In 2019, the United Nations released a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warning of an “unprecedented” and “dangerous” decline of nature as extinction rates skyrocketed for species around the world.
In its report compiling information from 145 experts in 50 countries, IPBES warns, “The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.”
If Earth is facing the “sixth mass extinction” as many scientists believe, then who is at fault? Why is this severe decline in biodiversity happening, and how can we stop it?
Why Are Animals Becoming Extinct?
Most of the threats facing endangered animals are caused by humans. In 2020, researchers sounded the alarm for more than 500 species of vertebrates “on the brink of extinction” within the next 20 years. This extinction crisis is being driven first and foremost by human activity.
Poaching, wildlife trafficking, and hunting all put animals at risk, but there is an even more daunting threat to endangered species that is being ignored: animal agriculture. Deforestation, habitat loss, overfishing, global warming, and other issues linked to animal farming are putting wild species in danger of collapse.
As industrial animal farming continues to encroach on the natural world, more and more species are being put in harm’s way. Below is a list of some of the animals currently facing extinction and how humans, and more specifically animal agriculture, are involved.
Animals That Are Going Extinct
The primary threat to the critically endangered saola, discovered not long ago in 1992, is hunting, according to IUCN, which called the mammal especially vulnerable to hunting with dogs. In 2009, the IUCN reported that experts believe the “saola cannot be saved without intensified removal of poachers’ snares and reduction of hunting with dogs in key areas of the Annamite forests.”
North Atlantic Right Whale
One of the most endangered species of whale in the world, with fewer than 400 individuals remain, the North Atlantic Right Whale faces many dangers including high levels of ocean noise and warmer water, but “entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality,” writes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA estimates that over 85 percent of right whales have experienced being entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetime.
This species was once nearly wiped out by whaling. In fact, the right whale got its name because it was viewed as the “right whale” to hunt, being a slow swimmer and floating to the surface when killed. Today, the fishing and shipping industries are the North Atlantic Right Whale’s deadliest threats.
The gharial crocodile is “one of the world’s most endangered reptiles,” reports BBC, “clinging to survival in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.” Among the threats pushing the gharial to the brink are agriculture and aquaculture, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Farming and agriculture, mining, pollution, and general disturbances have all contributed towards the radical decline in Gharial numbers. Even livestock have contributed towards their decline as livestock such as water buffalo and cattle have destroyed and damaged riverbanks, sandbanks, and gharial nests by simply grazing,” writes EndangeredList.org.
The critically endangered kakapo parrot is unique among most of the species listed here because its threats are not deforestation or hunting by humans—yet sadly, only an estimated 116 of these birds are believed to remain. According to IUCN, the kakapo’s main threats are invasive species, genes, and diseases.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls the situation faced by the critically endangered Amur leopard “critical,” due to “extensive habitat loss and conflict with humans.” One of the drivers of habitat loss is the conversion of land for farming. Agriculture indirectly impacts the fate of this leopard, too, the WWF points out. “Agriculture and villages surround the forests where the leopards live. As a result, the forests are relatively accessible, making poaching a bigger problem than elsewhere.”
The world’s most endangered ocean mammal, the vaquita porpoise, is quickly vanishing and its decline is due to illegal fishing gear used to catch another critically endangered animal: the totoaba fish. World Animal Protection writes, “The vaquita’s proximity to extinction is due to illegal fishing activity and the resulting abandoned gillnets, known as ghost nets. Although an estimated 10 vaquitas are remaining, Mexico is considering reducing its protections for the porpoise.
Black Rhino and Northern White Rhino
Although the main threat to the Black rhino and other species of rhinoceros is largely agreed to be poaching of the animals for their horns, Save the Rhino calls habitat loss “a major threat to rhino populations.” The organization also writes, “Clearance of land for human settlement, agricultural production, and logging are constantly increasing. This is a major threat to all species as wildlife needs space to survive and thrive.”
In 2018, NPR reported that Borneo had lost 100,000 orangutans in 16 years. The critically endangered Bornean orangutan is already a vulnerable species because it is slow to reproduce. So, hunting represents a serious danger to the survival of the species, which is also losing its forest home to the palm oil industry and other agriculture.
Calling palm oil “the biggest threat to the future of orangutans,” the Orangutan Conservancy writes, “Palm oil is a globally traded agricultural commodity that is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods, from lipstick and packaged food to body lotion and biofuels. Demand for palm oil in the U.S.has tripled in the last five years, pushing palm oil cultivation deep into the rainforests and making this crop one of the key causes of global rainforest destruction.”
Cross River Gorilla
The Cross River Gorilla is critically endangered and was once believed to be extinct, according to the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss is among the threats the great ape is facing, along with hunting. Animal agriculture also presents a health risk for the Cross River Gorilla. The IUCN writes, “Human expansion is bringing gorillas closer to humans and livestock, with associated disease risks.”
Eastern Lowland Gorilla
Add the Eastern Lowland Gorilla to the many species facing a massive loss of habitat due to agriculture. The WWF writes, “As humans have moved from high-density regions in the East into the gorilla’s territory, they have destroyed and fragmented much of the animal’s forest habitat to make room for farming and livestock.
