All creatures great and small

As per the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020, as many as 21,000 monitored populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians encompassing 4,400 species globally
Representative Image
Representative Image Reuters

The negative impact of human activity on the planet is something we deal with every day. Rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and depletion of wildlife habitats have thrown natural cycles out of gear. Thanks to climate change, a narrative of destruction of critical and lifesaving ecosystems is playing out across the world. In the backdrop of World Animal Day, which was observed earlier this month, it makes sense to assess the damage.

As per the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020, as many as 21,000 monitored populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians encompassing 4,400 species globally, have depleted by an average of 68% in the 50 years spanning 1970-2016. The impact is pronounced in regions like Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as global freshwater habitats where species have been disproportionately affected with a decline averaging on 94% and 84% respectively.

Experts say that human activity is a major catalyst for climate change, which is damaging in its own way. But the destruction of wildlife habitats, and buffer zones that shielded humans from microorganisms has amplified the risk of contagion vis-a-vis zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Several virologists had surmised that the wet markets of Wuhan, in China had been zeroed in as the source of the COVID-19 virus. The market was known to sell several kinds of exotic meats including that of pangolins and bats, which inspired theories on how the virus crossed over into humans.

There are dangers to the manner in which we regard our natural environments. Our exploitation of the Earth’s finite resources has led to an overuse by almost 50%. We are now living off the resources of 1.56 Earths. Change in land use is also a major issue. Almost 50% of the loss of rainforests in Europe, Central Asia, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean has been attributed to farming related activities. Much of the land being used for agricultural purposes is responsible for 80% of the deforestation globally.

This hits us back in the form of greenhouse gas emissions — 29% of which is a result of land use to support such a vast food system. Our demand for food is set to skyrocket even as 820 mn people globally face food insecurity. We have also encroached upon lands once classified as wild regions. As a result, diseases originating in animals claim the lives of over 3 million people globally every year.

Anthropogenic climate change has heightened the risk of intense fire weather by 30% since 1900, a statistic that found resonance in the 2019-2020 bushfire in Australia that killed or harmed 3 billion animals. In India, hundreds of elephants have died due to electrified fences and collision with trains; cheetahs and Sumatran rhinos have gone extinct from poaching; Indian rhinos have been declared vulnerable while tigers lose large swathes of habitats and prey-base.

Going forth, economies must look into the carbon footprint and air miles travelled by the food we consume. Many stakeholders have sought a reconsideration of the factory farming methodology of rearing animals for meat and advocated a moderation of sorts in the consumption of meat products, which will in turn reduce emissions from cattle rearing to a great extent. We must encourage farmers specialising in local produce and help create a virtuous cycle of sorts in replenishing food stocks sans the baggage.

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