Loss of Biodiversity Part III: The Sixth Extinction
Call it the Law of Attraction. Just as I have been writing a blog series on the loss of biodiversity, this book by Terry Glavin called “The Sixth Extinction” literally jumped off the shelves of the National Library of Singapore, onto my lap.
The Earth has witnessed 5 great extinctions in the last half a billion years. We are now on the brink of the 6th great extinction. We lose a distinct species, of one sort or another, every ten minutes. The normal “background rate of extinction” is roughly 1-2 species per year. That rate is between 100 and 1000 times faster than the background rate of species extinction. This one is unique as the scale of extinction we’re seeing now is mainly due to the activities of a single species, namely us.
Terry Glavin takes us on a personal odyssey as he “journeys among the Lost and Left Behind” worlds. He gives a vivid and poignant account of the scale of loss of species, and the way it affects our lives. On a grander scale, he laments not only the extinction of species, but the dying of languages and cultures, that accompany such losses.
I was pleasantly surprised at the attention he gave to Singapore, as an entire chapter was devoted to this island state and how it represents the paradox of having destroyed most of its rainforests. 95% of Singapore was covered by primary rainforests till the mid 1800s. Now only a fraction of 1% of that remains, having been replaced by a mass of urban construction.
At the same time, this is the place where through the efforts of the Singapore Zoo, we are seeing a kind of “Noah’s Ark” with a large collection of the “living dead.” Species like the Bali mynah, pygmy hippo, the proboscis monkey, the orangutans, that are nurtured in enclosed spaces, which otherwise are more or less certain of dying out as a species in their native habitats, as those very same habitats are being decimated rapidly.
I was particularly saddened by his account of the ecological disaster in Russia….a country that I know very little about, let alone seen it. Yet, I could feel the pangs of pain, because when you care about the planet as a whole, political demarcations matter little…Nature, its diversity and its inhabitants belong to all of us.
Glavin takes us to Khabarovsk (I had to look it up in the Atlas, it’s on the Far Eastern side of Russia closer to the border with China) where he recounts the story of how the privatisation of the Soviet Union led to forest licences falling into criminal hands, plundering forests for mineral deposits and leading to the collapse of fisheries. The 200 year old Forest Service was abolished, with the Ministry of Natural resources becoming the main conduit for plundering the Far East’s natural wealth. Since the 1990s, the Amur river in Russia has lost 90% of its salmon species. In other parts of Russia, more than 90% of the world’s saiga antelope have disappeared from the Russian steppes and the plains of Kazhakstan.
It’s not just the genetic diversity of animal species that we are losing, but plant species too, particularly of food crops. Glavin dwells in the chapter on “An Apple is a Kind of Rose” not on exotic species in exotic lands, but on the humble apples and potatoes and our every day food crops.
According to research on food crop extinctions by Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI), 86% of the 7098 apple varieties in America have disappeared. Out of 357 onion varieties, only 27 remain. Of 307 sweet-corn varieities, only 12 remain, and so is the fate of cabbages, radishes, lettuces, watermelons and other domesticated crops.
Throughout the 20th century, we are losing a variety of subspecies of domesticated vegetables and fruits to a few industrial hybrid varieties with long shelf lives, that are actively promoted by large companies. About 75 % of all global food production now come from only a dozen crops and only a few species of those crops.
Despite the gloomy discoveries, Glavin finds hope in many places. I was encouraged by his fascinating journey to Costa Rica, one of the few countries in the world which has gone to great lengths to maintain its tropical rainforests and its ecological heritage, symbolised by the amazing humming birds and the resplendent Quetzal.
Glavin found hope in the vaults of the Royal Kew Garden, where seeds of several plant species are caringly preserved for research and for posterity. So too does he find hope in remote North Eastern corner of India, in a village called Khonoma, where the tribal communities don’t resort to the centuries old habit of slash and burn agriculture, but a technique called pollarding, to encourage the tree to produce new growth on a regular basis in order to maintain a supply of new wood for various purposes.
If we are to be a living, breathing world, rich in diversity and abundance of life, then as Glavin puts it, we “have to take the helm” and allow for such diversity to flourish. It will be hard work, he acknowledges, but “you do what can, everything you can”
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