The Hidden Impacts of Climate Change 2: Animal Crisis

Synopsis:
When you hear about climate change, what is the first thing you think about? Deforestation? Rising sea levels? Or global warming? Although the research behind these categories is already daunting, are we being told everything?
In this series, the hidden impact of climate change, I will be digging deeper into the true effects that climate change has on our planet. Not only on humans, but also on the environment and animals.
This is part 2 of the Hidden Impacts of Climate Change.

What do I mean by Animal Crisis?

From time to time we are reminded of the dangers many species around the world are facing, these species share the world we live in and are part of an amazing biodiversity. However, we don’t talk enough about these animals that are suffering at the hands of humans. Humankind at least has a chance of tackling the consequences climate change will have on us, with science and innovation. On the other hand, animals will have no choice but to endure the worst effects. If the climate crisis goes unchecked, millions of animals will die and many species will become extinct entirely.

Most of the time, we are intrigued by mainstream news doing the sporadic documentary on illegal trade of materials/ parts of animals or even events where animal rights are not respected, then usually forget them a while later. Apart from animals in the artic, when was the last time you heard in mainstream news about climate change and animals? 

In part 1, I focused on developmental plasticity including how animals are changing in a worrying fashion, but in this article I am going to discuss a topic that is avoided by many, but is imperative for us to consider.

Which animals are in danger?

The answer is all of them. As humans we all have and are already seeing subtle changes in weather, which are having devastating effects. But we often forget that we are also experiencing these events with the environment around us. Some animals are more endangered than others, but ultimately all are in danger. For example, we know that melting ice caps and glaciers don’t only increase sea levels, but also leave less space for penguins, seals, polar bears and many other animals to live and hunt, also with less freshwater available to drink. This leaves them more endangered compared to some other animals.

Furthermore, as our ecosystem continues to change in many ways, climate change has many knock-on effects such as behavioral changes in animals, changes in environment leading to migration, and the different hunting patterns which are all interlinked factors. Below are a list of animals that are endangered, facing extinction:

  • Indian Elephants
  • Cheetahs
  • Mountain Gorillas
  • Black Rhinoceros 
  • Sea Turtles 
  • Orangutan
  • Red Panda
  • Tigers
  • African Wild Dogs

These animals face problems including:

  • Habitat loss;  from agriculture, livestock
  • Human interference
  • Poaching
  • Water pollution
  • Disease
African Wild Dog – They are hunted accidentally, compete against predators, and suffer from disease. Image credit: https://www.trafalgar.com/real-word/9-animals-facing-extinction-habitat-loss/
Red Panda – Almost half of its population is located in the Himalayas, where they are dependent on nesting trees and bamboo. Image credit: https://www.trafalgar.com/real-word/9-animals-facing-extinction-habitat-loss/

These are only a few problems that these groups of animals face, creating a cycle of imbalance across the ecosystem. Climate variability and change affects birdlife and animals in a number of ways; birds lay eggs earlier in the year than usual and mammals are come out of hibernation sooner. Distribution of animals is also affected; with many species moving closer to the poles as a response to the rise in global temperatures. Birds are migrating and arriving at their nesting grounds earlier, where they are not as far away as they used to be and in some countries the birds don’t even leave anymore, as the climate is suitable all year round. These typify how natural migration is inhibited. This intertwines with my previous research on developmental plasticity, which explains why and how these effects happen.

The Abandoned Topic

We always hear, read and talk about the well-known effects climate change has on our planet, but as previously said, we often don’t talk about the animals. If we do, it is rare we are able to explain and go into detail, causing a cliché answer to come about. So, in this section I’m going to help you understand and help your answers become more clearer about animals.

Firstly, we will start with rising sea levels. We first connote this impact with floods, erosion and submersion or of the melting ice in the Artic. But for animals, we have little to talk about in general.

A sea level rise of just 50cm could cause sea turtles to lose their nesting beaches, while whales, seals and dolphins need shallow, gentle waters to raise their young – rising sea levels will destroy these areas. The ocean is a major carbon sink also. Any animal with a hard and calcareous skeleton, like plankton, stores carbon inside its tiny body. These miniscule organisms are powerhouses in the fight against climate change. But ocean acidification can dissolve their skeletons, and this has a chain reaction in the food chain. Whales, who rely on krill and plankton as a food source, would have a limited supply of food which would lead to their population drastically falling.

In addition, the impact of the extreme weather is criminally understated. Droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires are all worryingly becoming more frequent. Animals may overheat in heatwaves and droughts, have habitats destroyed by wind, as well as many other detrimental impacts. The wildfires in Australia in 2020 left 3 billion animals dead or displaced in just a few months – devastating levels of destruction to the natural world in addition to the tragic loss of life that occurred. An example that gives a startling number, but is unfortunately a feature of every natural disaster. 

Solutions? 

There are many ways of stopping extinctions of animals, most of them are expensive and time-consuming though. Techniques such as freezing eggs, protecting landscapes and spreading awareness happen before our eyes, but is not enough to combat climate change. Knowing this, I am going to help you understand some of the efforts going on behind the scenes and what you can do to help.

One solution is captive breeding and reintroduction. You may have heard this before in other words, and is very simple theoretically. Some species in danger of extinction in the wild are brought into captivity to either safeguard against imminent extinction or to increase population numbers. The primary goals of captive breeding programs are to establish populations via controlled breeding that are: a) large enough to be demographically stable; and b) genetically healthy. These objectives ensure that populations will exhibit a healthy age structure, resistance to disease, consistent reproduction, and preservation of the gene pool to minimize and/or avoid problems associated with inbreeding. 

