There is no time to indulge in despairby Mike Barrett / November 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
This week the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London published the world’s most comprehensive survey to date of the health of our planet. The news is not good: on average, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58 per cent since 1970, with the decline projected to reach a scarcely-believable 67 per cent by the end of this decade.
The “Living Planet Report” provides conclusive evidence that human activities including deforestation, pollution, overfishing and the illegal wildlife trade, coupled with climate change, are pushing species populations to the edge as people overpower the planet. For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we could face a global mass extinction of wildlife and are entering a new, man-man geological epoch—the Anthropocene.
In many habitats, some of our most-loved fauna hovers close to extinction. Africa’s elephant population has crashed by an estimated 111,000 in the past decade, primarily due to poaching. 2016 estimates suggest there are now a mere 415,000 elephants across the 37 range states in Africa. Illegal hunting and habitat loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo has precipitated a 77 percent drop in the number of Grauer’s gorillas, from an estimated 17,000 in 1995 to just 3,800 individuals today. In Asia, the Yangtze Finless porpoise now numbers less than 1,000 individuals, down from 2,000 individuals in 2007. The annual rate of decline is estimated at 13.7 percent, which means that the Yangtze finless porpoise could follow its cousin the Yangtze river dolphin into extinction by 2025.
The UK is losing its own biodiversity at a shocking rate. In the 1950s it was estimated there were 36.5 million hedgehogs in Britain. It seems likely that there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK; indeed, it has been decades since I’ve seen one in my own garden. 76 per cent of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterfly species declined in either abundance or occurrence (or both) over the past four decades. Salmon populations in the UK have plummeted 70 per cent in the last 30 years, according to the North Atlantic Salmon Fund.
Our report shows that well-managed conservation projects can work: in Europe the brown bear and grey wolf are making comebacks, and in the United States the American bison and whooping crane have staged substantial recoveries. Even tigers and pandas have seen welcome increases in numbers recently, although both species are far from secure in the wild. But to make a real impact on the declines we are now witnessing, more systemic change is required.
People have known for decades that other species are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains our own lives, from the food we eat, to the energy we consume, to the trade in raw materials and products that drives our economic well-being.
But government policy and business practices have been slow to catch up—with the recent decision to expand airport capacity in London a prime example of short-termism that flies in the face of environmental good sense. This must change now. If they are to maintain health, wealth and stability, governments of every stripe must pursue urgent action on conservation, climate change and sustainable development.
In the UK, this demands a serious plan to strengthen protection for habitats and species and new measures to fast track low-carbon growth. Britain, like all developed nations, must take increasing responsibility for its global footprint, and as we enter a post-EU environment, it’s vital that the UK’s trade, industrial strategy and energy policies are framed with this in mind. Britain is a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, committing us to prudent management of natural resources at the heart of economic policy, and these should be taken seriously across Whitehall. More immediately December’s conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity would be a good place for the UK government to signal that it’s serious about helping tackle the global loss of species. Showcasing a progressive 25-year plan for nature would be a great way for the UK to show leadership. We should have senior ministerial representation there, to show we are indeed a country that takes our international responsibilities seriously.
Every reader of this blog should rethink how they produce, consume, and value the natural environment. The scale of the challenge we face may sound overwhelming, but we do not have time to indulge in despair. Instead, we should consume less, seek out sustainably produced and traded products, support local conservation initiatives and demand serious national and international action. We can’t leave it to others to act and hope for the best.