As I sat watching the final episode of BBC One’s latest natural history series, Seven Worlds, One Planet, I felt my jaw drop in utter shock and disbelief. As a devout Attenborough fan, this wasn’t the first show of its kind I’d watched, but for some reason, this one really hit home. The changes to the natural world are happening so rapidly and with such devastating consequences, it’s almost hard to keep up.
It’s becoming increasingly likely that future generations could well be living in a world where tigers, gorillas, orangutans and rhinos, are creatures from textbooks. Animals children learn about in school but will never get to see for themselves – because there are simply none left. The most sickening thought of all, is that they’ll all be extinct for one reason – us.
Approximately 30 per cent of the world’s land area is covered by forest, and these areas are vital in ensuring both animals and humans can thrive. Forests provide 300 million people worldwide with homes, 53 million with work, and billions of us with the air we breathe, clean water, food, shelter and even medicines. What’s more, eighty per cent of the world’s land-based animals rely on forests to survive.
Vast swathes of land covered in plants that literally give us life, while soaking up carbon dioxide and mitigating the effects of climate change. It sounds too good to be true, places that should be protected at all costs, right? The reality is that world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, in fact it’s thought an area the size of a football field is lost every second as a result of deforestation.
The question I keep coming back to is, why? We need forests to be living and breathing – to help us and millions of animals to do the same, so why are we destroying them? We all saw the shocking news coverage of the Amazon alight over the summer – with the highest number of fires recorded since records began in 2003. Home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and the producer of 20% of our planet’s oxygen, it’s mind boggling to think we have the right to destroy something so valuable to the Earth’s very existence.
In the Amazon and across the world, the leading cause of deforestation is agriculture, but it’s not just the land used to physically farm and raise livestock, it’s also the enormous amount of space needed to grow crops to feed the livestock, so that they can eventually feed humans. In Brazil alone, there are approximately 200 million cattle in the Amazon there – supplying one quarter of the global meat market and responsible for 80% of the forest’s destruction.
Other causes for deforestation globally are the increase in demand for products such as palm oil, new infrastructure activities including new roads and buildings, as well as mining, poor forest management and unsustainable logging. In total, it’s thought 64 million acres of forest are destroyed every year, to make way for agriculture and industry.
With increasingly unpredictable rainfall, soaring temperatures and extreme weather effecting wildlife all over the world, the human impact of climate change cannot be ignored any longer.
If we consider the Earth’s atmosphere as the glass surrounding of a greenhouse, we can better understand the ‘greenhouse effect’ – something scientists have known about since the 19thcentury. The atmosphere allows the sun’s light to shine in, but prevents the heat generated from its energy, from escaping. It’s this natural ‘greenhouse effect’ that keeps the planet’s climate habitable. Without it, temperatures would be much colder and many species (including humans) would struggle to survive.
We’ve heard a lot about greenhouse gasses on the news in recent years, but they’re also nothing new. Levels have gone up and down over thousands of years and - along with temperatures - have remained relatively consistent over the last few thousand years. That was however, until about 150 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels, releasing large amounts of CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.
CO2 is a result from a natural process like burning coal, oil and gas. It is also released into the atmosphere when trees are killed through deforestation. But it’s not just CO2 causing all our problems, methane (yes, the gas that’s released every time a cow burps or passes wind) is approximately 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in heating up the earth. Scientists estimate about 60 per cent of the methane in the atmosphere comes from human sources – in other words, it didn’t exist before we did.
Levels of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere are higher now than at any other time in the last 800,000 years, causing the planet to warm at an alarming rate.
Scientists warn that we are at the start of a mass extinction – with the rate of animal loss at its fastest since the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Through human activity, millions of species worldwide are facing the loss of their habitats – being driven into urban areas to find food, putting themselves and humans at risk. They’re having to withstand temperatures and weather conditions far beyond the threshold of what they can endure – and so often, many are simply unable to survive as a result.
With increased temperatures and greater acidity in our oceans – caused through the absorption of CO2 – marine wildlife is also under great stress, including the many coral reefs which species rely on for their habitats. It’s believed by some researchers the Great Barrier Reef in Australia could disappear by 2050 if action is not taken now.
While it can seem all doom and gloom, there is still hope for our planet – and even the most vulnerable species.
There are organisations out there with big ambitions, determined to turn things around for some of the world’s most endangered animals. The WWF aims to double the world’s tiger population by 2022, and there are positive indications that the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to recover an endangered species, is on track.
With intensive conservation work, including the introduction of park guards, veterinary care, and community support, the mountain gorilla population in Africa has increased to more than 1,000 for the first time since records began.
Here at Outlook, animal conservation and the welfare of animals is a huge priority for us, and as such we work with many organisations across the world – from the Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Borneo, to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana.
There are easy steps you can take to help reduce your impact on climate change and help others to do the same:
The easiest of them all – if you’re not using it, switch it off. That includes the lights, the water and the heating. Wrap up, use less.
Even if you recycled just half of all your household waste, you’d be saving nearly 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the Earth’s atmosphere each year. What’s more, if you think about what you’re buying in the first place - the amount of packaging, if it’s brand new or second hand - you can further reduce waste and your impact on the environment.
If you can eat less red meat and seek out dairy alternatives, there will be fewer cows needed, and as a result – less methane created. There are so many meat and milk alternatives on the market, it’s easy to make a few easy swaps. And if you just can’t part with your steak, buy local and support farmers who are taking action themselves by using technology to convert the methane produced into ‘free’ electricity.
Trees are essential to life on Earth, providing us with the very air we breathe. Trees store carbon dioxide and release clean oxygen, so it’s important we combat the mass deforestation taking place by planting more! If you don’t have land of your own, there are loads of charities and initiatives out there that you can support – from banks to toilet roll companies – even search engines dedicated to planting a tree with every search.
Get involved with animal conservation groups both at home and internationally. It could be as straight forward as setting up a monthly donation or taking a trip to help with the vital work these organisations do.
“This is a crucial moment in time, the decisions we take now will influence the lives of animals, humanity and indeed all life on Earth” – David Attenborough, 2019.