Reintroduction is another step taken to ensure that endangered species are re-established into the wild. Examples of successful introductions using captive-bred stock include California condors (Ralls & Ballou 2004) and black-footed ferrets (Russell et al. 1994). However, this means that a large group of scientists and researchers would be involved, reiterating the unfortunate cost of carrying out the procedure.

Another solution is laws and regulations, which is tricky as this means world leaders and governments would have to be cooperative in actively taking part of this effort. Laws can be made on protecting land, trade and for preventing over-exploitation of wild animals and land. An example of a impactful law is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which is an agreement between governments (i.e., countries) that controls international trade in wild animals, plants, and their parts to ensure continued survival. Approximately 30,000 species are protected under this law, as shown in Image 3:

Species threatened with extinctionSpecies might be threatened with extinction but not requiredSpecies are protected in at least one country
Mammals297 (+ 23 sspp.)492 (+ 5 sspp.)44 (+ 10 sspp.)
Birds156 (+ 11 sspp.)1275 (+ 2 sspp.)24
Reptiles76 (+ 5 sspp.)582 56
Amphibians17 113 1
Fish1581
Invertebrates64 (+ 5 sspp.)2142 (+ 1 sspp.)22 (+ 3 sspp.)
Plants301 (4 sspp.)29105119 (+1 sspp.)
Total926 (+ 48 sspp.)33790 (+ 8 sspp.)266 (+ 14 sspp.)
Approximate number of species (and subspecies (sspp.)) included in CITES 2011. Source: https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/saving-endangered-species-a-case-study-using-19445898/

However, most of the trade would shift to the black market as people would continue to trade illegally. Therefore, it is hard to measure how well laws do when they are implemented in a global situation like this.

Another technique on a personal level, is spreading awareness which can be taken up by anyone on social media, through education, or through peaceful protesting. The importance of spreading awareness can be undermined, as some may think all the talking goes in one ear and out the other, but instead we can make a deeper impact on people. For example, even for the people that do not exercise environmentally friendly actions, they would become more conscious about habits, practices and their general actions they carry out on a day-to-day basis. Some may say guilt-tripping a person, but others would argue that spreading awareness gives the people in question an opportunity to consider, rather than being ignorant. Possibly to learn the effects of buying real fur, jewelry with animal parts, ( e.g., tusks) or even simply becoming more conscious of how they manage waste. 

This is progressively being exercised in society ranging from charity events to books that can make a person become more self-disciplined regarding their environment. We never know when a person may become inspired to take sudden action, which is also a benefit of spreading awareness. We have seen success in this with celebrities starting their own projects and charities, for example Mr. Beast with Team Trees, and Leonardo DiCaprio and his partnership in Re:wild. 

On a personal level, changes in the way we live, behave and think may seem to have only a miniscule impact, but we should not underestimate them. If all of us just do one thing to improve our environment, we could stop the potential ramifications happening in the future. These are ways we can prevent animal extinction: Improving travel sustainability, using less plastic, making sustainable fashion choices, eating sustainably, reducing food waste, and following the 3 Rs ( reuse, reduce, recycle). Although these may seem obvious, it is the simple things that have the most impact.

What next?

According to Science Daily, researchers studied recent extinctions from climate change to estimate the loss of plant and animal species by 2070. Their results suggest that as many as one in three species could face extinction unless warming is reduced. Their results are based on data from hundreds of plant and animal species surveyed around the globe.

In the past there is a history of humans causing mass extinctions of species:

  • Between about 5,000 and 500 years ago people discovered and settled oceanic islands. This resulted in extinction of whatever megafauna lived on those islands, such as New Zealand’s moa and Madagascar’s giant lemurs and elephant birds. As well, many smaller vertebrates succumbed to the combined pressures of hunting, forest removal, and impacts of alien species transported by voyaging people. Because of the remarkable distinctiveness of biodiversity on islands this second wave of extinctions accounted for a great many species. For example, more than 100 endemic mammal species disappeared from the Caribbean islands alone, and human occupation of Pacific Islands resulted in extinction of at least 1,000 bird species, around 10% of all the world’s birds.
  • Since 1500 CE a third and still greater wave of extinction has been growing. This third wave is being driven ultimately by growth of the global human population, increased consumption of natural resources, and globalization. It is affecting a wider range of animals and plants than the preceding two extinction waves, in the oceans as well as on land. Our knowledge of which species have gone extinct since 1500 is collated in the IUCN Red List and is most complete for vertebrates, especially birds, mammals and amphibians.
  • 711 vertebrates are known or presumed extinct since 1500, including 181 birds, 113 mammals and 171 amphibians. Almost 600 extinctions each of invertebrates and plants since 1500 are known, but given limited basic knowledge, survey, and assessment of conservation status, the true magnitude of losses in these groups is certain to be far higher.

But as we know, we have to move on from the past as it is impossible to revert already extinct species. For the future, what does the research suggest will happen? Studies from multiple sources imply that extinction of species are accelerating, due to a multitude of factors, as shown below:

Estimated extinction rates in various animal groups through time, expressed as extinctions per million species per year. The height of each bar represents the range of estimates. Pre-human extinction rates are inferred from the fossil record, recent values from documented extinctions in selected groups, and near-future extinctions are projected from the current rates at which species are transitioning between IUCN categories. Image credit: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/biodiversity/decline-and-extinction/

Closing Words

Some governments have implemented laws notably in the expansion of protected areas, but as previously said, this is not enough to offset the growing pressure on species. But the future looks bleak for many species, as we as humans can only do our part in stopping extinction, but we can’t control the weather, natural processes or how animals behave. There are man-made bars which cannot be broken due to past actions, but we now have to ensure no more bars occur.

If you want to read more about animal extinction, the following are websites that go in depth:

Thank you for reading!

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