The Sixth Extinction

When I wrote this topic on my to do list white board, the ink in the pen started to thin and dry up. My first thought you may think I had was urgh, I'm going to need to buy more whiteboard markers. However, it wasn’t, as I looked at the word EXTINCTION written with its faded lines, it reminded me of the fact that once upon a time long ago the earth was filled with a variety of different species. It still is, but that diversity and richness of species found across the world is slowly drying up and disappearing. No matter what animal, plant or bird you can think of, its most likely threatened with extinction. Even insects of many varieties and as numerous as they are, are staring extinction in the face.

Insects, although so numerous, are declining rapidly year on year

We are currently living in the sixth mass extinction. Yes, as if we didn’t have enough on our plate with Covid -19, vaccinations, travel red lists and home schooling. Thank goodness James Bond is finally hitting our movie theatres for some quality entertainment. I digress.

There are four main causes of extinction, namely habitat destruction, alien invasive species, poaching and climate change. Let’s talk about all of these four topics briefly.

Habitat Destruction

As the human population grows, more and more natural land is being taken over by development such as housing, factories and space for farmland. Many animals, birds and insects are pushed out of their homes to make way for homogenous crop land or dried up slabs of concrete buildings. A large amount of wildlife dies or may become separated from potential breeding partners. This not only limits breeding but also weakens the gene pool. Here’s a few stats:

· Roughly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in 50 years.

· Over 35% mangrove ecosystems worldwide have been destroyed.

· One-fifth of coral reefs have also been destroyed, and another one-fifth have been severely degraded by overfishing, pollution, and invasive species.

· From 16 million square kilometers of tropical rainforest habitat that originally existed worldwide, less than 9 million square kilometers remain today.

Forests and natural land are being destroyed to make room for human expansion.

Alien Invasive species

Alien species can affect agriculture, forestry and human health. Biological invasions are also widely recognized as being the second-largest global threat (the first being direct habitat destruction) to biodiversity. The biodiversity is lowered due to the alien vegetation which spreads and takes over the indigenous vegetation. When there is no indigenous vegetation the pollinator’s decrease, the birds that eat the pollinators decrease as well as the animals that rely on the indigenous plants for food decrease and thus the predators of those animals decrease. It’s a domino effect.

In a number of areas around the world, the most troublesome, time-consuming and costly tasks of conservationists and managers are those relating to controlling alien species, preventing impacts with ongoing repairing of systems damaged by alien species. A number of alien plant species draw in large amounts of water through their roots compared with indigenous plant species which are more water wise. Some examples of water guzzlers are the Pine species, Wattle species and Eucalyptus species. Another way alien plants can affect indigenous ecosystems is by changing fuel loads, which can in turn affect fire behaviour and, ultimately, change the fire regime characteristics such as frequency, intensity, extent, type, and seasonality of the fire.

Non native species can spread easily and take over large tracts of land, displacing native species.

Poaching/Wildlife crime

The worth of illegal wildlife trade is projected between USD 7 and USD 23 billion per year, making wildlife crime the fourth largest illegal global trade, behind narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. The top five animals/animal parts most trafficked worldwide are rhino horn, ivory, pangolins, shark fins and tigers. However, there is an entire host of other animals involved such as civets, parrots, eels, manta rays, fish bladders and a range of monkey species. The core elements of wildlife crime are poverty at one end with greed and misinformation at the other.

Using wire to make snares, poachers set these traps on animal trails, either placed on the floor so an unsuspecting animal’s leg gets caught or in a branch where it wraps itself around the animal’s neck. You can use your imagination of what that animal looks like when the poacher comes days later to check the snares. This poaching method started out as just a means to survive and support the individual’s family. However, it has transformed into a rewarding method of making money by selling excess cuts of meat or entire animals.

On the other side of the coin, you have organized crime. Criminal syndicates recruit individuals from poor communities who are desperate for money. They are supplied with guns and are willing to take the risk of being killed by the anti-poaching units. They shoot the rhinos and elephants and hack the horns and tusks off. The animal parts are then given to dealers who export the parts mainly to the East like China and Vietnam. These countries see these animal products as status symbols or cures for some medical ailments. Rhino horn is also used in the east as an anti-hangover drug.

Many animals are poached in the wild to be used as ornaments or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Climate Change

Climate change is in the news a lot these days. From major weather events, coral bleaching and melting glaciers to people gluing themselves to highways in protest. Yep, climate change can be seen, heard and read on a daily basis now, and for good reason. Climate change not only alters the habitats that animals live in but also forces them to change their behaviour, this includes searching for food or migration. The effects of climate change can kill animals outright as well. This was seen in Australia when the temperature rose so high that bats nesting in trees literally fell to the ground with heat exhaustion and died. Another example was seen a couple of years ago when a small island was flooded and killed and entire endemic mice species. Climate change clearly exacerbates the rate of extinction.

Another example of an animal at risk of extinction is the polar bear. Large amounts of sea ice and glaciers are melting, decreasing the area where these bears hunt and live. If they don’t eat, they don’t breed, if they don’t breed, they die out, it’s as simple as that. I’m not even considering the fact of inbreeding or breeding with grizzly bears which once again weakens the gene pool.

One factor of climate change is the melting of ice caps at the north and south poles.

What is being done

There are many organisations trying to prevent extinction. The Uk government encourages farmers to plant meadows, put owl boxes up and build ponds for wildlife. They will then be paid for the amount of land that they convert back to natural habitat.

South African National Parks as well as other nature reserves have put in place anti-poaching units to patrol and safe guard the animals that live in the reserve. Another weapon in the ranger’s arsenal are anti-poaching dogs who sniff out and track the poacher’s whereabouts, in some cases attack them in order to apprehend the suspect. This is sometimes needed as rhino horn is more valuable than gold at the moment.

Researchers are constantly researching the effects of climate change in order to prevent more disaster. Groups like Fridays for the Future and Extnctionrebellion have become a government watch dog across the globe to make sure real change will happen on the ground as well as in parliament.

Groups are being formed to demand change against climate change.

The three issues discussed here are a problem in their own right. However, when understood holistically, the alarm bells are ringing at full volume. There is a lot of blood on our hands as a human species but with that we still have time to reverse these problems. Simple but complex ways for dealing with these problems include limiting or slowing down the increase of the human population, reducing poverty and ending climate change.

WE NEED TO ACT NOW! Before it's too late

Let us make positive changes now, in order for a better tomorrow.


Bromilow, C. 2010.Problem Plants and Alien Weeds of South Africa. Pretoria: Briza Publications.

Brooks, M.L., Antonio, C.M.D., Richardson, D.M., Grace, J.B., Keeley, J.E., Tomaso, J.M.D.I., Hobbs, R.J., Pellant, M. & Pyke, D. 2018. Effects of Invasive Alien Plants on Fire Regimes. Bio Science, 54(7) :677 – 688.

Coetzee, K.2005.Caring for Natural Rangelands. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu Natal Press.

Rosen, T. The Evolving War on Illegal Wildlife Trade. 2020. International Institute for Sustainable Development.

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