World at risk of ’empty landscape’ as biggest herbivores face extinction

By Hannah Osborne | May 1, 2015

The threatened Common Hippopotamus (Kristopher Everatt)

The planet is at risk of becoming an “empty landscape”, with the world’s biggest herbivore populations rapidly declining.

Researchers looked at 74 species of the world’s biggest herbivores (weighing over 100kg) and analysed data such as endangerment status, key threats and ecological consequences of population declines.

Findings paint a bleak picture, with Africa and parts of Asia particularly at risk of becoming barren of these species, including rhinoceroses, zebras, camels, elephants and hippopotamuses.

The international team of scientists, led by William Ripple from Oregon State University, published its findings in the journal Science Advances.

He told IBTimes UK the threat and extinction risk varies by species and that we do not fully understand all of the functions these animals provide: “But we’re learning and each of these species likely has an important role in the ecosystem,” he said.

“One obvious implication is that the loss or decline of these large herbivores directly impacts the large predators in that they rely on these animals for food. It could easily spiral. The cascading effect would be increased – the loss of livestock – that would be the most obvious one.”

Other ricochet effects include diminished seed dispersal for plants, more frequent and intense wildfires, slower nutrient cycles from vegetation to the soil and habitat changes for smaller animals.

Findings showed the two main drivers of herbivore decline are hunting by humans and habitat changes, and that the areas covered span far and wide. Ripple said: “Our analysis shows that it goes well beyond forest landscapes, to savannahs and grasslands and deserts. So we coin a new term: the empty landscape.”

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