Western Lowland Gorilla
The Western Lowland Gorilla, on the other hand, “is the most numerous and widespread of all gorilla subspecies, according to WWF. Yet, the species faces threats from industries hunting and fishing of animals. “Unsustainable logging practices, commercial hunting and fishing, and oil and gas development threaten the western lowland gorilla across its range,” WWF writes.
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
The endangered hawksbill sea turtle faces one of its most formidable threats in the fishing industry, often falling victim to fishing gear such as gill nets. NOAA writes, “A primary threat to sea turtles is their unintended capture in fishing gear which can result in drowning or cause injuries that lead to death or debilitation (for example, swallowing hooks or flipper entanglement).”
Hawksbills, which face their eggs being harvested or face being killed for their meat or shells, are also put at risk by run-off from farms, including fertilizers.
Save the Rhino writes that the Javan rhino is left with two habitats “much too small for the long-term survival of the species,” which makes the loss of habitat from agriculture a severe danger. “Habitat destruction and loss for agriculture and development are further threats to the rhino populations,” writes the organization. The Javan rhino is critically endangered, with an estimated population of only around 60 animals.
Vancouver Island Marmot
The critically endangered Vancouver Island Marmot, with an estimated population of around 90, faces a threat in logging, according to IUCN. Nature Canada writes that while this marmot mainly faces predation by species such as wolves and golden eagles, human activity has made the animal’s situation more uncertain.
“While predation is natural, it is a threat due to the low population of marmots that has resulted from habitat loss and degradation. The natural sub-alpine meadows that these marmots rely upon have largely been affected by human activities, and the loss of those habitats has affected the marmots much more than other wildlife. Although forest clear-cutting forest actually creates suitable habitat for the Vancouver Island Marmot, it is short-lived. Once the forest regeneration process begins, the marmots are forced out to look for suitable treeless meadow habitats again.”
The Sumatran Elephant is facing a serious threat in agriculture. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) writes, “Sumatran elephants in the Leuser Ecosystem and associated nearby forest areas in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, are sadly severely threatened by the conversion of forests into farmland and palm oil plantations.”
As with many other species, the demand for its habitat for farming puts the Sumatran elephant close to and often in conflict with humans, and leads to poaching and poisoning of the critically endangered elephants, according to PTES.
The giant panda is considered vulnerable, with only a little more than 1,800 individuals remaining. Agriculture including livestock farming is among the threats to this well-known and loved species, according to IUCN, as well as the hunting and trapping of other species.
The Sumatran rainforests are home to the Sunda tiger, and this home is under threat from farming and other agriculture, as the tiger already faces decline due to poaching. “Habitat for the Sumatran tiger has been drastically reduced by clearing for agriculture (particularly oil palm), plantations, and settlement,” writes WWF. Being increasingly near to humans means that livestock or people are sometimes killed by tigers, leading villagers to target the big cats in response, WWF reports.
The Malayan tiger, like many other species, faces the clearing of its habitat for farming in addition to poaching. This habitat loss is due to demand not for meat, but palm oil and durian, a fruit.
In 2018, the Guardian reported, “Forests in the region of Raub in Malaysia, which has become a popular destination for Chinese and Singapore tourists on ‘durian tours’, are being burned and cleared to make way for plantations to grow the Musang King variety of the spiky but stinky fruit. The land is home to the Malayan tiger, which is considered ‘critically endangered’ with fewer than 300 left in the world.”
Yangtze Finless Porpoise
The critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise is losing the food it needs to survive to the fishing industry. WWF writes, “Overfishing is the main factor that contributes to the decrease in finless porpoises’ food supply, but pollution and ship movement are factors as well.”
A combination of human activities is pushing the porpoise to the brink. CNN reported in 2013, “Scientists estimate that about 800 million tons of wastewater is dumped into the Yangtze every year. Pollution, overfishing, and intensive development on the Yangtze have all combined to push the porpoise near extinction.”
Pinta Island Tortoise
The Pinta Island Tortoise, or giant tortoise, was thought to be extinct when Lonesome George, famous and believed to be the last of his species, died in the Galapagos. But in 2020, researchers found a female member of a subspecies and a partial relative of Lonesome George, according to NBC News.
The WWF lists among the threats to the giant tortoise the introduction of invasive species, “such as dogs and cats which prey on young tortoises, and cattle which compete for grazing vegetation.”
Brazilian Spix’s Macaw
The Brazilian Spix’s macaw is technically already considered extinct in the wild. Sadly, the species could not overcome the many threats it faced. In 2018, the lead author of a study confirming the macaw’s extinction said, “Our results confirm that there is a growing wave of extinctions sweeping across the continents, driven mainly by habitat loss and degradation from unsustainable agriculture and logging,” according to CNN.
Now considered extinct in the wild, the scimitar oryx faced threats from livestock farming and ranching as well as the hunting and trapping of other animals, according to IUCN. Some members of the species remain in captivity, and there have been attempts to reintroduce the oryx into the wild.
