New study suggests 60 percent of large herbivores in danger of extinction

Elephants, hippos, great apes and tapirs — the animals frolicking in our childhood coloring and picture books, may soon be things of the past.

According to the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an alarming 60 percent of large herbivores are listed as threatened with extinction, while 58 percent have decreasing populations.

The IUCN Red List is a global, comprehensive survey system that evaluates the conservation status of different species. Governments, private sectors and NGOs use the Red List in their decision-making.

“It is the barometer of life, measuring many threats,” says Dr. Mattius Klum of the IUCN. . More than 70,000 species have been assessed, with a goal of doubling that number by the year 2020.

The list is rigorously supported and its message cannot be ignored: the world’s large herbivore populations are collapsing.

In a study published on May 1, 2015 in the journal “Science Advances,” researchers provided the first comprehensive assessment of the endangerment status and key threats to the world’s largest herbivores, the ecological consequences of their decline and the actions needed for their conservation.

Researchers classified herbivores and omnivores weighing 100 kg or more as large herbivores. Large herbivore species within the animal families of elephants, hippos, great apes and tapirs are currently threatened. The large herbivores of the families related to pigs, rhinos, horses and camels are highly endangered.

Most of the herbivores included in the study are located in Africa, but the area with the highest number of threatened large herbivores is Southeast Asia.

Africa, India, China, Latin America and Europe follow, in order of the number of large herbivore species represented respectively. About seven out of eight large herbivores are in developing countries and exposed to higher rates of human exploitation, hunting and domesticated livestock overtaking their habitats, to name a few common threats.

Overhunting and poaching have been rising trends as more roads make wildlands more accessible, while better technology makes hunting easier. In the context of developing nations, hunting can create the perfect storm for large herbivore population declines.

The IUCN study states, “Demand for wild meat is intensifying, supply is declining and protected area management budgets for protecting wildlife from overhunting are often inadequate, particularly in developing nations.” The resulting massive swathes of empty lands left behind caused scientists to dub this process the “empty forest” syndrome.

Livestock populations have tripled in developing countries between 1980 and 2002, competing with native animals for grazing, water and space, while introducing new diseases and greenhouse gas emissions.

Habitat loss is another significant threat, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, where forests are habitually cleared for agricultural land use. Often these clearings are on poor soil, driving farmers to clear more land after a few years.

Another study, by William J. Ripple of Oregon State University and his research team, estimates that “Southeast Asia could lose 75 percent of its original forests and nearly half of its biodiversity by the end of this century.” Unlike their smaller herbivore neighbors, the most threatened herbivore species need a large space to accommodate their large bodies.

Elephants, rhinos and other large herbivores contribute significantly to the ecosystems they call home, so much so that scientists have a special name for them: ecosystem engineers.

There are many examples of these creatures at work: elephants trample, forage and clear patches within their savannah homes (driving new plants to take root), compete with the other species and increase biodiversity. These engineers are also integral seed dispersers, able to consume, carry long-distance and “deliver” (defecate) more seeds than most other animals.

Large herbivores introduce a plethora of other benefits to their home ecosystems, serving as a fire control mechanisms within an area and providing shelter, food and indirect population control for their neighbors.

At the end of their lives, they continue to serve the ecosystem by feeding higher level predators and scavengers with their large body mass.

If their populations continue the current downhill trend, the fruits of these ecosystem engineers’ labor will be sorely missed and are likely to drastically change their ecosystems.

Researchers ended the study on a more hopeful note, suggesting steps to help combat these animals’ decline. IUCN researchers back up health experts’ suggestion to eat less meat — if not for health, to “help conserve herbivore populations by reducing demand for [livestock’s] rangeland forage, water and feed crops.”

Developing countries often aspire to enjoy the same tastes for meat as their neighbors in more developed countries. By reducing meat consumption now, more developed countries can serve as a model for a better and more sustainable food system.

In addition, countries can address poaching with a multifaceted approach involving community incentives, economic sustainability and enforcement initiatives.

Conservation funding, management and focus would also be integral to a country’s conservation efforts. Lastly, more research on these large herbivores would further strengthen the retaliation against this alarming decline in our large herbivore populations.