Animals in Peril

Habitat destruction, hunting to extinction, a thriving illegal trade in threatened species, mass slaughter of wildlife

This page sets out the reasons why Animal Life is one of nine learning themes in a Life-Based Learning programme for 5- to 11-year-old children.

The importance of animals to life

Importance to the environment

Animals help maintain the Earth’s natural environments by predating upon plants and other animals, pollinating various plants, and exhaling carbon dioxide, which green plants require to live. Additionally, animals help to fertilize plants via their droppings, which provide nutrition for plants, and seed-dispersal tendencies, which help plants to disperse through habitats. Once they die, animals also serve as food for microorganisms and supplemental minerals for plants. What is the importance of animals to the environment?

Importance to humans

Animals are important to humans for:

  • Agriculture and commerce: dairy farming, meat production, horse racing, wild life parks, tourist attractions
  • Food: milk and meat
  • Shoes, clothes and household products: leather, pelts and animal hair
  • Medicines: drug manufacture and animal testing
  • Work and transport: elephants, camels, horses, donkeys and mules
  • Cultivation and manure: horses and bullocks
  • Educational studies: insects, amphibians, earthworms, rodents, reptiles
  • Pets as companions: cats, dogs, mice, gerbils, rabbits and so on

The problem

Habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation upsets ecosystems, leading to extinction and near extinction of animal species; animals on land and sea are being hunted to extinction; the illegal trade in wildlife has a massive impact on animal life; animals are becoming extinct and reaching near extinction at an increasing rate; and humans themselves are threatened through animal factory production and unmonitored live-animal open markets.

The evidence

Habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation

Key evidence is loss of animal habitats as a result of human activity. Examples here of habitat loss are deforestation, wetlands destruction, soil degradation and coral die-offs.

Species extinction and near extinction

Plummeting numbers of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish around the world are an urgent sign that nature needs life support. Our Living Planet Report 2018 shows population sizes of wildlife decreased by 60% globally between 1970 and 2014.  

For the last 20 years, scientists from ZSL, WWF and other organisations, have been monitoring changes in the populations of thousands of animal species around the world. Sadly, they’ve concluded that the variety of life on Earth and wildlife populations is disappearing fast.   

WWF: A warning sign from our planet: Nature needs life support

‘On land, wild animals are being hunted to extinction for bushmeat, ivory, or “medicinal” products. At sea, huge industrial fishing boats equipped with bottom-trawling or purse-seine nets clean out entire fish populations. {}

The IUCN’s Red List tracks loss of species

Currently there are more than 91,520 species on The IUCN Red List, and more than 25,820 are threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 33% of reef-building corals, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds. {}

The Living Planet Index similarly tracks species decline

The LPI, which measures trends in thousands of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe shows a decline of 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.

Populations of terrestrial species declined by 38 per cent between 1970 and 2012. The majority of Earth’s land area is now modified by humans, which has had a large impact on biodiversity.

The LPI for freshwater species shows the greatest decline, falling 81 per cent between 1970 and 2012. 

Marine species populations declined 36 per cent between 1970 and 2012.

World Wildlife Fund: The Living Planet Index

Poaching and wildlife trade

‘We’re facing a global poaching crisis, which is threatening to overturn decades of conservation successes. For many iconic animals like elephants, rhinos and tigers, the situation is critical.

The numbers are horrific: around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year, and there was over a 9,000% increase in rhino poaching in South Africa between 2007 and 2014.

But it’s not just an issue that affects wildlife. The illegal wildlife trade is a huge international organised crime – the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world, worth over an estimated £15 billion annually.’

World Wildlife Fund: Stopping the illegal wildlife trade

Illegal trade and killings

  • As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in maintaining marine biodiversity. Yet fins from up to 73 million sharks are used in shark fin soup each year. Consumption of this luxury dish has led to overfishing of many vulnerable shark species, as well as to the inhumane practice of finning.
  • Up to 33,000 elephants a year have been killed for their tusks. Every day across Africa poachers kill elephants to meet demand for ivory products in Asia, the USA and other markets. 
  • There are 7 species of sea turtles, 2 of which are critically endangered: hawksbill and kemp’s ridleys.
  • South Africa lost 1,028 rhinos to poachers in 2017
  • Only an estimated 3,800 tigers remain in the wild
  • Pangolins (anteaters) are the world’s most heavily-trafficked wild mammals. Up to 200,000 are estimated to be taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia
  • From 2010 to 2013 the number of slow-producing manta and mobula (devil) rays killed annually to supply the gill plate market tripled to 150,000
  • Despite conservation efforts by the Mexican government and conservation organizations, the vaquita (porpoise) population has fallen by 90% in the last five years to fewer than 30. The decline is largely a result of the animals drowning in illegal gillnets set to catch the critically endangered totoaba fish. 

