As we ring in 2015, we may also be greeting a new year during which several species, including the African elephant, polar bear and white rhino, may go extinct.
According to a new study recently published in the journal Nature, 41 percent of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction, while 26 percent of mammal species and 13 percent of birds are similarly threatened.
Nature World News has previously reported of such a modern-day extinction event, with many plant and animal populations rapidly vanishing. And unlike past mass extinction events (IE- the one that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago) that were supposedly caused by natural disasters or asteroid strikes, this one is driven mostly by human actions.
"Habitat destruction, pollution or overfishing either kills off wild creatures and plants or leaves them badly weakened," Derek Tittensor, a marine ecologist at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, told The Guardian. "The trouble is that in coming decades, the additional threat of worsening climate change will become more and more pronounced and could then kill off these survivors."
African elephants, the continent's most iconic species, currently estimate around 400,000 animals, though some believe these numbers are being generous given the amount of illegal poaching that occurs. They once numbered in the millions, but now as the demand for their ivory - which is carved into ornate jewelry, trinkets and religious sculptures as a status symbol - increases, they are rapidly disappearing. At this rate they will become extinct by the year 2020.
According to a report in the journal PNAS, published back in August, the number of elephants killed has risen from 25 percent to between 60 and 70 percent over the last decade.
China, the world's largest importer of smuggled tusks, had promised to stamp out this cruel practice, however, just this November, during a trip to Tanzania, officials accompanying President Xi Jinping reportedly went on an ivory buying spree, perpetuating this ongoing elephant poaching.
"The ivory trade must be disrupted at all levels of criminality," Executive Director Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency, who was behind the report, said in a statement. "The entire prosecution chain needs to be systemically restructured, corruption rooted out and all stakeholders, including communities exploited by the criminal syndicates and those on the front lines of enforcement, given unequivocal support."
But elephants aren't the only African species threatened with extinction, brought on mostly by poaching. One of the last northern white rhinos in the world died last month, leaving only five remaining. It was a natural death, with Angalifu passing on at the ripe age of 44 years old, however this provides little comfort for the fact that this species is now one step closer to a seemingly inevitable extinction.
The northern white rhino is one of the most endangered sub-species on the planet, already believed to be extinct in the wild, as it has not been seen since 2005. The five that are left all live in captivity, with only four of that population remaining sexually active.
Like the African elephant, this species also finds itself the victim of excessive trophy hunting and poaching. More than 730 rhinos were killed as of September, making 2014 nearly the worst poaching year on record.
Although there is no scientific proof of its medicinal value, rhino horn is also used in traditional medicine, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It is sawed off of a dead rhino and eventually ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets, as a means to treat a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, and fevers.
"Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race," the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, which holds the last of the white rhinos, said in a statement.
It seems that there is a poaching pattern among the world's most beautiful and exotic creatures, for the Amur leopard is also largely hunted by humans. The demand for its spotted fur likely makes it the rarest and most endangered big cat on Earth.
Found along the border areas between the Russian Far East and northeast China, this species also faces habitat destruction and a loss of prey animals due to poaching. Today, the WWF says a mere 30 adult Amur leopards remain in the wild.
Luckily, this past summer a pair of Amur cubs were born in the UK's Twycross Zoo, raising hope of this species' recovery.
The largest sea turtle species and one of the most migratory, the leatherback turtle, has seriously declined in the last century as a result of intense egg collection and fisheries bycatch, National Geographic reports. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as vulnerable, with several sub-species considered critically endangered.
Growing up to seven feet (two meters) long and exceeding 2,000 pounds, leatherbacks are the only remaining living representatives of a group of reptiles that has existed on Earth for the last 100 million years. Losing this species would therefore be considered a great travesty.
It's no secret that climate change is increasing global temperatures and as a result causing Arctic ice where polar bears live to melt at unprecedented rates. A recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE details how the world's remaining 20,000 polar bears may disappear from the Earth by 2100 if climate change continues at its current rate.
With less ice to walk on, that's bad news for polar bears that depend on it to travel, hunt, and mate, and in some areas den.
"This paints a very depressing picture," researcher Andre Derocher of the University of Alberta told New Scientist.
As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet, according to the WWF. As the world's smallest population of mountain gorillas - a subspecies of the eastern gorilla - they are split between two places: the Virunga Mountains that border Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Unfortunately, poaching, destruction of habitat, disease and an encroaching human population has taken a toll on their numbers, with just around 880 individuals left struggling to survive.
Also known as Amur tigers, Siberian tigers are the world's largest cats. But accordint to the WWF, there are only up to about 450 of these majestic, but endangered animals left in the world. Worse, the Amur tiger's habitat is now restricted to two provinces in the Russian Far East and small plots along the border areas of China, and possibly North Korea.
And while it is a protected species, illegal logging and poaching are dwindling their numbers. Tiger farming is driving the demand for their pelts and meat on the black market.
"Things such as tiger bone wine represent a new asset class for wealthy investors - particularly for those who have become disillusioned with real-estate and stock markets," Judy Mills, author of the new book Blood of the Tiger, recently told Nature World News. "These investors are banking on extinction. If tigers disappear from the wild, those parts and products... that investment will become priceless."
Of all the species that have populated Earth at some time over the past 3.5 billion years, more than 95 percent have vanished. The Earth has previously gone through five mass extinction events (potentially 6), and with climate change and human influence being immediate threats; the aforementioned list of species and a host of others will likely vanish in the near future.
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