Most of our readers have likely heard of the recent study estimating that 21% of the world’s mammals are on the path to extinction. Due to lack of data, this number could be as high as 36%. About 40% of species are threatened specifically because of habitat loss due to human activities, according to the Red List of Threatened Species. This is alarming, to say the least. Not only because the loss of these species would be a catastrophe in its own right, but also because the loss of biodiversity would wreak havoc on the world’s remaining species. Although politics and economics and war dominate the headlines, there can be no doubt that animal protection is an urgent issue.
We covered the Red List of Threatened Species study in a recent database entry. In a nutshell, they examined 5,487 species of mammals and concluded that 1,141 are currently on the path toward complete disappearance. Moreover, the authors believe this estimate is actually low, due to lack of data, and that more mammalian species may be facing extinction (up to 36%). This is because the status of an additional 836 species cannot be determined. Billed as “the most comprehensive assessment of the world’s mammals,” the study should be a rallying cry not only for animal advocates, but for the global population as a whole.
According to the Red List, approximately 40% of mammals are threatened specifically due to human expansion into their habitats, which is especially important in tropical areas (those with highest diversity of land-based animals). Hunting for food or medicine is the second biggest threat to wild animal species. For marine animals, bycatch (the unintentional but largely unavoidable entanglement of non-target species in commercial fishing nets) is the biggest factor behind current declines, affecting an estimated 79% of marine animals.
The concept of “urgency” is a challenging one for animal advocates. People are most concerned about situations and issues that they perceive as urgent, which typically do not include animal issues. This is something that HRC has identified many times in our research, including focus groups, interviews, and surveys. People may think that a local abuse situation like animal hoarding or dog fighting is urgent, but the broader implications of animal rights are typically not considered a pressing issue. On one end of the extreme, some people view our uses and abuses of animals as “inevitable.” But most people just don’t think that animal issues demand the same urgency compared with the most pressing issues of the day.
One of the key challenges of animal advocates is to “put animal issues on the map,” as I’ve written before. To do so, we need to create a sense of urgency without coming across as extreme or lacking credibility. The loss of a third of the world’s mammalian species should undoubtedly be considered urgent by a majority of people, but the real challenge for advocates is figuring out how to make people understand that the plight of animals in laboratories and on farms and in shelters is also urgent. The case can be made that loss of an entire species is more alarming than the loss of any individual member of a species, but the immense amount of suffering experienced by animals requires urgent and immediate action.
In my view, humanity’s ubiquitous use and abuse of non-human animals is clearly the greatest moral atrocity ever committed. Literally hundreds of billions of animals die every year at human hands, and most of those animals suffer terribly before being killed. Animal advocates must be both unapologetic and resolute when articulating the magnitude of animal suffering to other people. However, we must also recognize that the urgency of animal protection is not shared by most of our fellow humans, and that we must make the case against animal suffering if we expect them to share our outrage. Loss of species is one place to start, but the argument must also extend to the animals that people breed, raise, and slaughter for everyday purposes.