Plastics killer

‘Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics.’ {}

Life on the move

Half of all life is on the move: A tally of more than 4,000 species from around the world shows that roughly half are on the move. The ones on land are moving an average of more than 10 miles per decade, while marine species are moving four times faster.’ {}

Disappearing coral reefs

Coral reefs cover 1% of the ocean floor but support about 25% of all marine creatures {}. A sustained 1°C rise in temperature is enough to cause bleaching. 12% have bleached with a predicted permanent loss of 4,600 square miles [12,000 square kilometres] of reef. {}

Dwindling fish stocks

The number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Overfishing is closely tied to bycatch—the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species. This, too, is a serious marine threat that causes the needless loss of billions of fish, along with hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and cetaceans.

World Wildlife Fund: Overfishing

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

The illegal commercial wildlife and wild meat trade heavily exploits wildlife and is depleting populations, putting many species squarely on a path toward extinction. But the dangers extend well beyond threats to biodiversity and the economic losses from their potential disappearance, impacting human health on a tremendous scale. The recent coronavirus outbreak has graphically demonstrated the risk of live animal markets and bushmeat trade in terms of introducing new diseases with the consequent enormous loss of human lives and economic impact.

WildAID: Illegal Wildlife Markets Pose Widespread Ecological, Health and Economic Risks

The answer

Click here to read about the work of WildAid.

There are many organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dedicated to improving and preserving the environment and animal wildlife.

‘The governments of many countries have ministries or agencies devoted to monitoring and protecting the environment. Non-governmental organisations are involved in environmental management, lobbying, advocacy, and/or conservation efforts.’ {}

Given the number of NGOs, it is remarkable how many of these are not part of the public consciousness. Well-known campaign organisations are Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, but in addition to these there are many more, as, for example, listed here.

Environmental organisations, by their very nature, claim successes as required by their funders. However, looking at the global evidence of continuing disruption to habitats and animal extinction, answers are at best piecemeal.

The obstacle

There are evidently many social and political obstacles to genuine protection of animal life. There is an education obstacle too.

There is a distinct lack of preparation of children to contribute to wildlife sustainability as adults.

Indeed, where children are not prepared to contribute positively as adults to the sustainability of all life, there is a strong argument that no real change will occur. Successive generations will take on their roles as adults without the basic conceptual and knowledge foundation required to make the changes required to live sustainably at local, national and international levels.

For example, science in the National Curriculum in England is not studied in the context of sustainability.

Science in the National Curriculum in England

In key stage 1 children learn to identify, name and describe the structure of a variety of common animals; they identify and name carnivores, herbivores and omnivores.

In key stage 2 children learn about things that are living, dead and things that have never been alive; identify most living things live in habitats and how these provide for the basic needs of different kinds of animals and plants, and how they depend on each other; identify and name a variety of plants and animals in their habitats; describe how animals obtain their food; and find out about the basic needs of animals for survival.

It is the difference between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science. The National Curriculum in England promotes ‘pure’ science — what can be described as a ‘study of’. The alternative is ‘applied’ science, where children learn not only that plants and animals need habitats with basic survival needs being met, but also that habitat destruction is widespread and animals are becoming extinct.

It is not good enough to separate out science from environmental studies with the elevation of science as a key core subject in the National Curriculum in England and environmental studies left way down the pecking order without room in the curriculum for its learning. The learning needs to be integrated.

The solution

The solution is to raise the profile of animal life education in primary schools.

A life-based curriculum for children aged 5 to 11 gives focus to animal life education as one of nine equal learning themes.

Presence + Focus + Attention = Results

At the core of an animal life theme is science through which children learn — as they currently do in the National Curriculum in England — all about animals. But in addition they:

  • explore the importance of animals to human life
  • learn about the threats to animal environments, wellbeing and survival
  • begin to acquire knowledge, attitudes and values about living sustainably
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