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Over the Brink: How the Current Mass Extinction Holds a Mirror to Mankind

The passing of Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, has been extensively covered in the media, but there are other, greater stakes at play.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Mar 26 2018

Last Monday saw a media blitz with the announcement that Sudan, a male Northern White Rhinoceros, had been euthanized. He was the last male of this particular subspecies. And the prospects of reviving the subspecies through IVF look to be facing a number of monetary and biological challenges.

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Among the outpouring of sadness on social media, a hashtag began to gain traction: #wedidthis. This pointed gesture brings focus to the role humans play in driving these kinds of extinctions.

In the Background No Longer

In her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a deep look at the relationship between humans and the environment. Our species’ insatiable drive to expand where we live, travel, and trade has elevated our quality of life, but at the expense of many other forms of life.

New environmental stresses created through human activity have increased what is known as the background extinction rate, i.e. the number of species that die out over a given period of time. The background extinction rate has always been there, since even subtle environmental changes can have large impacts on natural selection, but phenomena such as ocean acidification, global warming, and habitat destruction have yielded expected and unexpected consequences.

In January of this year, approximately 200,000 saiga antelope, another critically endangered species, died due to the fact that warmer temperatures altered the relationships in their microbiome.

And, the term background extinction rate may also clue us into why Sudan’s passing has rattled us. We don’t often miss the fish in deep parts of the ocean or frogs in rainforests we’ll never visit.

Rhinoceri, however, have been subjected to humanity’s worst and best impulses in very public ways. Poached for their horns, pushed out to make way for human settlements, leaned out as their food sources dry up, but also protected on reserves, targeted for captive breeding programs, and lavished with media attention. Rhinoceri often connote sturdiness and a certain surly toughness, so to watch a subspecies die out in real time forces us to grapple with their ultimate fragility.

And, that of the world’s other species, too.

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