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As Vegetarian Giants Rapidly Disappear from Earth, 'Empty Landscape' Threatens

New study finds large herbivores under severe threat

The Asian or Asiatic elephant. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis/flickr/cc)

The Asian or Asiatic elephant. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis/flickr/cc)

The world's plant-eating giants—including hippopotamuses, elephants, rhinoceros, and gorillas—are being rapidly wiped from the Earth, warns a new scientific study, and if habitat loss and human hunting continue unabated, these iconic species will be replaced with an "empty landscape."

The study—Collapse of the World's Largest Herbivores—was published Friday in the journal Science Advances by a global team of wildlife ecologists headed by William Ripple, professor at Oregon State University.

According to the research, 60 percent of the largest herbivores on the planet already face the immediate threat of extinction.

Focusing on 74 species of plant-eating giants, the researchers came to the conclusion that "large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. We have progressed well beyond the empty forest to early views of the 'empty landscape' in desert, grassland, savanna, and forest ecosystems across much of planet Earth."

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Ripple said in a press statement, "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."

According to the study, mitigating climate change is essential to protecting plant-eating giants and all species on Earth: "By 2050, climate change has the potential to leave many of Earth’s species destined for extinction."

The research warns that further loss of large herbivores will have a ripple effect throughout ecosystems, including: "reduction in food for large carnivores such as lions and tigers; diminished seed dispersal for plants; more frequent and intense wildfires; slower cycling of nutrients from vegetation to the soil; changes in habitat for smaller animals including fish, birds and amphibians."

The study follows previous research which shows that large carnivores are also being wiped out at a rapid rate.

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