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Iconic mammals are vanishing, and we have no time to grieve

Some of the world’s largest and most iconic mammal species are vanishing, and the explosive growth of the human population is to blame, according to a new study from Colorado State University. 

Chile’s national animal, the fascinating South Andean huemul, has become a rare sight. Wild yaks, which once ranged in huge numbers across Tibet, have been in a state of decline for decades. Large herds of zebras and wildebeest are dwindling in Africa. 

The researchers determined that the widespread loss of mammals has not been driven primarily by disease, deforestation, or the wildlife trade, but by rampant human population growth. 

The experts said that populations of threatened mammals will never again resemble what they looked like in the past, or even today. 

Study lead author Joel Berger said the time for action is now. He explained that reveling in past conservation achievements will not help to overcome future challenges. 

“We all must realize we’re members of a broad, beautiful and living planet, and we must find ways to subsist in this together or suffer more severe consequences than what we already see,” said Berger. 

“For many assemblages of animals, we are nearing a moment in time, when, like Humpty Dumpty, we will not be able to put things back together again.” 

The researchers analyzed the disruptions and changing roles of mammals in ecosystems all over the world. They also investigated how the nature of ecological interactions has changed and will continue to change.

The study was focused on huemul in Patagonia, takin in Bhutan, wild horses in deserts, and wolves and coyotes in North America. The team wanted to predict ecosystem shifts that will take place as large mammals are increasingly wiped out.

“Even in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, stray and feral dogs, a direct result of human intrusions, wreak havoc on wild and domestic species of high economic value and cultural importance,” said study co-author Tshewang Wangchuk, president of the Bhutan Foundation.

The human population jumped from fewer than 1.2 billion people in 1830 to more than 3.5 billion in 1970, and is currently approaching 8 billion. As a result, natural food chains and ecological functions have been permanently altered.

But, according to the study authors, hope is not lost. Protected areas all over the world are helping to protect endangered mammal species.

“It is not too late and we simply do not have the luxury of time to mourn what we have lost,” said Lambert.

“We need to use our ecological grief to implement action and honor the exceptional biodiversity that remains. This can be done by protecting large tracts of the planet’s wild places.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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