David Suzuki: Mass animal die-offs and the ongoing extinction crisis

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      On New Year’s Eve, 5,000 red-winged blackbirds dropped out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. Necropsies revealed no evidence of poisoning but did indicate the birds had suffered massive internal trauma. Days later, fisherman observed schools of fish floating belly up on Chesapeake Bay. In England, tens of thousands of dead crabs washed up on local beaches, and reports come in almost daily of penguins, turtles, and even dolphins dying unexpectedly in the wild. Are these events signs of the “aflockalypse”, as the media have dubbed the recent die-offs? The answer is yes. And no.

      Our inherent love and respect for the natural world compels us to take notice when animals die in large numbers, but observations going back more than a century suggest that the mass-mortality events of recent weeks aren’t as unusual as we might think, and they are often the result of natural causes, such as adverse weather, disease outbreaks, or stress associated with long-distance migration.

      In analyzing bird counts, journal records, and other observations dating back to the late 19th century, European researchers found frequent reports of deaths of birds in the hundreds and thousands. One massive kill occurred in spring 1964, when an estimated 100,000 king eiders, representing nearly a tenth of the species’ western Canadian population, perished in the Beaufort Sea. These large, beautiful ducks starved when pools of open water among the sea-ice re-froze suddenly, preventing them from getting to the food in the water below. More recently, an estimated 40,000 individual birds from 45 different species were killed on April 8, 1993, when a tornado crossed their migration routes off the coast of Louisiana.

      While the sudden death of wildlife in great numbers is alarming, the unravelling of entire food webs is happening all around us and every day—but in a far less obvious manner. With every patch of forest cut, wetland drained, or grassland paved, our ongoing destruction of wildlife habitat is leading to population declines, and even driving some species to extinction.

      According to the experts, more than 17,000 plants and animals are threatened with extinction because of human activity, mostly through habitat loss. This includes 12 percent of all known birds, nearly a quarter of known mammals, and a third of known amphibians. Climate change is predicted to sharply increase the risk of species extinction within our own children’s lifetime. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species assessed will likely be at increased risk of extinction if global average temperatures continue to rise with escalating emissions of carbon pollution.

      This wildlife crisis has been described as a silent epidemic by scientists like famed Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, because it receives so little attention from governments. The David Suzuki Foundation recently released a study of government records showing that nearly half of all known wildlife species in British Columbia are at risk, including grizzly bears, caribou, and orca whales. Yet, B.C. has no endangered species law to protect its wildlife and habitat from logging, mining, urban sprawl, and other human activity.

      Canada has a federal endangered species law, but the government is dragging its feet on implementing it. As a consequence, some wildlife populations, like the northern spotted owl in southwestern B.C., have declined precipitously under the watch of our politicians and are now on the verge of extinction in Canada.

      The unsettling events of recent weeks reveal the inherent vulnerability of wildlife to sudden and dramatic population declines, often as a result of natural causes. This is all the more reason to ensure we don’t exacerbate the challenges faced by wildlife in an increasingly busy world. We need to reduce the environmental stressors that we impose on wildlife, so that they can better cope with and survive the challenges they face every day. We need to eliminate dangerous pesticides and other toxic materials, protect the habitat of endangered plants and animals like caribou, and get serious about tackling climate change.

      It's good that people are concerned about the recent animal die-offs, but if we really care about the future of wildlife, we need to start paying more attention to our own role in the extinction crisis—and urge our elected officials to take concrete steps to protect the biological richness with which our planet is blessed.

      Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Reason for concern

      Jan 12, 2011 at 2:14pm

      Dead animals showing up is very concerning especially when you don't know why. How do we stop it? Can we stop it? Are we next?
      It gets people thinking.
      Thinking is good.
      Dead animals isn't.
      Government action is.
      I'm with you all the way on this Suzuki it is a matter of life or death for some of these species and it also has affects on us in no simple terms.


      Jan 12, 2011 at 2:54pm

      Yeah, Reason, thanks for confirming that most of Suzuki's train-wreck rhetoric is designed to encourage more "government action".
      And thanks for confirming my suspicions about the majority of Straight readers, being that they think gov't action will save the day, a sort of overpaid and unaccountable Mighty Mouse.
      See you in the funny pages, sheeple...


      Jan 12, 2011 at 4:13pm

      welldoneson: The incoherent and thoroughly discredited climate change denial and anti-environmental blather that you spend all the day long spreading far and wide over the Internet is really boring and moronic. Is this your job, or are you just a nutbar?


      Jan 12, 2011 at 4:39pm

      We are next. Government or no government.


      Jan 12, 2011 at 4:44pm

      I very adamently choose personal extinction; because I became tired of protesting to the very brain dead bobble heads :)

      Ballard Mayor

      Jan 12, 2011 at 5:18pm

      I recently read about the dead redwing blackbirds on Arkansas among other areas. There was this articel about fracking in Arkansas shale for oil and gas exploration/extraction. Here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=22667

      My guess from the article is that fracking is releasing carcinogens and dangerous chemicals into the water of water loving birds and fish habitat. Also, in NY, PA and other areas underlain by the Marcellus Shale formation people are now able to light their kitchen and bathroom faucets on FIRE> from natural gas getting into their domestic water supply. I would tie Fracking and other oil exploration techniques like this to die-offs in Europe (Poland in particular), and other places where natural gas is plentiful in the US. There has got to be a link.

      virgil miner

      Jan 12, 2011 at 7:41pm

      don cherry will blame the cyclists! AGAIN!


      Jan 12, 2011 at 10:13pm

      How can I help, Froggy?

      Lisa Penney

      Jan 13, 2011 at 9:03am

      These birds (and other creatures) are the literal "canaries in the coal mine." It will be us next, we already have increased cancer rates and more and more immune disorders. It's time to look after the planet that sustains us so well. What we do to the planet, we do to ourselves.