Thanks to Australian Member of Parliament Kelvin Thompson for this article on the impact of population growth on wildlife. Interested in learning more about population? Explore our weekly population digest!
THE IMPACT OF POPULATION GROWTH ON WILDLIFE: SPEECH TO WARRNAMBOOL FIELD NATURALISTS
Some years ago there was a bumper sticker that said “At least the war on the environment is going well”. It was a biting satire on the quagmire that had developed in Iraq. But the suggestion that we have declared war on the environment, that we have declared war on thousands of other species, is alarmingly close to the truth. While the human race grows exponentially, spreading into every corner of the globe, pretty much everything else is in retreat and decline.
Here are some examples of just how successful the war on everything else has been.
- Ten thousand years ago, the mass, the weight, all of the humans on the earth, plus all our pets, plus all the livestock we keep to feed ourselves, was 0.1% of 1% – one tenth of one percent – of the mass, the weight, of all the mammals on the earth. The rest of the mammals – elephants and tigers and rhinos and whales and kangaroos etc – made up 99.9% of the mass of all the mammals on the earth.
By 200 years ago, humans, our pets and our livestock had increased from 0.1% to 10-12% of the mass of the mammals of the earth.
Now, we, our pets and our livestock make up 96% – 98% of the mass of the mammals of the earth. The poor old elephants and tigers and rhinos and whales and kangaroos and all the rest of the mammals have gone from 99.9% to just 2 – 4%.
- Since the Year 1500, around the world, more than 150 species of bird have become extinct. One in 8 species is now at risk of worldwide extinction, and 190 bird species are critically endangered. Of the common European birds, 45% are in decline, and 20 common North American species have halved in number in the past 40 years.
- One in two mammals are shrinking in number, and nearly one in four species is at risk of extinction. More than 3000 species are critically endangered, including land icons such as the African mountain gorilla and the Sumatran orangutan, and sea icons such as whales, dolphins and seals. Australia has 59 species – more than in one in five – threatened ; the mountain pygmy possum is down to 2000 and the Tasmanian Devil has suffered a 60% drop in numbers in a decade.
- Australia’s coastal shorebirds are in freefall. Between 1983 and 2006 the Sooty Oyster-catcher, a resident shorebird, declined by 81% and the Whimbrel, a migratory shorebird, declined by 73%.
- One third of Australia’s bird species declined between 1980 and 2000 – examples include:
- Emu (50% decline), Banded Lapwing (60% decline), Wedge-tailed Eagle (40% decline), Black-Shouldered Kite (40% decline), Diamond Firetail (40% decline), Gang Gang Cockatoo (37% decline), Superb Lyrebird (30% decline), Brolga (27% decline).
- 45 species of Australian bird are regarded as at risk from climate change. Examples include the Wedge-tailed Shearwater – waters of the Great Barrier Reef which are too warm for its preferred food; the Fairy Tern, whose nests are now destroyed by foxes due to falling water levels in the drought stricken Murray, and the Mallee Emu Wren has lost more than half its population in 10 years to bushfires and drought.
The more there are of us, the less there is of everything else. I consider it a grotesque piece of arrogance on our part as a species that we think that we have a right to destroy everything else on our way to affluence.
Some species have prospered as a result of human activity, but the vast majority have not, and many species are now threatened with extinction.
In December 2005 the USA based National Academy of Sciences reported that human activities are leading to a wave of extinctions over 100 times greater than natural rates. According to the World Conservation Union, almost 800 species have become extinct since 1500, when accurate records began. The Alliance for Zero Extinction has identified a further 794 species on the brink of oblivion. These species are confined to 595 sites around the world; only one third of them have legal protection, and most are surrounded by human population densities approximately three times the global average. The country which has the world’s worst record for species extinction turns out to be Australia. 27 mammal species, 23 bird species, and 4 frog species have become extinct over the past 200 years.
And the prospects for many other Australian species are not good. The Humane Society International says that land clearing has killed 4 billion birds, reptiles and mammals since 1972.
In November 2003 the Swiss-based World Conservation Union listed 12,259 varieties of animal, plant and water life as critically endangered. It noted that famous islands such as the Galapagos, Hawaii and the Seychelles are becoming ecologically and aesthetically barren as a consequence of human activities. Indonesia, Brazil, China and Peru have the highest number of endangered birds and mammals, while plants are most under threat in Ecuador, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Brazil. Industrialisation, forest clearance and tourism are key culprits. In Columbia and Venezuela the spider monkey has been driven into smaller and smaller areas by urban growth, agriculture and cattle ranching. The population of the Giant Catfish in Southeast Asia’s Mekong River has dropped by 80% since 1990 from over-fishing and dams blocking its migratory routes.
Reg Morrison put it like this: “the 300 million tonnes of humanity that the Earth currently supports has an appetite so voracious that the planet and its biota can meet our demands only by divesting itself of vast numbers of other energy consumers”.
The biologist Edward O. Wilson calculates that humans have presided over the extinction of between 10% and 20% of Earth’s prehistoric inventory of species.
The normal ‘background’ extinction rate is about one species per million species each year. Human activity has increased extinction between 100 and 1,000 times over this level in the rainforest by reduction in area alone.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation the earth is down to its last 5% of tropical forest cover, and is losing that at a rate of over 200,000 square kilometres a year, with the rate of loss increasing. The world has entered the twenty-first century with little more than 10% of its original forest cover intact. According to anthropologists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewis all the forest cover will be largely gone by 2050.
In Australia many things are threatening our birds, plants and animals, but none more so than the loss of habitat, the loss of vegetation cover. If we’re to save our birds, plants and animals, we have to put an end to habitat loss. What is the driver of habitat loss? Well that would be us. Population growth is the key driver of habitat destruction. Now the truth is that environment groups have been very reluctant over the years to raise the issue of population. There is no doubt that the issue of population is fraught with religious and racial overtones.
It takes courage to confront it, and I understand why people are reluctant. But I’ve said to other environment groups, and I say to you, that if environment groups are not prepared to tackle the root cause – population growth – you will be condemned to forever be fighting local battles to save remnant habitat – time consuming, energy-sapping battles which you often lose or are forced to make inadequate compromises. And even the things we think are saved and protected forever may not be.
One Sydney property developer has suggested that Sydney’s magnificent ring of National Parks may be a luxury we can no longer afford. Never mind the obvious response that if we can no longer afford something, it sounds like we are getting poorer rather than richer as a consequence of population growth. The fact that such statements can be made shows that the only way we can guarantee that the beautiful bird, animal and plant life we are blessed with in Australia will live on, for the enjoyment and enlightenment of our children and their children, is to move to stabilize our population.
I have produced a 14 Point Plan for Population Reform which proposes that we stabilize our population at 26 million by 2050, rather than the 36 million we are presently tracking for, by cutting our net overseas migration to 70,000 per annum. This is not anti migration, it’s not no migration, or no net migration. It’s a return to the kind of migration number we had in numerous years in the 1970s, 80s and even 1990s. I encourage you to look at the Plan, which is on my website, and contact my office if you want to be on my population supporters database, which I have built up and which is campaigning for population reform.
KELVIN THOMSON MP
Wednesday 27th April, 2011
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