What it Means when a Species is Considered Functionally Extinct

A  species is considered functionally extinct when that species cannot be found anywhere in natural environments, or if mating pairs number so few there is virtually no chance of their species’ survival. Among animals that are now considered functionally extinct just in recent years are the Golden Toad, The Gala’pagos Tortoise, the Iberian Ibex, the Madeiran White Butterfly and several species of birds. Most recently, wild ocean oysters have been declared functionally extinct throughout the world.

In 2006, China’s rare Yangtze River dolphin, or Bajii, was declared functionally extinct. This means that in wild populations, even if one or two such dolphins still live, they will never recover in numbers great enough to repopulate or recover their niche in the now-contaminated river ecosystem. Most such extinctions are due to loss of habitat due to development, pollution, over-exploitation and often poaching.The West African black rhinoceros was declared functionally extinct in 2006, as well.

Science is open to the possibility of bringing species back through cloning or controlled breeding programs of related species. But this is highly controversial, as without protected habitat, most rare animals would simply be imprisoned freaks of nature without the ability to function as active participants creating the ecosystems they once shared with other organisms. Although people may feel obligated to restore magnificent creatures and whole forests and marine habitats, unless there is room for them on the planet, there is little room for them in human consciousness.This creates not only a physical loss, but cultural and psychological trauma as well.

Plants also go functionally extinct. Modern life demands that with such high human populations, monoculture  crops are created. The ability to (almost) feed the world’s human population requires petrochemical agriculture and also the destruction of huge tracts of natural habitat for both ranching and farming. In the present system, creating just one or two foods such as corn, rice, wheat and soy to feed human beings requires that all other plant species decline in number and in diversity.

Biodiversity is what creates life, connection and interactive thriving systems of air, water, soil and food. Loss of species also means loss of any benefit from their medicinal, economic and cultural contributions. There are no known cultures on Earth that are not directly tied physically, mentally, socially and spiritually to place and to the value of other species.

Unfortunately, loss of biodiversity is both an outcome and an accelerant of global climate change. As species decline one by one, which happens daily, the cascade effect of their loss wreaks havoc upon the health and, therefore, the carbon cycle and even weather patterns of Earth.

It is evident that most people are ignorant about the true state of both loss of species and human roles in functional extinctions. Much of human awareness stays hidden due to the overwhelming and unspoken tragedy which feels too complex and too heavy for most people to acknowledge. Human denial and other defense mechanisms allow people to stay distracted about this and the many other enormous challenges of climate change, effectively denying the reality of human ecopsychology.

There is one great hope left. It is that human beings will take control of their choices as much as they previously have done to their environments. It is only when people find value in themselves as members of ecosystems that they find empowerment to improve human relationships to the more than human world that is greater than the self. Therefore, preserving wilderness, rich and abundant places and allowing humans to reconnect to this wealth is imperative if abundant human culture is to avoid becoming functionally extinct.