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The Great Vanishing

03/16/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

In her bestselling book The Sixth Extinction, the New Yorker's superb environmental journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, reports on an event, already unfolding in the present moment, the likes of which may only have been experienced five other times in the distant history of life on this planet. As she writes, "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard."

Scientists believe that this round of mass extinction is accelerating, and one way or another, it all traces back to us, whether thanks to the way we are changing the planet's atmosphere or to what Kolbert terms a human-induced, often disastrous "intercontinental reshuffling of species." But of all the ways in which that mass extinction is being pushed forward, none is more straightforwardly obvious than the quite literal slaughter that constitutes the illegal animal trade. In recent years, environmentalist and TomDispatch regular William deBuys set out to see the results of that aspect of mass extinction for himself, and what a grisly spectacle it proved to be. In the process, he penetrated deep into the jungles of Laos in search of a deer-like creature you've undoubtedly never heard of that may -- or may not -- still exist.

It was an adventure of the first order, which deBuys depicts in his remarkable new book, The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures and a new piece, "The Politics of Extinction." He captures both the grimness of what's happening to animals of every sort in the distant forests of a land we've paid no attention to since the Vietnam War ended and the glorious beauty of the species we humans are indeed destroying. The result is both a personal adventure story and a missive from a planet undergoing a rare form of destruction. Today at this site, he offers us all a look at one of what could be the final "achievements" of humankind: the ability to devastate this planet in a way no other creature would be capable of.

Kolbert ends her book on a question that any mass extinction on planet Earth would naturally have to bring up sooner or later: What about us? In extinction terms, could we potentially be just another form of rhinoceros? Are we, in fact, capable not just of creating civilizations but engaging in a kind of species suicide? This is, of course, a question that can't be answered, but she adds, "The anthropologist Richard Leakey has warned that 'Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.' A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity [at the American Museum of Natural History in New York] offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: 'In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.'" Take a moment, then, with deBuys to experience what that sawing-off process is like, up close and personal.