Urgent Global Action Needed to Stop Extinction of Earth’s Last Megafauna
A new report in BioScience by 43 scientists calls for urgent protection to save endangered megafauna.
UNESCO World Heritage and National Parks offer one of the best opportunities to save critically endangered megafauna over large areas and across national borders. They also have the highest potential for sustainable tourism and economic development, critical to transform communities from exploitation to conservation.
Megafauna Concentrations – Richness Map shows the number of threatened megafaunal species in their native ranges. Megafauna are defined as terrestrial large carnivores (more than 15 kilograms) and large herbivores (more than 100 kilograms). Threatened includes all species categorized as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Illustration courtesy of BioScience.
A swift and global conservation response is needed to prevent the world’s gorillas, lions, tigers, rhinos, and other iconic terrestrial megafauna from being lost forever, more than four dozen influential international scientists declared today in the journal BioScience.
Entitled Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna, the report details the precipitous loss of large animal populations around the globe, from the poorly known, such as the scimitar-horned oryx, to more familiar species including tigers, lions, gorillas and rhinoceroses.
The report was written by 43 wildlife experts from six continents.
“The more I look at the trends facing the world’s largest terrestrial mammals, the more concerned I am we could lose these animals just as science is discovering how important they are to ecosystems and to the services they provide to people,” said William Ripple, lead author and distinguished professor of ecology in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. “It’s time to really think about conserving them because declines in their numbers and habitats are happening quickly.”
“Human communities stand to lose key elements of their natural heritage if these large wildlife species are allowed to go extinct,” co-author Peter Lindsey from Pathera said. “The disappearance of such species could also significantly undermine the future potential for communities to benefit from eco-tourism operations. Urgent measures are needed to address poaching, and to allow for the co-existence of people and wildlife if megafauna is to persist in the long term.”
“Perhaps the biggest threat for many species is direct hunting driven by a demand for meat, pets, and body parts for traditional medicines and ornaments,” said WCS Vice President of Species Conservation Elizabeth Bennett. “Only a massive commitment from the international community will stop this rampant destruction of so many animal populations. We need landscape-scale conservation strategies, taking into account the increasing interface between wildlife and people.”
Africa's lion population is inferred to have undergone a reduction of approximately 43 percent over the past 21 years (approximately three Lion generations, 1993-2014), according to IUCN.
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is listed by IUCN as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. They are surrounded by some of the highest human densities in Africa.
“Today, 59 percent of the world’s largest carnivores and 60 percent of the world’s largest herbivores are categorized as threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. This situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, home to the greatest diversity of remaining large mammals.
“Yet the resources for effective implementation of conservation strategies are seldom available in regions with the greatest needs. The onus is on developed countries, which have long ago lost most of their large animals, to support conservation initiatives where the world’s most celebrated wildlife which still remain.”
Megafauna provide a range of distinct ecosystem services through top-down biotic and knock-on abiotic processes (Estes et al. 2011). Many megafauna function as keystone species and ecological engineers, generating strong cascading effects in the ecosystems in which they occur.
Approximately 59 percent of the world’s biggest mammalian carnivore species—including the tiger— and 60 percent of the largest herbivores are now listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as threatened with extinction.
These species also provide important economic and social services. For example, ecotourism is the fastest growing subsector of tourism in developing countries (UNEP 2013), and megafauna are a major draw for these tourists. Besides contributing considerable revenue to conservation, wildlife-based tourism can contribute significantly to education, economies, job creation, and human livelihoods.
The current depletion of megafauna in our national parks and world heritage sites is due to overhunting and persecution: shooting, snaring, and poisoning by humans ranging from individuals to governments, as well as by organized criminals and terrorists (Darimont et al. 2015). Megafauna are killed for meat and body parts for traditional medicine and ornaments or because of actual or perceived threats to humans, their crops, or livestock. Meat and body parts are sold locally, sold to urban markets, or traded regionally and internationally.
Under a business-as-usual scenario, conservation scientists will soon be busy writing obituaries for species and subspecies of megafauna as they vanish from the planet. In fact, this process is already underway: eulogies have been written for Africa's western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) and the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus, IUCN 2015). The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is already extinct in the wild in Malaysia and is very close to extinction in Indonesia, with the population collapsing during the last 30 years from over 800 to fewer than 100 (table S2).
The Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is down to a single population of approximately 58 in a single reserve (table S2). The Critically Endangered Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) and African wild ass (Equus africanus) are not far behind. Even in protected areas, megafauna are increasingly under assault. For example, in West and Central Africa, several large carnivores (including lions, Panthera leo; African wild dogs, Lycaon pictus; and cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus) have experienced recent severe range contractions and have declined markedly in so-called ‘protected areas’ (IUCN 2015).