By Lance Woolaver Jr.
Earlier this month, 355 of the world’s leading scientists at the United Nations completed a comprehensive 1000+ page Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and while there are reasons for hope, I am sorry to say that the overall conclusions were not encouraging.
It is important to note the words ‘ecosystem services’ in the title because the report is not just about species loss but also about the impact that this will have on the fundamental benefits that the natural world provides to our own existence and quality of life.
The report itself took three years to write and examines how wildlife and natural ecosystems have fared over the last 50 years. This is the most thorough study of its kind ever compiled, demonstrating declines across the board due to habitat loss and degradation, direct overexploitation of plants and animals, climate change, pollution, and the spread of invasive species across the planet.
The headline was overwhelming:
One million of our planet’s estimated 8 million species – 12% of all species on Earth – are at risk of extinction.
Many are expected to disappear due to human activity over the next few decades – unless we make changes now as to how we are causing harm to the world around us. It may be a bit melodramatic to quote The Avengers and say “We are in the endgame now” but based on the scope of this report, we are certainly getting pretty close to a tipping point where species declines will be irreversible.
Quite importantly though, the report identifies what can be done to halt and reverse this decline in nature.
The rusty-patched bumble bee is endangered and has not been seen in Canada since 2009.
While disconcerting, the UN report is not just a list of alarming statistics. The report demonstrates that we know the underlying drivers causing biodiversity loss and provides solutions as to how we can all act locally and globally to create positive changes.
This, to me personally, is so important.
How the report affected me personally
As someone who has spent their entire life working with endangered species, many on the very brink of extinction, I have always been fully aware of biodiversity declines. It has been part of my job to learn as much as possible about the challenges facing species conservation. I have experienced the causes of biodiversity declines up close and very personally.
I have seen ploughshare tortoises that I helped release to the wild in Madagascar be collected by poachers for the illegal pet trade. I have reached into the nesting caviity of what was, at the time the worlds rarest parrot, the echo parakeet, only to feel dead nestlings inside that had been killed by invasive rats introduced to the island of Mauritius by humans. I have seen forest valleys where one year I monitored nesting pairs of one of the world’s rarest hawk, Ridgway’s hawk, be reduced to wastelands after being slash and burned.
I could recount many other similar examples but suffice to say that I have experienced these issues every day as part of my work, just as you would be familiar with issues that influence your own trade or profession.
But to be honest I have rarely felt as disheartened as I did upon initially reading about the UN report. The enormity of the conclusions from the report and seeing the culminating impacts humankind has been having all together in one document really hit me hard. I was overwhelmed for a few days.
Lance with a Ridgeway hawk nestling (above) and echo parakeet nestling (below). Two species that have come back from the brink thanks to conservation programs.
The Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly only has two remaining populations left in Canada. Wildlife Preservation Canada’s breeding and release program is working to expand them.
The coastal population of western painted turtles is endangered. Wildlife Preservation Canada’s headstart program gives young turtles a fighting chance.
Despite all that’s been said, I still have reason to hope
You may then be surprised then to know that I am actually optimistic about the future of our planet. Why? These are my reasons for hope and how each of us can make an immediate difference:
1. We have more information than ever before.
And many solutions have already been identified. I mentioned previously that this is the very first time that a study of this magnitude has documented how the interconnections across sectors of human activity– governmental policies, agriculture and other landscape uses, consumer economics, poverty alleviation, human development needs etc. all link together at varying scales from local to global to impact biodiversity declines. This new knowledge will guide us to solutions.
What can we do? We can ‘Be aware and care’. There are many ways that each of us can change our daily activities that are easy, painless, and be done immediately. The first step is knowing what we can do and deciding at what scale each of us can afford, to make a change. To be honest, I have only recently been making changes to my own lifestyle as I used to think that the problems were so large that I couldn’t make a difference. I no longer believe that to be true. A site that I have personally found helpful in providing guidance is The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.