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
The southern rockhopper penguin is considered vulnerable, and along with invasive species and disease, fisheries are among the dangers it faces. Oceana writes, “Though they have not been hunted and their eggs have not been collected for some time, southern rockhopper penguin populations are decreasing. Some populations have decreased dramatically (more than 90 percent). Interactions with fisheries targeting other species and changes to Southern Ocean food webs (which may decrease their prey or increase their predators) are possible causes.”
The Socorro isopod is extinct in the wild, the IUCN naming its threats as having been intrusion and disturbance by humans for recreational activities as well as dams and water management in their habitat.
Salt Creek Tiger Beetle
Among the rarest insects in the world, “habitat loss associated with urbanization, stabilization of creek banks and farming have reduced the population,” leaving the Salt Creek tiger beetle “vulnerable to extinction,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In 2017, Smithsonian Magazine reported that the population of Western chimpanzees had declined by 80 percent in 25 years. Researchers found that among the threats faced by these apes are development and infrastructure, climate change, poaching, dams, and diseases.
Red-Crowned Roofed Turtle
The IUCN, which lists the red-crowned roofed turtle as critically endangered, names several human-caused threats to the species. In 2017, the IUCN wrote, “After numerous years of census surveys and monitoring of nesting sites, we established that the population of this turtle had declined severely. The crucial reason was human interference creating habitat loss due to sand mining, illegal fishing, and poaching of eggs and meat. To supplement their low incomes, communities have increased pressures on the ecosystem. Earlier in 2017, there was a seizure of 23 red-crowned roof turtles in the luggage of international traffickers, indicating an external threat to the species as well.”
How Many Animals Are Extinct?
Not only are many species on Earth today facing extinction, but many have already vanished. “The vast, vast majority of life that has existed is now extinct,” reports Discovery. “If you were to list out every species that has ever existed on Earth—from the tiniest mold spore to the largest mammal—biologists estimate that somewhere around 99 percent of those species would currently be extinct.”
What Animals Will Be Extinct by 2050?
While we can be sure of how many animals will be extinct by 2050, we can make an educated guess. According to the leading experts, “Recent studies estimate about eight million species on Earth, of which at least 15,000 are threatened with extinction. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact extinction rate because many endangered species have not been identified or studied yet,” Smithsonian writes.
The report continues: “Regardless, scientists agree that today’s extinction rate is hundreds, or even thousands, of times higher than the natural baseline rate.”
Some experts believe, though, that many species could be gone by the year 2050, being driven to the brink by our climate crisis. In 2004, researchers warned that more than 1 million species will be extinct by 2050. Professor Chris Thomas of Leeds University, lead researcher for the study said, “It was far, far worse than we thought, and what we have discovered may even be an underestimate.”
Thomas said, “It is possible to drastically reduce the output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and this research makes it imperative we do it as soon as possible. If we can stabilize the climate and even reverse the warming we could save these species, but we must start to act now,” reports The Guardian.
More recent research examines species that could vanish by 2070. A study by University of Arizona researchers, published in February 2020 and examining the rates of extinction caused by climate change, concluded that one-third of animal and plant species will be extinct within 50 years.
Discovery puts it this way: “Estimates vary, but somewhere between a few dozen to more than a hundred species go extinct every day. At that rate, it would only take a few tens of thousands of years to wipe out the same number of species as the third mass extinction. This time, however, we can’t point to a meteorite as the cause. We only have ourselves to blame.”
How Can You Help?
Research shows that animal agriculture is a major threat to many species facing extinction, from habitat loss to deforestation and more. Climate change, putting countless animals and ecosystems at risk, is also driven in part by animal agriculture, which causes an estimated 14.5 to 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate action is among the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development goals, and the intergovernmental organization writes that sustainable food systems can reduce their impact “by lowering emissions of critical climate-warming gases, including methane and carbon dioxide.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN reports that around 44 percent of livestock emissions are in the form of methane gas, and 27 percent in the form of carbon dioxide. So, with animal agriculture taking such a heavy toll in the climate crisis, is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint enough?
Many experts and environmental advocates say that dietary change is also needed, and individuals who are able to can take action by reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat. This is especially needed in the U.S., where meat consumption is growing at an alarming rate and around 99 percent of farmed animals are raised on industrial factory farms.
Animals are going extinct—but it’s not too late
Around the world, animals are facing extinction. For some, there may be time for us to change their fate. One step you can take today is to calculate your carbon footprint using this tool from the Nature Conservancy, then work to reduce it. The list above shows that many of the species that are now endangered are facing threats caused or exacerbated by animal agriculture, so reducing or eliminating your consumption of animal products is one positive way to get started.
Dr. Jane Goodall has said, “With language, we can ask, as can no other living being, those questions about who we are, and why we are here. And this highly developed intellect means, surely, that we have a responsibility toward the other life forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species.”
Just as we have the power to threaten other species, we have the power—and the responsibility—to save them.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also an editorial volunteer and contributing writer with Sentient Media