It's a small world after all

More heartbreaking news that a mass extinction is underway and you-know-who is to blame

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Sorry to burst into your bubble of neverending election coverage, but a new report gives voice to creatures that don’t get a vote in their future: every animal that’s not a human.

According to the Living Planet report released Thursday by WWF and the Zoological Society of London, by 2020 the number of vertebrates on Earth (aside from humans) could have fallen by two-thirds since 1970. While there is still time to change course and salvage some of the destruction, these animals have already lost almost 60% of their population over the last 45 years. Over the same period human population doubled from under four billion to around 7.5 billion.

The report’s authors state that pollution, habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, climate change, and hunting, fishing and other overexploitation “are pushing species populations to the edge.” These impacts start and end with humankind’s global dominance.

“Human behavior continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats,” Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL, told the AP. “Importantly, however, these are declines—they are not yet extinctions—and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations.”

The Living Planet Report, published every two years, assesses the state of the world’s wildlife based on data from peer-reviewed studies, government statistics, and other surveys. This new analysis looked at 3,700 different species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles—about 6% of the total number of vertebrate species in the world.

The prospectus is quite dire.

“For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife,” said Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK. “We ignore the decline of other species at our peril—for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us.”

Elephants have become a sort of poster child for how quickly a species can fall into crisis. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) there were more than 1.3 million African elephants in 1979, now there may be as few as 400,000. The agency has called Tanzania the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade, and recent data from a government-led census suggests elephant numbers have dropped from 110,000 in 2009 to a little over 43,000 in the country.

According to a report in Science, more than 75% of species of animals and plants could be gone within a few centuries. This is mainly due to the “twin threats of direct exploitation and habitat destruction” according to the report, which was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The United States, while not ground zero for the collapse, is still home to thousands of species suffering declines.

“Wildlife across the world desperately need our help, including right here the United States,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement on Thursday. “More than 8,000 species across our nation are in trouble. We need to take action now to prevent this looming crisis.”

This devastating fall in wildlife all fits under the umbrella of the Anthropocene, an entirely new geologic era defined by humankind’s impact on the planet. Scientists recently recommended that the 11,700-year-old geological epoch known as the Holocene be cut short and replaced by the Anthropocene because things are changing so quickly.

The Living Planet report lays out what’s at stake:

Such is the magnitude of our impact on the planet that the Anthropocene might be characterized by the world’s sixth mass extinction event. In the past such extinction events took place over hundreds of thousands to millions of years. What makes the Anthropocene so remarkable is that these changes are occurring within an extremely condensed period of time. Furthermore, the driving force behind the transition is exceptional. This is the first time a new geological epoch may be marked by what a single species (homo sapiens) has consciously done to the planet–as opposed to what the planet has imposed on resident species.

The real moral of this story: We live in a small world after all.

“We are no longer a small world on a big planet,” writes Dr. Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in a foreword for the report. “We are now a big world on a small planet, where we have reached a saturation point.”