The Sixth Mass Extinction of Animals and Plants on Planet Earth

The discovery of a relict colony of Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) in the Syrian steppe in 2002 prompted excitement within the whole international community of conservationists and birdwatchers. 

The last seven living descendants of the ibis depicted on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs: the incarnation of god Akh in charge of accompanying the souls of the dead to the Afterlife.

The conservation challenge was enormous, as it involved regenerating the oriental population of N. Bald Ibis [1] starting from seven individuals - and operating within the complex socio-economic and political context of the region. Not to mention that funds available internationally for the conservation of single animal species are minimal. 

But more fundamentally, the root causes fueling the sixth extinction of animals and plants on planet earth [2] - inexorably linked to humans, their socio-economic organization and their psyche (individual and collective) [3] - are extremely challenging to tackle - and to solve.

We rose to the challenge very much aware of the symbolic value of the Bald Ibis as a flagship species for the whole Syrian steppe ecosystem, which made it an important conservation opportunity and target to focus on.

We had to face since the beginning acute threats, some of which we knew about as specific of the Syrian steppe: uncontrolled hunting, run-away desertification, and unrestrained development of infrastructures. But additional ones were to be realized: as soon as we understood that the relict ibis colony was migratory and crossed at least another nine countries twice a year during their 3300-km long migration [4].
During the first three years, under UN management and supported by Italian development funds, we were able to work efficiently and effectively on the ground: we set up an Ibis Protected Area and a successful protection program during breeding time (14 juveniles successfully fledged in 3 years), we trained local community members (Government staff, local hunters and Bedouin pastoralists) to take care of breeding birds and to become the first rangers and eco-guides in the country - the idea of ecotourism within the Palmyra desert was introduced and successfully promoted for the first time, steering away energies from the locally popular practice of guiding gulf poachers.

In 2004 the UN project came to an unexpected end forcing us to appeal for aid to international conservation NGOs. This is when the problems started: the project ended up under the control of a new and little-resourced regional office representing an authoritative international conservation NGO [5].

Since then the project have been marked by a chronic lack of funds, weakened by individualisms and territorialism, and tragic improvisations at institutional level: all of this typically resulting in extenuating bureaucratic impasses for obtaining permits to work in the field. Perhaps the worst of all the problems was a total lack of awareness on the importance of making good use of available precious technical and scientific experience - not to mention personal passions - developed and emerged during the first years of successful project.

Despite the difficulties and under harsh working conditions, forcibly akin to the missionary and volunteer tradition, we achieved some remarkable miracles, thanks to the support of the Syrian First Lady, Mrs Asmaa Assad: for instance we unveiled the mystery of the ibis migratory route and of their wintering grounds in Ethiopia in 2006, key reconnaissance surveys were carried out there, threats to ibis survival outside Syria were eventually detected (the most severe being the uncontrolled hunting along western Saudi Arabia, dramatically evidenced in 2009), the methodology of supplementing Turkish captive-born ibises, from same genetic stock, into the wild colony was successfully tested in the field.
Unfortunately, all this was achieved too late compared with the constantly decreasing number of birds in the colony - the fatal constraint appears that of having neglected for too long the advice from a key expert on the need to ensure intensive protection of the breeding colony in Syria, based on external international assistance (for more details see Highs & Lows of NBI project).

We have then reached the current sad situation: now that all information needed to act, above all outside Syria, is available, together with the means and funds to act, paradoxically now the colony have just reached the lowest point ever: only three individuals are left. Not to mention that meanwhile a horrible civil war has erupted in Syria… Apparently we are just reaching the no-return point for this legendary oriental ibis population.

During the past 5 years, personally, I have felt like being aboard an ambulance carrying a fatally injured individual bond to the closest emergency room, with the sirens blasting, but stuck on a highway fatally jammed with traffic.

Present conservation case study seems to suggest that the battle to save remnant planet biodiversity heritage is too often fought with blunt (toy) weapons - in the specific case the battle was also plagued by a scarce motivation and support from international NGOs in charge.

The other crucial issue is that there is weak interest in the public opinion worldwide regarding the current tragic mass extinction of animals and plants, marking the current times - and even more the years to come. In fact many people understand how beautiful and important nature is - but they do not realize that nature is in desperate trouble at present.

And, tragically, few of us are aware, or are ready to admit, that it is our own consumerist lifestyle directly responsible and deeply implied with this mass extinction of wildlife from the planet. (There is certainly more interest for pet animals, with whom we have more familiarity). 

How could we hope that humans take interest in the current biocide of non-human life - shivering all around the globe - when we see that they are not even able to seriously face a major threat, such as the climate change, that could wipe away their whole civilization? In fact, a brain programmed to best functioning in the short-term and the typical denial attitude of humans (a very effective adaptation against anxiety) do not help much.

The sixth mass extinction of animals and plants seems therefore inescapably destined to proceed with increasing pace, in parallel to the growth of human world population and the expansion of the global market. 

Flying on an airliner these days gives the chance to take a look at the Earth surface from the right distance: it appears dotted with signs of human activity even in its most remote and intimate corners. Vital space for non-human life has been dramatically reduced and almost erased during the past 50-80 years.

We really should start making up our minds that we will have to face a world without nature and wilderness not so far away in the future: a world where nature will be an ornament, reduced and trivialized to urban parks and gardens, holding a very low biodiversity - mainly defined by the occurrence of commensalist and pest species happily adapted to a humanized world.
Are we ready to this depressing scenario?

And to take the responsibility for it?

"Each species is a small universe in its own, different from all the others due to its genes, anatomy, behavior, vital cycle, role in the ecosystem; a self-sustaining system, created in the course of an evolutionary history, complex beyond our imagination. Each species deserves that researchers devote their careers on it, and poets and historians celebrate it. Nothing even closely similar can be said about a proton or an hydrogen atom. In few words, Reverend, this is the strongest and most transcendent moral argument, provided by science in view of supporting the urgent need to save the Creation." 

E.O. WILSON (The Creation, 2006).

1. Last surviving individuals from the oriental migratory Northern Bald Ibis population have been separated for several centuries from those survived in Morocco, belonging to the western and resident population, counting a hundred individuals in total. The species as a whole (including both populations) is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN's Red List of Endangered Species since as early as 1994. The oriental population had been declared extinct already in 1989, with the end of the last known wild colony, the one that used to breed at Birecik in the southern Anatolia (Turkey). And in Syria the species was believed to have become extinct about 70 years ago.

2. The fifth mass extinction was the one that wiped away the dinosaurs 65 millions years ago.

3. Key root causes of the current wave of life mass extinction seem to be:
- the ambition to enrich and consume in an unlimited fashion, an ideology - without any grasp of the ecological and life conditions of the planet- originated in the western industrialized countries and then exported to developing countries
- the exponential and uncontrolled growth of human population both in the poorest and in the developing countries (and the associated dream to become one day rich consumers like in the western countries)
- the adaptation of the human brain to short-term decision-making (not differently than in all other animals)
- a clear tendency to deny reality when it is too difficult to deal with (an adaptation to control anxiety and fear). 

4. In order to unveil this ornithological mystery, it soon appeared necessary to trap and tag with satellite transmitters few ibises.
5. A quite improvised and inexperienced office - except than in the intention to exploit to the best the chance for media exposition that dealing with a very rare bird was offering. 

Dr Gianluca Serra
Apia, 8 October 2012