The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a “Red List” of known species threatened with extinction. There are 25,062 threatened wildlife species on the 2017 list, including approximately 25% of all mammals, 41% of amphibians and 13% of birds. Threatened species include many that were once regarded as abundant.

A separate consortium of the world’s leading environmental research organisations reported in 2012 that 85% of coral reefs are threatened in the Coral Triangle, a hotspot of biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

It is estimated that, over the course of the 20th century, human activity was responsible for a rate of species extinction of the order of 100 times the natural background rate. Often described as the “sixth great extinction”, this anthropogenic slaughter is compared with devastating events of geological history such as the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The impact of such unprecedented biodiversity loss is very uncertain. A series of studies published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre since 2009 examines a range of planetary boundaries which circumscribe stability of the natural world. One of the four measures that has already crossed its threshold is “biosphere integrity” (referring to the natural state of biodiversity in its varying forms).

These scientists believe that continued failure to respect planetary boundaries could drive earth systems into a permanently altered state, almost certainly with dire consequences for the human species.

The condition of the oceans represents another example of potential ecosystem boundaries. Research published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences warns that marine species may lack the ability to adapt to the pace of ocean acidification and warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Describing the impact of the consequent loss of biodiversity as “overall simplification of ecosystem structure”, the researchers predict that “the future simplification of our oceans has profound consequences for our current way of life, particularly for coastal populations and those that rely on oceans for food and trade.”

The UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 2014 agrees that “it is unlikely that ecosystems can be kept within safe ecological limits given current patterns of consumption.”


more Biodiversity briefings (updated May 2018)
The Anthropocene
Importance of Biodiversity
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Finance and Economics
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
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