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Our planet is in the midst of a sixth major extinction, and the danger is real. Many large animal species are facing a high risk of extinction. This is usually thought to result from species traits that make them vulnerable, such as low reproductive rates. But, it wasn't until human impacts became a factor that large body sizes made mammals more vulnerable to extinction.
From a life-history standpoint, it makes some sense. If you kill a rabbit, you're going to feed your family for a night. If you can kill a large mammal, you're going to feed your village. This initial issue paired with the current epidemic of poaching, deforestation, and expansion of agriculture into wildlife areas, has caused the rate of extinction for the large mammal to surpass that of their smaller counterparts.
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Saving Earth's Large Mammals
How would the extinction of large mammals affect the world?
This extinction would have a significant effect on the world's ecosystems. Large mammals tend to be herbivores, devouring large quantities of vegetation and effectively transporting the associated nutrients around an ecosystem. If they continue to disappear, the remaining animals would not be able to fill these essential ecological roles.
In addition to their importance to ecosystems, animals such as tigers and elephants attract tourists to parts of the world that have few alternative sources of income, stimulating the economy and improving communities.
So, what can we do to end the trend of killing off species to make a short-term profit and damaging our global ecosystem?
A Mass Extinction
Humans have played a role in the mass extinction of large mammals before. North America used to be similar to Africa, with giant creatures like saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and mastodons roaming the land. Approximately 11,000 years ago a variety of animals went extinct across North America, and hunting by humans is thought to be the culprit. Most of the mammals that went extinct were those larger than 44 kg (about 100 pounds).
North America is now home to a relatively small number of large mammals, and many fear that Africa and Asian will be similarly affected by the current wave of extinctions. The scale of the recent size-biased extinction has surpassed that of any other on record within the last 66 million years, according to a study led by the University of New Mexico's Felisa Smith. Reports have shown that 59 percent of the largest carnivores and 60 percent of the largest herbivores have been classified as threatened with extinction. This situation is especially severe in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where the highest diversity of large mammals is found.
Biological traits such as low population density, slow life history, late weaning age and extended gestation in mammals above a certain size cause large mammals to be at a disadvantage when faced with human interference. Because of this, to save these species more complex conservation strategies considering their biology as well as external threats need to be used.
What’s Being Done to Save the Giants
Organizations are spearheading initiatives to prevent the loss of our world’s endangered large mammals.
Illegal hunting is a leading cause of death in large mammals. To stop this, governments are creating legislation making poaching and trading horns or tusks illegal. Another method for preventing illegal hunting is placing tracking devices on endangered animals to ensure their safety and monitoring their migratory patterns. People around the world can also make a difference in ending hunting by refusing to buy products that are produced through hunting.
To tackle the issue of habitat loss local communities are encouraged to act to preserve lands that are home to endangered wildlife. Non-profits are also working to connect lands with similar habitats and create pathways to allow migration of mammals to more habitable areas.
Though these are good solutions to external threats there is still much that needs to be done to confront internal biological issues facing the endangered species.
The Danger of Extinction is Real
Saving large mammals from extinction could be made more effective by focusing efforts on individual species as well as their habitats.
Scientists are looking to find new approaches to improve the success of large mammal conservation. They are finding ways to lessen biological issues causing increased loss of large mammal life. By breeding in captivity as well as tracking animals giving birth in the wild they can ensure their offspring reach maturity. Scientists are beginning to understand the mechanisms of each species biology and are able to tailor conservation programs dependent on size, to ensure they're more effective. But there is still much that needs to be learned to achieve the goal of pulling these species from extinction.
Help to Save the World’s Large Mammals
We must not allow these gentle giants to reach extinction. It is our responsibility to prevent their decline. Our global community must work through legislative advocacy and research to ensure a future that includes a diverse variety of megafauna.