The just-released Living Planet Report from WWF pointing to an increasing rate of wildlife decline contains some shocking statistics. But to those who’ve been paying attention to the state of Earth’s ecosystems in the 21st century, it should come as no surprise. Everywhere – from the high seas, to the high Arctic, to our own backyards – the signs of decline and potential collapse are becoming too dire to ignore.
The situation isn’t entirely hopeless. Jane Goodall insists that it’s not too late to save endangered species. Techniques considered experimental decades ago – such as conservation breeding and release – are now tested and proven. Success stories – such as the reintroduction of the swift fox to Canada – are plentiful, and many species are doing better than they were in 1970, the start date of WWF’s study. But clearly, despite knowing how to save our wildlife, we aren’t doing enough of it.
The great conservation lesson of the 19th century was the need to preserve habitat. Particularly in the Americas, Africa, and other regions once thought to contain virtually limitless wilderness, the advent of industrialization ravaged once-pristine landscapes at a speed virtually unthinkable to those of our ancestors who were alive in 1799. By the end of the 19th century, a conservation movement focusing on the preservation of habitat was born.
It was the correct response then, and it made a difference. According to Environment Canada, 10.6% of Canada’s land has now been protected. You can argue whether that’s enough, but you can’t argue that it’s insignificant.
And yet, our wildlife populations are increasingly imperilled – and not just iconic, high profile animals such as caribou, polar bears, or whales. Grassland and insect-eating bird populations are in freefall. Nine of our ten native freshwater turtle species are either at risk, or have already disappeared from Canada. Perhaps most ominously, even small, humble animals way down in the food chain are in trouble. We’ve already lost several native butterflies, and one of our most common, wide-ranging bumble bees hasn’t been seen in Canada since 2009. If we lose our native pollinators, what happens to the whole ecosystem?
Clearly, the great conservation lesson of the 20th century must be that habitat preservation alone isn’t enough. Habitat preservation is job one. It’s the table stakes that gets you into the conservation game. But even our best protected spaces are overrun with introduced diseases, invasive species and swollen, human-subsidized populations of nest-robbers such as raccoons. They’re affected by air and water pollution. Roadkills and poaching occur within the boundaries of national and provincial parks. Animals living in one protected patch of land suffer the risk of inbreeding because they can’t connect with the animals in the next patch twenty kilometres away. And, of course, climate change is everywhere.
Effective conservation in the 21st century is going to require a new and different approach. As the head of a wildlife-oriented charity, I see a proliferation of funding opportunities for land conservation and habitat restoration – from governments, private foundations, corporations, and individual donors. More often than not, our hands-on work to save endangered animals doesn’t qualify for funding under the funder’s rules. Charity Intelligence estimates that more than half of Canada’s environmental charitable sector spending goes towards land or habitat. Everything else – species protection, research, public education, advocacy, and so on – has to split the remaining share.
This can’t continue. Ideally, we need to grow the pie for all types of environmental work. But even so, we need to rethink our approach as well. We can’t just go on pretending that if we set aside a bit more land and plant enough trees and wildflowers, nature will take care of itself. That’s not going to happen – at least not within our lifetimes.
For the 21st century, we need to adopt a Biblical, ark-style approach to saving species – keeping in mind that it’s now we ourselves who are the flood. Endangered species already at the brink of extinction need our help to rebuild their numbers. Tiny, isolated populations need our help to interbreed, and to re-establish themselves in sites where they’ve already gone locally extinct. Species affected by epidemic-like threats in the wild need our protection. If the “ark”analogy doesn’t work for you, think of a hospital instead. Without a proper intensive care unit, our sickest species simply aren’t going to survive the crisis.
Maybe, by the 22nd century, conditions for wildlife will be improving again. Or maybe not. Either way, most of us alive now won’t be around to find out. Our job is simple, and clear: making sure we leave those future generations something to work with.
Read the report here.
About Wildlife Preservation Canada
Established in 1985, Wildlife Preservation Canada is a national charity devoted to saving endangered animal species facing imminent extinction in Canada – species whose numbers in the wild are so low that habitat protection alone is not enough. It is currently working with over twenty mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird, and insect species in projects ranging from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island, making it the only organization in Canada to provide hands-on care to multiple species in multiple recovery efforts across the country. For more information, please visit https://wildlifepreservation.ca