The 74 largest terrestrial herbivores are on the verge of extinction, a new worrying study has found. All in all, over half of all large terrestrial herbivores are on the verge of extinction – and we’re to blame.

The Sumatran rhinoceros is the smallest of the rhino species. Image via Wikipedia.

They don’t eat other animals, and they’re some of the most peaceful creatures out there – but they’re facing a gruesome fate, vanishing from the Earth at startling rates. Researchers from the Oregon State University conducted the study in different regions of Asia and Africa and were surprised at just how barren the landscapes are, without many of the herbivores we’ve been used to seeing.
Authors were clear about this, we’re dealing with “empty landscapes” in some ecosystems “across much of the planet Earth” and we’re the reason why this is happening.  Professor William Ripple said:
”I expected that habitat change would be the main factor causing the endangerment of large herbivores. But surprisingly, the results show that the two main factors in herbivore declines are hunting by humans and habitat change. They are twin threats.”
The problem is not only that we are wiping out some of the planet’s more iconic and loved animals, but we are creating huge beaches in ecosystems – without the activity of these herbivores, entire ecosystems may collapse. As scientists have known for a long time but much of the general public is still unaware, protecting herbivores is important not just in itself, but because of the invaluable environmental services they provide.

Giraffe at the Nairobi Park. Image via Wikipedia.

“The big carnivores, like the charismatic big cats or wolves, face horrendous problems from direct persecution, over-hunting and habitat loss,” David Macdonald, an Oxford scholar and co-author, told the BBC, “but our new study adds another nail to their coffin — the empty larder. … It’s no use having habitat if there’s nothing left to eat in it.”
Indeed, threatening herbivores threatens all the animals above them in the food chain.
“Growing human populations, unsustainable hunting, high densities of livestock, and habitat loss have devastating consequences for large, long-live, slow-breeding, and, therefore, vulnerable herbivore species,” Ripple added, expressing his hopes that policymakers will step in and prevent further damage. “We hope this report increases appreciation for the importance of large herbivores in these ecosystems,” Ripple added in the release. “And we hope that policymakers take action to conserve these species.”

Kenyan ranger stands by as authorities burn down 15 tonnes of ivory. Image via South African Times Live.

The problem isn’t only humans killing animals for meat – organized crime and the endless hunt for animal body parts, such as elephant tusks and rhinocerous horns has reached unprecedented heights. Between 2002 and 2011 alone, the number of forest elephants in central Africa declined by 62 percent. Some 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012. And the western black rhinoceros in Africa was declared extinct in 2011.
“This slaughter is driven by the high retail price of rhinoceros horn, which exceeds, per unit weight, that of gold, diamonds, or cocaine,” according to the study.
The article ends on a motivational note, urging for action now. After all, it may be the last chance we get.
“Now is the time to act boldly,” the article concluded. “Saving the remaining threatened large herbivores will require concerted action,” the study concluded. “The world’s wealthier populations will need to provide the resources essential for ensuring the preservation of our global natural heritage of large herbivores. A sense of justice and development is essential to ensure that local populations can benefit fairly from large herbivore protection and thereby have a vested interest in it.”
The research was published in the latest edition of Science Advances.