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Human land use is going to threaten 1,700 species with extinction in the next half century

886 amphibians, 436 birds, and 376 mammals could lose so much habitat that they would be at much higher risk of extinction.

Human land use is going to threaten 1,700 species with extinction in the next half century
An endangered Nile Lechwe in captivity. [Photo: DannyIacob/iStock]

In 50 years, as cities, farms, and other development continues to sprawl into wildlife habitat around the world, 1,700 species will be at greater risk of extinction, says a new study from Yale ecologists.

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“We’re finding a really dire picture,” says Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and coauthor of the paper, published today in Nature Climate Change. “We were able to identify some of the hotspots of future biodiversity impact purely from expected land use changes, and we found thousands of species that we really need to worry about.”

The researchers looked at four different scenarios for human land use–based on population growth and economic changes–and then compared that to the geographic range of 19,400 species. Under a middle-of-the-road scenario, 886 amphibians, 436 birds, and 376 mammals would lose so much habitat that they would be at much higher risk of extinction.

In Africa, for example, a species of antelope called the Nile lechwe currently lives in parts of Sudan and Ethiopia. But in that corner of East Africa, open space is quickly transforming to relatively intensive agriculture, partly to supply markets in China or in Saudi Arabia, where investors have been buying up African farmland for several years. Local economic growth is also bringing more development into open space. The antelope, which is already endangered now, could see its range shrink by more than half. That’s a risk on top of those that animals face directly from climate change, such as increasing heat and drought.

[Screenshot: Map of Life]
On a new website called Map of Life, the researchers share detailed information about the species they studied. Maps powered by Google Earth Engine show what might happen to their habitat under various scenarios. “Anybody can look at this and assess and then use it in their decision-making regionally,” Jetz says. That includes both governments planning development and the companies whose supply chains drift into natural areas to grow crops like palm oil–for use in everything from shampoo to instant noodles–or cocoa farms driving deforestation in Africa to make chocolate. The maps show the impact on species at a kilometer-scale resolution. “That’s actually at the scale where management decisions that can happen,” he says. “I think that’s what is really powerful about this research.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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