The losses in biodiversity have never been as fast nor as dramatic. Nonetheless, scientists and organizations fight on. Save endangered species, restore animal communities, return their habitats to them: it’s still possible.
The precipitous decline in biodiversity and species
WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report provides a sobering assessment: since 1970, 60% of vertebrate animals have disappeared worldwide. In some regions like the neotropical zone which covers South and Central America, the losses reach 89%.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps a red list of species which are extinct or are in danger of extinction. Among the latest losses, the Eastern cougar of North America was officially declared extinct in 2017. As for the last male white rhinoceros – whose horn had been cut off to avoid tempting poachers – he died in March 2018.
Despite nations’ commitments to environmental and animal protection, new threats can arise due to political changes. The election of Donald Trump in the United States, or more recently, that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil pose new dangers for the environment.
The Anthropocene Age
Humanity’s negative impact on plant and animal biodiversity is immense. It is so great that some members of the scientific community deem that the massive industrialization of the late 18th century marked the start of a new geological era: the Anthropocene. “Man has become such a great force that he is changing the planet”, according to Catherine Jeandel, research director at the CNRS Laboratory of Studies in Geophysics and Spatial Oceanography.
Overexploitation, deforestation and intensive agriculture are singled out as causes. Taken together, they are particularly harmful to the environment. But they can also cause more specific damage to certain vulnerable species. Indonesia’s orangutans have been decimated: their habitat is being destroyed to make way for plantations of oil palm trees. A recently launched Greenpeace campaign depicts the absurdity of the situation: one species is being sacrificed so that another can eat cookies. Even traditional Chinese medicine is a powerful engine of destruction: scales from pangolins – the most poached animal in the world –, rhinoceros horns or tiger bones, sold for a small fortune in China, are part of devastating businesses.
Plastic and noise pollution affect terrestrial and marine fauna since they upset reproduction, the search for food or the formation of social groups. In the oceans, the abundance of noise increases the odds of collisions between disoriented cetaceans and ships.
“We need a cultural revolution”
“[We are] on the cusp of a truly historic transformation and […] we have the opportunity to decide the path ahead”, says Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF in the Living Planet Report’s 2018 foreword. More and more effective and recognized solutions exist to save threatened species and curb the loss of animal biodiversity.
Ecological restoration sets the ambitious goal of not only remediating habitats by removing traces of human intervention but also of encouraging the reconquest of these territories by the plant and animal populations which were forced out. Research in ecological engineering employs new techniques to assist this reconquest and to nurture the resilience of species which are confronted with climate challenges.
At the same time, defining priority ecoregions and creating protected marine areas and sanctuaries opens the way to defending particularly threatened species. A veritable army of huntswomen were fielded in Zimbabwe to save animals from poaching in national parks. Although many species are each year declared extinct or endangered, others escape from the red zone, like giant pandas, gorillas or whales.
The combat must be politicized
These safeguarding approaches are more effective when supported by a clear political will. The prohibition of the ivory trade in China thus had an immediate impact on the preservation of threatened species. International pressure following the announced legalization of trade in products made from tigers and rhinoceroses pressed China to backtrack in November 2018.
Moreover, the countries which are fully committed to environmental conservation boast a spectacular reconquest for biodiversity, especially thanks to reforestation. This is the case in Costa Rica. Previously largely deforested due to the coffee trade, the small Central American country twenty years ago written into its Constitution a “right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”. Today its territory is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity: new species, like the see-through frog Hyalinobatrachium dianae, are regularly discovered there.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.