Mass extinction is a choice. A new study shows how we can dramatically reverse it

To prevent mass extinction, we need to protect 30% of Earth by 2030. Recent research indicates where to start

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 30, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

A small river meanders through the Amazon rainforest. The world's largest tropical rainforest is crisscrossed by thousands of rivers. (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A small river meanders through the Amazon rainforest. The world's largest tropical rainforest is crisscrossed by thousands of rivers. (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Extinction is a natural byproduct of life and evolution, but an alarming number of species have entered the dustbin of history thanks to human activity — which is anything but natural.

In a 2023 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists learned humans caused so many extinctions over the last 500 years that if our species had never existed, it would have taken 18,000 years for that same number of genera to have naturally vanished. This finding reinforced a conclusion by a 2021 study in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, which reported that the average predicted extinction rate for freshwater animals and plants today is three orders of magnitude higher than it was 66 million years ago, when an asteroid is believed to have killed the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.

"The solution will vary by country and even within countries."

Clearly we need to reverse this trend, but where do we even start? A new study in the journal Frontiers in Science gives a set of suggestions and reports that humanity could begin conserving many of the vanishing species at minimal cost and with using only roughly 164 megahectares (equal to 10,000 hectares or 38.6 square miles).

To learn this, the researchers used six layers of global biodiversity data to create an international map of protected conservation areas. They also engaged in a fractional land cover analysis, which involves using satellite images to locate potential habitats for rare and threatened species. In the process, the scientists created conservation imperatives to help countries and regions more effectively plan conservation at the local level. Through their own research, the scientists also identified 16,825 sites covering approximately 164 megahectares that would prevent all extinctions if adequately protected.

Even better, governments and private entities could easily join forces and conserve the suggested areas. The concept of conservation imperatives is not only achievable, in the long run, it is much cheaper than causing animals, plants and fungi to die en masse. It may not sound too severe when an animal goes extinct here or there, but all species are interconnected, so even the vanishing of less charismatic species like insects and plants (compared to megafauna like pandas and whales) can have huge impacts. These costs aren't just related to our health and wellbeing, but also tied to the economy.

"Multiple approaches will be required to meet long-term protection goals: providing rights and titles to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) conserving traditional lands, government designation of new protected areas on federal and state lands, and land purchase or long-term leasing of privately held lands," the study authors wrote.

Furthermore, restoring 30% of all degraded ecosystems by 2030 is one of many goals of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, an international agreement ratified by the United Nations in 2022. It has been called a "Paris Agreement for nature" and conservation imperatives can help achieve these goals. But an outstanding question remains: do we have the collective willpower to actually make this happen?

"It is in fact highly plausible to realize most, if not all, of the targets that we proposed provided there is political will," study co-author Carlos Peres, a professor of ecology at the University of East Anglia, told Salon. "We spend far more financial resources on environmentally perverse subsidies and distribution of wealth has never been more unequal, so I think we can leverage most of the resources required to set aside most of those conservation imperative sites as either conservation land purchases or leases." 

Fellow co-author Eric Dinerstein from the sustainability non-profit RESOLVE pointed out another financial advantage of the Conservation Imperatives idea: In many cases, it will not be necessary to outright purchase the lands in question.

"While we estimated the cost of land acquisition for the 16,825 sites, it will not be necessary or possible to acquire all these lands," Dinerstein said. "In a number of countries, it is not possible to purchase land as the parcels in question are under federal or state jurisdiction. In these cases, re-designation of the status of these lands to a more protected management regime, with little cost involved, can be an alternative to outright purchase. In other areas, these can be turned into community reserves. In about 17% of the sites, the land is the sovereign lands of IPLCs. Thus, in these situations, the best strategy is to empower and help finance IPLCs to protect these lands, where requested. So the solution will vary by country and even within countries."

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"We just need the political will of governments, support of the private sector, and empowerment of local communities to protect these wild rarities for future generations."

Despite these advantages, there are limitations to the current study. As the authors write, "the largest gap in our approach occurs where adding new parcels alone will not achieve the desired outcome of avoiding extinctions."

For instance, there are endangered species that continue to be vulnerable to unchecked poaching, as well as those in environments like the tropical archipelagos being wiped out by exotic invasive species. New technologies will need to better monitor endangered animal populations from potential poachers, and targeted eradication campaigns will need to be employed to prevent extinctions in areas confronting invasive species problems. Finally, there is the unpredictable variable of how the various industries which could lose profits from conservation will react to regulation efforts.

"We need to overlay the locations of these unprotected sites, the Conservation Imperatives, with where fossil fuel exploration or extraction is planned or underway, mining for energy metals and other extractive industries," Dinerstein said. "They have an important role to play in safeguarding these sites and the global community should put pressure on them to do so."

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Peres noted that there are also shortcomings in the project's financial projections.

"One area which was not taken into account include the implementation and management costs of those sites let's say on a [five] to 10 year time," Peres said. "Horizon yet this is extremely important as we know that purchasing conservation land is only the first step in creating a new protected area in most tropical countries."

Despite these challenges, Dinerstein is optimistic that the plan is "affordable and achievable." The current paper is intended to get the conversation started about how to conserve the planet's most endangered species, and mitigate the impact of the ongoing mass extinction, in an economically and politically feasible fashion.

"We just need the political will of governments, support of the private sector, and empowerment of local communities to protect these wild rarities for future generations," Dinerstein said.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Anthropocene Climate Change Conservation Global Warming Mass Extinction