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Explainer: Why rapid extinction of plant, animal species matters

SINGAPORE — Human activities are putting a million species worldwide at risk of extinction, threatening ecosystems that people around the world depend on for survival, a United Nations (UN) assessment has found.

Hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, in the Indian Ocean coral reef, Maldives.

Hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, in the Indian Ocean coral reef, Maldives.

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SINGAPORE — Human activities are putting a million species worldwide at risk of extinction, threatening ecosystems that people around the world depend on for survival, a United Nations (UN) assessment has found.

The 1,500-page report, compiled by more than a hundred international experts, is the most comprehensive assessment on biodiversity and ecosystems yet.

A summary of findings, released last Monday (May 6) in Paris, paints a bleak picture.

Global plant and animal species’ extinction is now “10 to hundreds of times” higher compared to that over the last 10 million years. Many of these extinctions will happen within decades, and that rate is set to climb, the report said.

At least 680 vertebrate species have already been driven to extinction by human action in the last 500 years. The loss of habitats, overconsumption and pollution will result in countless more facing a similar fate.

REPERCUSSIONS OF BIODIVERSITY LOSS

The extensive report illuminates the interconnectedness of nature with the economy, food security and health, said Nature Society Singapore’s president Shawn Lum.

“When you lose these species, you’re undermining the systems that support them and losing the ability of these systems to provide food,” said Dr Lum, who is also senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s Asian School of the Environment.

The links might not be clear at first, but many environmental crises have actually led to humanitarian crises, he added.

For example, academic reports have revealed that Somali piracy has largely been driven by a lack of economic opportunities for local fishermen due to illegal fishing by foreign vessels depleting the fish population.

Many organisms like fungi, maggots and houseflies also play an important role in the ecosystem to break down waste and dead creatures so that nutrients return to the system.

While “hardly the face of conservation”, these species are crucial to every ecosystem. The loss of these species would have vast implications on plants and animals higher up the food chain, a group of environmental studies undergraduates at the National University of Singapore (NUS) explained.

The UN report pointed out that 70 per cent of the world’s cancer drugs are natural and synthetic products inspired by nature. An argument for conservation is that the loss of biodiversity could also result in undiscovered species which could potentially have served an important role in medicine.

‘INTRINSIC VALUE’ OF SPECIES

Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency Louis Ng noted that the extinction of species on such a wide scale has severe implications on human beings.

However, he believes that people should also consider the “intrinsic value” that these species play, and to conserve them simply to retain their existence.

Said Mr Ng, who is also founder and chief executive of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society: “Human beings need animals for our survival, but the animals don’t need us.”

WHAT CAN INDIVIDUALS DO ABOUT IT?

Despite its warnings, the UN report noted that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if humans start now. To restore and conserve nature sustainably, “transformative” and “structural” changes are urgently required.

For NUS environmental science undergraduate Choo Rui Sheng, 24, before people recycle, reuse or reduce, he believes the most important step is to start by refusing.

“Refuse to stand for the culture of excess and waste and want. Refuse to buy from that shop that only serves food in disposable containers. And refuse to contribute to businesses that destroy our forests and our ecosystems,” he said.

Ms Olivia Choong, environmental activist and co-founder of non-profit Green Drinks Singapore, said that individuals can start by changing their consumption habits, such as incorporating a diet with less meat, and reducing food and electricity waste.

Mr Ng said that individuals can make their voices heard, citing the example of how, in 2012, calls by Singaporeans against the consumption of shark’s fin led to NTUC FairPrice pulling these products from its shelves.

“That was a beautiful thing”, to see that people’s voices can influence businesses and policies, said Mr Ng.

BUT IS CHANGING CONSUMPTION HABITS ENOUGH?

Due to the sheer scale of the problem, Ms Choong believes that this will take a “concerted effort by everyone, especially businesses, governments and members of the public”. She called for tougher legislation, adding that the United Kingdom and Ireland have already declared a “climate emergency”.

“At the core, I believe most of us are disconnected from nature, to other people and to an extent, ourselves,” Ms Choong said. “Until we see and empathise that our actions affect other people and nature, we will not change our behaviour.”

Added Dr Lum: “We’ve known (about the problem) all along, the warnings only get more stark. The solution is staring us in the face. Now it’s up to us humans to see if we want to follow through on them.”

Related topics

environment conservation biodiversity

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