Skip to content

Accelerating extinctions

Elizabeth DeBruin / iStock
I Stock 1414261699}
Icon for Icon 1dodo

Throughout Earth's history, many species have gone extinct. Extinction is a part of the evolutionary process that has shaped life on the planet, but often proceeds slowly over thousands to millions of years. Unfortunately, through intense human activities such as land use change, overexploitation, climate change, pollution and introduction of invasive species, we have put our foot on the extinction accelerator. The current rate of species extinction is at least tends to hundreds of times higher than usual due to human influence, with drastic consequences for all life on our planet.

Ecosystems are built on intricate networks of connections between different species. As such, the real risk of extinction may be much greater than we realize, especially as many species are highly interconnected and form strong, unique bonds with other species. The disappearance of such an organism has ripple effects throughout the ecosystem and could trigger a “co-extinction” — the extinction of dependent species — setting off a chain reaction of extinctions that could end in the ecosystem’s collapse. In short, extinction breeds extinction.

Key Numbers


vertebrate species extinct in the last 100 years

32 million

hectares of primary or recovering forest lost between 2010 and 2015

1 million

plant and animal species threatened with extinction, many of them within decades

Thus, with almost 1 million plant and animal species currently threatened with extinction, it is not “just” about the loss of a single species but of countless others. For example, the gopher tortoise, which is threatened with extinction, digs burrows that are used by more than 350 other species for breeding, feeding, protection from predators and avoiding extreme temperatures. The critically endangered dusky gopher frog, which helps control insect populations and prevent pest outbreaks in longleaf pine forest ponds, relies extensively on these burrows for survival. If the gopher tortoise goes extinct, the dusky gopher frog will likely follow, affecting the entire forest ecosystem. Similarly, predators like sea otters, a locally endangered species due to overhunting, help balance Pacific kelp forests by feeding on sea urchins. Without otters, the urchins overgraze the kelp, creating "urchin barrens" or patches where the kelp forest is invaded and essentially wiped out. The shelter, food and protection provided by kelp would be lost for over 1,000 species , including sharks, turtles, seals, whales, birds, fish and more, with a cascade of extinctions likely to follow.

In the vast web of life, the extinction of one species cuts multiple threads that hold the world together. As these links become fewer and thinner, the reduced resilience of ecosystems can lead to a state of instability, in which even minor changes can cause a catastrophic collapse. Our current approach to conservation is often single-species focused, ignoring the intricate interrelationships among species and the fragility of dependent species and ecosystems. As a result, the true impact of extinction on our critical life-support systems is vastly underestimated. We must intensify efforts to conserve not only target species, but also dependent species. We must act quickly and decisively to protect and conserve ecosystems and the biodiversity they support. Nature should also be reintegrated into our culture, to understand that its value goes beyond our desire for money and development. This approach will maintain the resilience of ecosystems and ensure the survival of our planet's living webs.

Tipping point: The extinction of a strongly connected species in a given ecosystem can trigger cascading extinctions of dependent species, which can eventually lead to ecosystem collapse.

Frank Cone / Pexels
Pexels frank cone 12713579 copy}

Key Interconnections

Shared Root Cause


Shared with Space debris

Expanding over an area for economic or strategic exploitation that leads to degradation of Earth’s environment and orbits

Shared Driver

Risk-intensifying land use

Shared with Groundwater depletion

Agricultural intensification and expansion increases risk to groundwater resources and vulnerable species

Shared Impact

Ecosystem damage & biodiversity loss

Shared with Unbearable heat, Groundwater depletion, Mountain glacier melting

Habitat fragmentation, environmental degradation and other physical disturbances compromise ecosystem health, triggering both species decline and landscape transformations

Direct Influence

Uninsurable future

As cascading extinctions lead to degraded ecosystems, we lose services that can be valuable for disaster protection, raising risk and exacerbating uninsurability


Explore solutions to change the course of the tipping point and even forge a new path towards a bright, sustainable and equitable future.

Explore more from the 2023 report