Global Action Required to Slow Impending Mass Extinction

by Stop Extinction staff

published at Jun 01, 2020

The critically endangered harlequin frog Atelopus varius from Costa Rica.  With increasing acceleration in animal extinctions, species with populations currently at 5,000 are projected to decline to 1,000 in no more than a few years.

Researchers call for immediate global action to slow impending mass extinction.


A disturbing update regarding predictions of mass extinction, published by researchers affiliated with Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, warns that the progression of human-triggered extinction events is far more advanced than previously estimated—and nearing critical mass.


An update to a study published in 2015 predicting a sixth mass extinction event, the paper was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Coauthored by Stanford biologist Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich and respected ecologist and conservationist Dr. Gerardo Ceballos (both major contributors to the 2015 study, which was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), the paper reveals a drastic acceleration of loss in populations of land-based vertebrates. 


Ehrlich, Ceballos, and other contributors have spent years analyzing the data on thousands of vertebrate species, and what they have discovered is not reassuring. Global extinction rates, they conclude, appear to be far higher than previously estimated and are increasing at an alarming rate. Moreover, the human impact on the global ecosystem is detrimental and drastic. Hundreds of species have already been eliminated, with many more pushed to the brink of extinction. 


The study cites the extinction of more than 543 species of land-based vertebrates, all wiped out over the course of the 20th century. Even more disturbing is the trend’s unprecedented rate of acceleration; the researchers predict that this number will double within the next 20 years if immediate changes in human behavior are not enacted.


This unchecked progression of species loss points to the occurrence of a sixth mass extinction, marking the first since an unknown event triggered the death of the dinosaurs (as well as more than half of all plant and animal life) more than 65 million years ago. What distinguishes the impending crisis from all previous widespread extinction events is that this one appears to be triggered largely by human activity. Its potential domino effect could soon subvert the earth’s ability to regenerate resources that provide vital sustenance and service to the entire human race.


Ceballos has spent years examining the human impact on rates of extinction. According to his calculations, the volume of species loss over the course of the 20th century would have occurred naturally, without human intervention—but rather than 100 years, it would have taken nearly 10,000. Obviously, humanity’s influence on the rate of species decline is directly at odds with our own best interests. As co-author Ehrlich puts it, “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.”


The consequences of species loss to the global ecosystem are complex, extensive, and widespread. The impact of human factors—such as global population growth, destruction of natural habitats, increasing environmental pollution, global climate change, and illegal poaching and trade of wildlife—has been catastrophic for thousands of species all over the world.


The loss of even one species removes a vital component from an ecosystem, leaving a gap that undermines the stability of the native environment. This can set the stage for cascading reactions, putting other species at higher risk of extinction. And if the loss of one species can trigger the decline and disappearance of additional species, clearly the loss of multiple species poses a direct threat to nature’s ability to maintain equilibrium. In the words of the publication’s authors, “Extinction breeds extinction.”


Compounding damage to the global ecosystem eventually affects all aspects of natural environmental function: climate stability, pollination, natural cycles such as seasons and tides, the renewal of fresh water sources, and even resilience in the face of natural disaster, pestilence, and disease. This cascading effect could ultimately threaten humanity’s very survival. 


The study’s authors call for immediate global action, in hopes that consolidated efforts, organized and enacted internationally, may slow the progression and stave off the worst effects, or at least buy us time. According to Ehrlich, “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions.”


The leading researchers agree: Immediate action is critical. 


Study coauthor Gerardo Ceballos states, “What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species. We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us are not irretrievably sabotaged.”



To access the full publication and supplemental materials, please visit PNAS, here.


Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies, Emeritus, and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, where he also directs the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. He has authored several books on the subject of mass extinction, including The Population Bomb. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Gerardo Ceballos serves on the faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology, and is an active member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences. His research on biodiversity, endemism, and global vertebrate extinction rates has been widely published. As founder of the organization Stop Extinction, he works to protect ecosystems that are under threat from human activity.

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Stop Extinction staff

Stop Extinction help address the current biological extinction crisis, by reducing the loss of wild animals and plants globally.