As things stand, it has been reported that more than a million individual species are currently on the brink of extinction. The growing human population is driving an extinction event as our collective activities continue to ravage habitats, pollute the environment and compound significant (negative) environmental and climatic changes.
Each year, the United Nations gather in an attempt to broker yet another 'COP' (Conference of the Parties) deal with the aim of protecting the natural world. Scientists continue to urge the global community to honour their COP pledges, citing an increasingly dire set of consequences should warnings be brushed aside.
When we explore the finer details, it becomes clear that when an entire species is lost it isn't simply just depressing. Such losses represent a massive stress on the natural world with its delicate web of ecosystems and their extraordinary plethora of ingenious symbiotic networks.
When a species becomes extinct, a whole set of characteristics vanishes along with it. That means genes, certain behaviours, habitual activities and unique interactions with other animal and plant life (which evolved over countless millennia). All of that is suddenly and irrevocably removed from the mix. This is almost like removing a cog from an engine and then expecting that engine to continue to perform flawlessly.
The consequences of any extinction is clearly catastrophic because each species plays such an important role within any given ecosystem. That role might be pollinating certain plants, it could be adding nutrients into soil structures thus keeping an entire rainforest fertile and healthy so other species can also thrive beneath its protective canopy. Basically every single species' function is crucial to the wellbeing of entire ecosystems. Any loss can lead to the transformation of an entire landscape and that is what eventually affects all of us. It's therefore no exaggeration when scientists point out that losing lots of species could lead entire systems to collapse. In my book, one million species at risk is a LOT!
Extinction events, sadly, aren't an altogether contemporary phenomenon. Hundreds of unique animals have already vanished. In recent times, humans have been to blame by developing overly efficient fishing or hunting practices which put certain species under intolerable pressure. In South Africa, for instance, the Quagga (a type of zebra) was hunted to extinction during the late 19th century. Of course, we all know about the plight of poor old Dodo, the fabled flightless bird which was wiped out on the island of Mauritius during the late 1600s. Sadly, the Dodo has become a sort of extinction poster boy - an icon of humanity's more sinister side.
More recent extinctions have allowed people to interact with some species' last known individual specimens (known as "endlings"). This has been heartbreaking to observe because we all know that these so-called endlings represent the final chapter in what was an entire evolutionary story. So, you see, any extinction goes far beyond tragedy, it's actually calamitous.
In 2008, a report revealed that no fewer than 22% of Portugal’s native species are threatened with extinction. Represented in this 22% figure is 12% of Portugal's 91 native mammals. If people choose to look upon these figures as mere statistics, Portugal risks losing large swathes of its native plants and animal species forever. So, the extensive problems of the natural world are much closer to home than we might care to believe.
Here is a brief list of just a few of Portugal's endangered animals:
· Eurasian otter
· Bechstein's bat
· Garden dormouse
· Geoffroy's bat
· Harbor porpoise
· Azores Noctule bat
· Fin whale
· Portuguese Imperial Eagle
· The Pyrenean Desman
· The Iberian lynx
The Iberian Lynx is one of Portugal's rarest creatures. As the name suggests, this species is a native of the Iberian Peninsula and can be found in areas of dense shrubbery, forests as well as on grasslands and meadows (near rivers). These cats are solitary creatures with short tails, large pointed ears and long legs which give them the astonishing ability to jump over six feet vertically! An adult Lynx can weigh in at a hefty 20-25 pounds which is well over twice the weight of an adult domestic cat. The Lynx's colour varies throughout the year in order to maintain optimum camouflage. They usually appear a reddish yellow or a grayish brown colour.
Then there's the equally magnificent Portuguese Imperial Eagle which also happens to be one of Europe’s most endangered birds. The eagle is at risk mainly due to extensive habitat loss caused by human activities such as construction projects and gradual deforestation. These, amidst other human-related environmental stresses, have forced these magnificent raptors to seek alternative locations in which they can live and breed.
The Pyrenean Desman is another rare animal located right here in Portugal. This creature has a long nose that looks a bit like an anteater’s snout. This snout is used to search for food such as mollusks, worms, larvae, crustaceans and so forth. The Desman is a small mammal which Iives around lakeshores but has also made its home around farms and settlements where food is easily accessible.
Portugal’s unique geographic location means that there are many North African as well as European species living here. Portugal's most threatened fauna are often shy creatures living in forests, wetlands and rocky regions.
In order to protect our planet, it's becoming increasingly clear that we must first save the plants and animals. Sustainability and environmental protection is a hot topic at the moment; consequently, more and more people are trying to adopt eco-friendly lifestyles. Naturally, we all want to have a positive impact on our world but is our growing human population really sustainable in the long term?
All we can do as individuals are small things such as trying to travel more sustainably, reduce our usage of harmful plastics and even choose sustainably produced clothing.
The other massive issue is large-scale food wastage. A staggering 33% to 50% of our food is wasted. Apart from costing us all lots of money, we should bear in mind that all our discarded food has to be produced, stored and transported. Even when we throw it away, the processes involved lead to the production of even more harmful greenhouse gases. Curbing food wastage means altering our shopping habits, planning our meals and therefore buying fewer items on impulse. The amount of food supermarkets throw away is staggering, meaning that the whole system is deeply flawed.
My guess is that we must all humbly do the best we can to protect the natural world. We've long understood the intricate web of life that sustains nature but may not have always been too mindful about how this web sustains all of us too. Hard as it might sometimes be to imagine, we too are also part of nature's web. Therefore, we too are equally vulnerable. If we're not careful we might one day stand accused of being the inane architects of our own demise. Quite frankly, prevention is better than cure.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.