2. We are not alone in caring about nature.
I meet and hear from people every day, from all walks of life and of all ages, that care about animals and nature in one form or another. For every well-known inspirational environmentalist like Jane Goodall there are thousands of other exceptional people and organisations out there that are making the world a better place.
What can we do? We can all support causes we believe in. Philanthropy is a powerful tool for change. Support can take many forms, whether it be helping a not-for-profit provide clean water to a village in a developing country or donating time or money to an environmental or conservation organization. Do a bit of homework to find out which organisations are the most effective and align best with your interests and make it personal. You could support an international organisation that works in another country for a group of animals you care about, or it could be a local group that works in your community to protect the last population of an endangered species that you refuse to see disappear. Giving the same amount of time or money that you would going to see a movie will make a difference.
3. Society has and is changing rapidly.
Since the beginning of the 50-year timeframe examined in the UN biodiversity report we have seen major behavioural shifts in society, and they are continuing. Governments in India, Germany, Holland and Norway are planning to ban gas-powered vehicles. Many major global snack food product companies have stopped using non-sustainable palm oil in their products. As a society, we weren’t even aware of or talking about these types of changes 20 years ago.
What can we do? As consumers we all have much more power than we think. My kids and I look at labels when shopping now and we do not buy products that have palm oil in them because we know of the destruction that palm-oil monocultures cause to rainforests. It was easy and made absolutely no difference to the quality of our lives. We still eat cookies and wash our hair! We just choose brands that are palm oil-free. Making choices as a consumer allows our opinion and voice to be heard. If a company knows that consumers will no longer buy their product because of the environmental damage it causes, they will listen.
4. Nature is resilient
Some of those personal experiences with endangered species I mentioned earlier? While ploughshare tortoises have disappeared from the wild they are not gone forever thanks to conservation breeding programs in Madagascar run by dedicated local people and international organisations. Echo parakeets? No longer on the brink of extinction. Thanks again to conservation recovery programs the population has increased from fewer than 15 parakeets to over 700 today. The Ridgway’s hawk nesting valleys that I witnessed being slash and burned? Local farmers began protecting the hawks and some of those valleys began to regenerate within a few short years.
What can we do? Habitats and species have bounced back once protected and given a helping hand with wise stewardship. There are so many ways to contribute whether it be at the most local level by ensuring that our own yards and gardens are managed to help local wildlife or through volunteering within our local communities with conservation organizations that protect habitat or recover endangered species. Each of us can also reduce our global footprint by making simple choices every day such as choosing plastic-free packaging when out shopping. Any action that we each can take to provide nature a chance will have a result.
5. We have the tools to act quickly
The rapid advances in internet and communication technology have revolutionized the speed with which information can now be shared across the planet. Everyone’s voice can now be heard in real time. We can find out about an issue on the other side of the world as it happens, and we can add our voice to the groundswell of support for environmental responsibility.
What can we do? We can all speak up and make our voices heard. There are many ways to do this and it is easier than ever before. If it is a local issue you are concerned with then phone your local Member of Parliament and let them know. Politicians, particularly at the local level, do take note every opinion they receive. Our provincial and federal governments also have online portals where every single Canadian has an opportunity to comment on proposed changes to laws and policies. Online petitions allow us to not only have our opinions heard at the local or national levels, but we can now also speak up against unsustainable, harmful environmental practices in countries on the other side of the planet, in real time.
Field surveys can help biologists understand the distribution of at-risk species. Native pollinators are being monitored through the BumbleBeeWatch.org network.
Even tortoises, which don’t do anything quickly, can recover if given a chance, like these baby ploughshare tortoises bred in captivity that will one day be released back into the wild.
I have only mentioned a few of the many actions that we can all take to repair the damage that has been done over the last 50 years. The wonderful thing is that we have more options available than ever before and each of us can tailor what we choose to do. Even though our planet’s biodiversity is in danger, we can all make changes that fit best for each of us and there is no such thing as ‘not making a difference’.
Lance Woolaver Jr.
Executive Director, Wildlife Preservation Canada