A 45-year-old died this week after an unremarkable life, yet earned the headlines usually reserved for the great, the good or the especially wicked. Sudan was notable only as the last of his kind: a male northern white rhino, kept in captivity for his own protection. Now the survival of the subspecies rests upon his daughter and granddaughter, and the hope that an international team can develop new reproductive technology. In death, he looms large as the symbol of human folly, and its cost to the natural world. But while we frantically attempt to undo what we have done in this case, many more species near the end each day without us paying heed. The loss of northern whites is distressing. The loss of 10,000 species a year is a disaster – yet receives far less attention. We worry about the pandas and elephants; the charismatic megafauna. We don’t even notice the disappearance of unattractive bugs and grasses.
The destruction of biodiversity is an equally or perhaps even more pressing crisis than climate change, which has fuelled the decline. The problem is not only the extinction of species, but the slashing of populations. The number of land animals worldwide has fallen by as much as half since 1970. This week, researchers warned that bird populations in the French countryside have plummeted by a third over the last decade and a half, probably because intensive use of pesticides on monocultural crops has hit their food supply.
Some scientists believe that the sixth mass extinction in geological history is under way – and this time it is made by humanity. The greed that has seen rhinos hunted for their horns is particularly distressing. But whether avarice or indifference is responsible for these deaths only matters insofar as it dictates different solutions. The underlying issue is the same: of animals being treated not as intrinsically important but on the basis of their instrumental value; more specifically their value to humans, whether they be deemed useful, diverting or charming; dangerous or inconvenient; or simply irrelevant.
This shortsighted view spells peril not only to the animal kingdom but to humankind itself. As experts point out, the threat to other species is a threat to our own survival. Self-preservation demands the preservation of flora and other fauna, whose interconnection we cannot hope to understand. We are recklessly destroying the species that make oxygen and protect us from extreme weather; the food chains on which we depend; the sources of medicines we may need. Few of us fret about O’ahu tree snails, but most of us care for our own future.
This devastation is not inevitable. The problem is not just population growth and development, but the particular patterns of economic and social life we have chosen, whether consciously or unwittingly. We do not have to consume so much, burn such vast quantities of coal, raze all our forests and fill our oceans with plastic. Changing the way we live will not be easy. But it is necessary for our own sake too.