

On December 9 last year, I cried when an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessment of dragonflies and damselflies found that “16% of 6,016 species are threatened by ‘extinction”. In South and Southeast Asia, which includes India, the situation is even worse as a quarter of all species are threatened with extinction. When I was home for the “winter festival season” last year, I felt the absence of the swarms of these two species. The IUCN attributes this extinction of small creatures to rapidly declining freshwater breeding grounds. This means that the decline is due to rapid urbanization and the clearing of wetlands and rainforests to make way for cash crops. “Globally, these ecosystems are disappearing three times faster than forests,” IUCN Director General Bruno Oberle said when the assessment was released. “Marshes and other wetlands may seem unproductive and inhospitable to humans, but in reality they provide us with essential services. They store carbon, give us drinking water and food, protect us from floods and provide habitats for one in ten known species in the world.

The existential threat facing the dragonfly is a cause for concern for all 8.1 million species on the planet. With this assessment of dragonfly extinction, the IUCN said “the number of species threatened with extinction on the Red List has passed 40,000 for the first time.” The IUCN Red List now includes 142,577 species of which 40,084 (or 28%) are threatened with extinction.


The planet is losing species at an unprecedented rate, with thousands likely to disappear within decades

Evolution and extinction are intimately linked to each other, but never before have we witnessed such rapid evolution of biodiversity. “The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, the first of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published in 2019, shows that the current rate and extent of extinction are unprecedented and are primarily caused by humans. The IPBES assessment indicates that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction and that thousands of them would disappear within decades. About 40% of amphibian species on the planet are threatened with extinction. Since 1900, the number of native species in most terrestrial habitats has declined by 20%.

Robert Cowie, a research professor at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, along with other scientists, released in January this year a massive assessment of the state of the invertebrates that make up 95% of species known animals. Cowie and his collaborators found that since the year 1500, “the Earth would have already lost between 7.5 and 13% of the two million known species on Earth, or 150,000 to 260,000 species.”

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) “Living Planet Report 2020” indicates that the Asia-Pacific region has lost 45% of its vertebrate population in four and a half decades, compared to the global average loss of 68%. The biennial report, jointly prepared by WWF and the Zoological Society of London, is based on the global dataset analyzed between 1970 and 2016. The report tracked nearly 21,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish and of reptiles in the world to reach its conclusions. It showed that vertebrate population loss was highest in the Caribbean and Latin America (94%), followed by Africa (65%), with Europe and Central Asia recording the least loss (24 %).

The loss could be higher than the global average in India, which has lost 12% of its wild mammals, 19% of its amphibians and 3% of its birds over the past five decades. Out of about 0.1 million animal species recorded in the country as of December 2019, about 6,800 are vertebrates. Of these, nearly 550 fall into the Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable categories, according to the Zoological Survey of India, the country’s leading organization in zoological research and studies under the Ministry of Nature. Environment, Forestry and Climate Change Union.

The “Living Planet Report 2020” points to five major reasons behind the loss of biodiversity across the planet: changes in land and sea use (loss and degradation of habitats), overexploitation of species, invasive species and disease, pollution and climate change. In the Asia-Pacific region, including India which is experiencing species loss above the global average, habitat degradation is the main trigger, followed by species overexploitation and invasive species and disease. The role of pollution and climate change was proportionally higher at 16%.


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