It’s a hostile world for mammals

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At least one in four of the Earth’s mammals is at risk of extinction, according to the biggest study ever undertaken on the future of mammals.

This horrifying discovery should spur governments to take action to reverse the trend.

While for years we have known that the long-term health of land and marine mammals was endangered, to learn that hundreds of species could disappear forever as a result of mankind’s actions is shocking.

For land mammals, the loss of habitat and the threat from hunters pose the greatest danger, said the study, based on findings by 1,700 experts in 130 countries.

Marine mammals are hard-pressed by chemical pollution, global warming and direct and indirect threats from fishing. Many large marine mammals die caught up in fishing nets that are set to catch other fish.

The study, led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, makes clear that large-scale conservation measures are urgently needed to keep a number of large mammals, such as polar bears and apes, from perilous declines.

Unfortunately, little seems to be known about how much land certain species require to flourish. Research in the U.S. has found that few existing natural reserves appear large enough to avoid the loss of at least some mammal species. One study estimated that a reserve of 5,000 square kilometres (or 500,000 hectares) would be the minimum required.

Last year, Canada announced it would conserve an area of 10 million hectares in the Northwest Territories. It was to be the largest land conservation initiative in the country’s history.

Quebec, too, is making progress in this field. Last week Premier Jean Charest announced that an additional one per cent of the province’s land, mainly in northern Quebec, has been set aside for nature reserves and parks; no mining, forestry, or Hydro projects will be allowed there.

There is more to do. In Canada and around the world, species conservation must become a priority. The problems of over-hunting and over-fishing have to be tackled as the economic and social issues they really are.

A better supply of food for starving villagers in Africa would do more to protect endangered mammals than any number of pious speeches.

There is no single answer to this pressing problem. Governments everywhere must look for the best local answers.