Planet Earth II, the latest nature-themed documentary series of British veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough, is a stunning testimony to the beauty of our world and the complexity of life that flourishes in it. The program has captivated audiences and has raced to the top of the charts to become the most watched nature show in the UK. But apart from pure aesthetics, Planet Earth also reminds us of the fragility of both our flora and fauna as their habitats are facing ever-greater threats from mankind’s encroachment.
Planet Earth II’s success comes just in the nick of time. In October this year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its Living Planet Report 2016 containing dire news for out planet. The report noted a global 58 percent decline in the number of vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2012, and predicts the number of populations to fall at an even faster rate over the next four years, reaching 67 percent by 2020. Previous assessments of the world’s biodiversity, such as the high-profile 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, similarly stated that between “five extinctions per year to roughly one extinction every two years” is a realistic prediction of the biodiversity loss rate, assuming a minimum estimate of five million species living on the planet. Although this may be a conservative assessment, the next mass extinction event will inevitably occur. According to Stephen Hawking, it will happen within the next 1000 to 10,000 years and will have fatal consequences for the human species.
Climate change is a major factor contributing to the current extinction of species, but other anthropogenic factors play important parts as well. Poaching, the illegal hunting of animals, is one of the biggest problems of our time. While poaching takes place around the globe and affects all kinds of wildlife, the highest rates occur in Africa, where illegal hunters seek out elephants and rhinos to sell their ivory tusks and horns along with body parts. As a result, the black rhino population has plummeted by 97.6 percent over the course of the last five decades, while approximately 35,000 African elephants were killed last year alone. Even within South Africa’s 20,000 km2 Kruger National Park 60 elephants have been killed since 2014.
However, poaching also carries serious detrimental economic effects for the people living in countries affected by poaching. Since elephants and rhinos, among other animals, are important tourist attractions, Africa is losing around 25 millions dollars in yearly tourism revenue as their numbers decrease. Meanwhile, the ivory is being sold worldwide, be it in shops in Hong Kong and China or the United States. Given that one kilogram of raw ivory had a going rate of $2,100 in 2014 in China, up from $750 per kilo in 2010, it becomes clear the profits of poaching are a big business. An ample illustration of the scale was delivered earlier this year when Kenya destroyed the largest illegal ivory stockpile representing roughly five percent of total African ivory, judged to be worth $150 million on the black market.
But poaching is not only an issue limited to dry land, but has come to increasingly affect the oceans too. Similarly, marine biodiversity is disappearing at ever increasing rates, but since the oceans spanning our planet are comparatively underexplored, accurately quantifying the true extent of the damage sustained is much more difficult than on land. Nevertheless, marine bio-degradation is becoming blatantly clear, especially since many trawlers engaging in illegal fishing are employing highly destructive fishing techniques. These include bottom trawling, where giant weighted nets are dragged along the ocean floor, causing irreparable damage to the maritime flora and fauna, particularly corals, in the process.
Poaching coupled with overfishing is a particularly acute problem when foreign vessels are involved that outcompete local fishermen, both in terms of machinery and volume of catch. West Africa’s Guinea is suffering from an ever-exacerbating fish shortage due to Chinese trawlers illegally catching the yellow croaker fish, which has been fished to extinction in Asia. On the other side of the continent, Mozambique is suffering a similar plight. Illegal fishing in Mozambique’s waters causes a yearly economic loss of $67 million. The scale of the problem is such that a study conducted in 2013 found that only one of 130 boats operating off the country’s coast actually belonged to Mozambique. However, while Guinea was never able to protect its waters against foreign vessels, especially as the Ebola outbreak forced the government to pool resources elsewhere, Mozambique has taken matters into its own hands. In 2013, the EMATUM government agency closed a deal with a French shipyard to purchase 24 tuna fishing boats and six military patrol boats in order to protect its coast and sovereign waters.
It is clear that it is high time to get serious about stopping the rampant killing of wildlife. All ecosystems being interconnected, the expanding destruction of the biosphere will increasingly affect mankind in more ways than originally thought. For now, these are economic for most people, but since damage to habitats are accumulative, the negative consequences of poaching and the accompanying environmental destruction will lead to knock-on effects that will eventually undermine the basis of our very existence. If we hope to survive for longer than the next millennium, changes need to happen fast.