The real threats to species

Anyone working in conservation science today will tell you that climate change is a central theme in a lot of our work, and for good reason. In almost all cases, modelling predicts that species will be negatively affected, sometimes catastrophically so. The Great Barrier Reef is hurtling towards being listed as World Heritage in Danger, thanks to two massive coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (amongst other thing) brought on by warming sea temperatures. Polar bears and ringed seals are losing their Arctic home, and the Bramble Cay Melomys has already gone the way of the dodo.

But what if I told you that exploitation – not climate change – was actually the greatest threat to most species worldwide? That’s what a study published in Nature last year discovered.

This study looked at the threats faced by almost 9,000 species that have been comprehensively assessed by scientists for listing on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. What they found surprised even me.

Overexploitation was the largest global threat, affecting 72% of species. This threat includes unsustainable logging, hunting, fishing and plant gathering, whether for commercial, recreational or subsistence purposes.

Second to that was agriculture – 62% of species assessed were threatened by expansion and intensification of agriculture. And get this: Crop farming was by far the most threatening form of agriculture. While the climate change debates rage on about livestock farming (especially beef), cropping land is having the most serious impact on species.

After that came urban development, then invasive species and disease, pollution and ecosystem modification.

Seventh on the list, affecting 19% of species, was climate change.

The three threats affecting fewer species than climate change were human disturbance, transport (e.g. road building) and energy production, such as mining.

Surprised? Me too.

This isn’t meant to downplay the seriousness of climate change. Not at all. The authors state:

“Climate change will become an increasingly dominant problem in the biodiversity crisis. But human development and population growth mean that the impacts of overexploitation and agricultural expansion will also increase”

Importantly, they found that over 80% of species face more than one major threat. In the future, climate change will probably become a more serious threat for more species.

What they’re saying is that, while we progress climate action, we must also ensure that the more immediate threats to wildlife are addressed. We have to prioritize our actions where they’re needed most, and for most threatened species right now, that’s unsustainable exploitation and agriculture.

What coral bleaching looks like. Maldives, 2016.