Is humanity threatened with extinction

Species protection - Species extinction endanger humanity - can we still be saved?

In the southeast of Laos, Peter Jäger found what is probably the largest spider in the world: the Heteropoda maxima. Span: 30 centimeters, which corresponds to the diameter of a pizza. Shortly before, he had seen a specimen in a Paris museum, dead and preserved in a glass with alcohol. There were three habitats on the label. Nobody knew at that time whether they still existed in nature. So the arachnologist from the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt set off for Laos.

The film made during the expedition is a bit reminiscent of the “jungle camp”: Jäger's team roams the labyrinth of a limestone cave, it's dark and wet and the walls seem to be alive - thousands of arachnids scurry around there. They actually sit behind one of the ledges, probably the largest spiders in the world. The Frankfurt researcher succeeds in catching a specimen. "That was my greatest success so far," sums up Jäger, "that I was able to prove that the spider is still alive."

Lobbyist for the much disregarded but important arachnids in the concert of biodiversity: arachnologist Peter Jäger. Source: Peter Jäger

That is anything but a matter of course. Largely unnoticed by the public, so-called taxonomists describe up to 10,000 new species per year, plants, insects, arachnids and amphibians. To date, a total of around 1.8 million species have been recorded. First. Because science estimates that this is not even 10 percent of all existing animal and plant species. So there is still a lot to be done.

Only: It is becoming scarce for many animals and plants to be registered in the catalog of life. "Due to the destruction of their habitat, many species of spiders die out before we have discovered them," says Jäger. "This is a race against time."

And that doesn't just apply to spiders for a long time.

The greatest killer is man

One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades - if people don't fundamentally rethink, use the land differently, better protect the environment, curb climate change. The biggest killers are agriculture, fishing, climate change and pollution, in short: people.

At least that is how the United Nations Biodiversity Council sees it and is therefore sending a wake-up call around the world. The speed at which animal and plant species are becoming extinct is already between ten and a hundred times faster than the average over the past ten million years.

Experts speak of a mass extinction. There have been only five of these in the last 500 million years of the earth's history, most recently 66 million years ago when an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs. It is true that millions of new species have emerged - but this balance in nature is now undoing the destruction by humans.

On Monday the UN body with the awkward name "Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services" (IPBES) published a comprehensive report on the state of global biodiversity in Paris. For three years, around 150 experts from 50 countries have compiled and analyzed the knowledge from thousands of studies - similar to how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did its status reports on climate change.

"The evidence is indisputable: the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems has reached a level that threatens our well-being at least as much as human-induced climate change," says IPBES boss Robert Watson. Both factors have an impact not only on the environment, but also on development and economic issues. “We are globally eroding the very basis of our economies, livelihoods, food security and quality of life.” Only “far-reaching changes” could limit the damage to biodiversity.

Preparatory work for a protection agreement

But this can only be achieved with global networking. This is exactly what the study provides the scientific basis for: It is intended to help the governments of the 193 UN member states negotiate a framework agreement for the preservation of biological diversity and adopt it at the 2020 World Conservation Summit.

An excerpt from the global inventory:

About half of all coral reefs have disappeared since the late 19th century.

Since 1980, more than 200 million hectares of tropical rainforest have been cleared.

9 percent of all farm animal breeds are extinct.

85 percent of the wetlands have been destroyed.

The destruction of coastal areas such as mangrove forests endangers the livelihoods of up to 300 million people.

23 percent of the planet's land area is ecologically degraded and can no longer be used.

Pollinator insect death threatens food production valued at $ 235 billion to $ 577 billion annually.

Hardworking but endangered: bumblebees are excellent pollinators, but they are becoming fewer and fewer. A near-natural, flower-rich garden will help you. Source: dpaWolfgang Kumm / dpa

However, the report points to "uncertainties" in the number of lesser-known species, especially insects. Even if these are currently considered to be particularly threatened. Studies have shown that their number has already decreased by around 80 percent in Europe over the past three decades. The large insect mortality has also affected parts of Germany, as the Federal Environment Ministry warned in the summer of 2017.

If bees, flies and butterflies are absent, the food chain is in danger: Plants are no longer pollinated, birds and other animals lack food - and sooner or later people will also lack it. This is exactly what species protection is all about: Without the interaction of species, there would be no life on the planet. No plants and fungi that produce biomass from matter. No animals that feed on the animals that live thanks to these plants. And no living beings that replace dead living beings and then make new life possible. It is an eternal cycle that nature has created to survive over millions of years. "If there weren't any spiders, we would hardly have any air to breathe - because then our air would be full of insects," says spider researcher Jäger.

Life within natural limits

The regions around the Mekong and the Amazon, where much rainforest is being cleared, are considered to be the most biodiverse in the world. Sometimes hundreds of species are rediscovered there in a year - including bizarre creatures like flying frogs or blind snakes. In many cases, it is about endemic species, i.e. those that can only occur in a small distribution area worldwide.

"For us taxonomists, these are our babies," says Jäger. "When we come to an area where large forest areas have simply been cut down, we know that there are many extinct species in the fallen leaves." There are colleagues who no longer want to travel to Nepal or Madagascar - because the overexploitation there is too painful .

A victim of Indonesia's destructive timber industry: the Sumatran orangutan. Source: EPA

So how can we still save our animals and plants? The IPBES report concludes that only radical changes in human economies and consumer behavior, food production and global trade can help. Subsidies for agribusiness, animal husbandry and fishing, on the other hand, led to inefficiency and excessive consumption.

The organization Global Footprint has calculated that humanity is currently consuming far more food and other resources than could grow back within a year - as if they had 1.7 earths and not just one planet at their disposal. But: "We can still find our way back to economic activity within the natural limits of the earth," emphasizes Jörg-Andreas Krüger, nature conservation expert at the WWF environmental foundation.

Associations around the globe try to preserve the species with extensive projects. Animal rights activists criticize, however, that "unattractive" animals are disadvantaged. Spiders, maggots, rats and snakes, for example, are extremely useful animals - but hardly any attention is paid to them when it comes to protecting species, said psychology professor emeritus Hal Herzog from the University of Western Carolina in the USA of the dpa news agency. Species like the earthworm "looked more like primitive aliens than animals with which a human can identify". The earthworm is an important beneficial insect because it makes the soil fertile.

River dolphins have become rare in the Amazon: Since 2018, they have been listed on the Red List as a “highly endangered source: Shutterstock

Peter Jäger therefore does creative lobbying for his arachnids. His “Arachno Blog” on the Senckenberg Museum's Internet portal lists the species he has discovered so far - and the Frankfurt native also gives special names special names. The spiders Udo Lindenberg, Loriot and Richard von Weizsäcker have attracted a lot of attention.

The star, however, is the David Bowie spider. When Jäger named the Malaysian giant crab spider after the British singer, the news went around the world in no time. A special exhibition and an art project were dedicated to the heteropoda davidbowie. The researcher reached millions of people on the Internet - always accompanied by the news that habitats are threatened and destroyed by palm oil plantations. Jäger knows: "If the species were called Heteropoda flavescens, nobody would have listened to me."

By Sonja Fröhlich / RND