Fact-checking the state of endangered animals, extinctions

A Facebook post says don’t listen to the warnings that polar bears, whales and koalas are in danger of extinction as a result of climate change. It claims that those species aren’t endangered, but actually on the rise.

The Dec. 12 post shows a screenshot of a claim from Patrick Moore, who serves on the board of the CO2 Coalition, an advocacy group that claims to educate people about the benefits of carbon dioxide.

Moore tweeted this claim in 2019: “Polar bears have increased 400% in 45 years; whales are nearly fully recovered; extinctions are down 90% past century (IUCN). Koalas are doing fine. If we could ban wind turbines we could save 85,000 birds of prey/yr in US alone.”

Moore describes himself as a Greenpeace co-founder; Greenpeace said in 2010 that Moore “played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada” years ago, but denied that he was a founding member.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Agence France Presse first fact-checked elements of the claim two years ago, calling it misleading. Experts we talked to agree that the statistical claims are unsupported.

Here we look at each part of the claim individually:

Claim: “Polar bears increased 400% in 45 years”

It’s impossible to compare the global population of polar bears to 45 years ago, because scientific estimates for most of the world’s polar bear populations weren’t published until after the mid-1970s, said Andrew Derocher, professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Canada.

“Many of the 19 polar bear populations (eg, east Greenland, Laptev Sea, Arctic Basin, Kara Sea) have never had a population estimate and lack trend data, so it is impossible to say what the global population was 45 years ago or for that matter, what the global population size is today,” Derocher said.

Derocher pointed to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group, which published its first estimate in 1993. That year, IUCN’s global estimate of polar bears was 21,470 to 28,370. Its estimates were 22,000 to 27,000 in 1997, 21,500 to 25,000 in 2001, and 20,000 to 25,000 in 2005 and 2009. In July 2021, the global estimate was 26,000.

The threat to polar bear populations 50 years ago was unregulated commercial, sport and subsistence hunting, Derocher said. A 1973 international treaty called the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears blocked overhunting, Philip Newell, associate director of science defense at Climate Nexus, told PolitiFact.

Today, Derocher said, polar bears face another threat: global warming.

Experts differ on how much climate change has affected polar bears. Charles Greene, senior fellow at Friday Harbor Laboratories at the University of Washington, said the loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean has had some effect on polar bear populations, but not a major one so far. He pointed to two graphs published in 2014 that estimated their population — one showed a modest decline, while the other showed virtually no change.

Still, both Greene and Derocher agreed there’s no evidence that polar bears have increased by 400%.

Claim: “Whales are nearly fully recovered”

The practice of whaling decimated the whale population over the 20th century, said Greene. He pointed to figures from a pair of studies cited by Our World in Data, showing the whale population dwindled from an estimated 2.56 million in the 1890s to 879,412 by 2001.

While some countries, including Japan and Norway, still allow whale hunting, most have agreed to stop, Greene said. As a result of that and other international agreements, whale populations have recovered somewhat, but they’re nowhere near where they were when whaling was common.

“The thing that prevents them from recovering even faster is that even though we’re not intentionally whaling, we are unintentionally whaling by them getting hit by ships, by them getting entangled in fishing gear,” said Greene. “So for many species, blue whales, humpbacks in the Pacific, and right whales in the North Atlantic, those are the main sources of mortality now.”

That could be enough to make right whales extinct within a few decades, Greene added. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium reported that the whale species’ numbers had dropped to 336 in 2020, the lowest number in nearly 20 years.

Claim: “Extinctions are down 90% past century”

Moore’s tweet cites the IUCN as a source for his claim that extinctions have dropped 90%. But we found no evidence to support that number,

On the contrary, groups tracking biodiversity point to rising threats of extinction over the past century.

In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said, “the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.”

The IPBES also reported that since the 1600s, at least 680 vertebrate species have gone into extinction. More than 9% of all domesticated mammals used for food and agriculture became extinct in 2016. The IPBES count of endangered animals included 40% of amphibians, 33% of reef-forming corals, a third of all marine mammals, and more.

The IUCN reports that it has more than 142,500 species on its “red list” of threatened species, and more than 40,000 are in threat of extinction.

“I couldn’t even begin to find anything that would suggest that extinctions have gone down,” Greene told PolitiFact. “It didn’t take me very long to go and pull out very recent papers from top tier journals that demonstrate that it’s a totally bogus claim.”

Claim: “Koalas are doing fine”

In 2016, the IUCN declared that koalas, which are native to Australia, were on the decline and categorized them as vulnerable. The group listed several threats, including residential and commercial development, logging and wood harvesting, and more.

An IUCN fact sheet notes that koalas are affected by dangers including elevated CO2 levels in the plants they eat, predatory animals, vehicles, droughts and bushfires, diseases and habitat destruction.

AFP reported in its 2019 fact-check that the exact number of koalas was contested by different experts. But they did agree that koalas were not, in fact, fine.

Claim: Banning wind turbines would “save 85,000 birds of prey/yr in US alone.”

Birds do have deadly encounters with wind turbines. According to a June 2021 study published on the open-access journal Ecosphere, birds of prey with “relatively higher potential of population-level impacts from wind turbine collisions included barn owl, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, American kestrel, and red-tailed hawk .”

However, wind turbines have a much smaller effect on birds of prey than other risk factors do. In response to a similar 2016 claim from candidate Donald Trump about “hundreds and hundreds” of eagles being killed by wind turbines, experts told us that the number of eagles killed was closer to 100, and that the birds could be easily saved with “proper location and mitigation measures.”

A 2020 article from Eletrek, a news site focused on sustainable energy and electric transportation, reported that while raptors can be killed by wind turbines, factors like agriculture, deforestation, fossil fuels, climate change, cats and windows have proven to be far more dangerous .

We didn’t find a basis for Moore’s claim that 85,000 raptors a year could be saved. We reached out to him for evidence for his claim in its entirety, but he did not return our query.

Our ruling

A Facebook post shared a 2019 claim that said polar bears’ populations had increased 400% in the last 45 years, whales were nearly fully recovered, that koalas were doing fine, and extinctions fell 90% in the past century.

There are issues with each part of the claim. Experts said scientific estimates about the number of polar bears weren’t published until after the mid-1970s, so it’s impossible to compare today’s population to 45 years ago. Global estimates point to a modest decline or virtually no change in polar bear populations in recent decades.

There is no evidence that whale populations have nearly fully recovered under whaling restrictions, or even come close. Koalas have been listed as vulnerable since 2016.

We found no evidence to support the claim that extinctions are down by 90% in the past century.

There have been several reports that wind turbines do kill raptors, but not nearly as many birds as the claim suggests. Fossil fuels and climate change post a greater threat.

We rate this claim False.

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