The peaks and valleys of biodiversity conservation

Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), listed as Vulnerable on the The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
© Claudia Gray | ZSL

Dr Rikki Gumbs, who completed his PhD at Imperial in 2020 and now works with the Zoological Society of London to prioritise biodiversity for conservation action, discusses the current status of global biodiversity policy, providing insight on recent failures and successes of biodiversity conservation.

Against a backdrop of unprecedented declines in global biodiversity, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) met in 2010 in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, to agree on 20 ambitious targets aimed at tackling the drivers of global biodiversity loss. The adoption in 2011 of the 20 Aichi targets, which included such aims as minimising habitat loss, halting species extinctions and increasing the coverage of protected areas on land and at sea, heralded the arrival of the UN’s ‘Decade on Biodiversity’. However, as the decade progressed, it became increasingly clear that we were not on track to achieve the vast majority of the 20 biodiversity targets. It therefore came as no surprise to anybody when, in late 2020, with the UN’s decade on biodiversity drawing to a close, it was announced that we had failed to fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, and partially achieved just six.

Now, as we enter the UN’s ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’, planet Earth is at a crossroads. Humanity’s ever-increasing footprint now means less than 3% of the planet’s land surface is ecologically intact, while just 13% of the ocean is still sufficiently intact to be considered as wilderness. Our pervasive exploitation and transformation of the natural world continues to drive catastrophic declines in wild animal populations globally, with average declines of almost 70% across the world’s amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and fish since 1970. As a result, it is estimated that 1 in 10 species on Earth face extinction, a number which could be as high as 1 million species of animals and plants, and we face the loss of billions of years of unique evolutionary history.

Dr Rikki Gumbs with Emmanuel Amoah who is working to conserve the Critically Endangered West African Slender-snouted crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) © Rikki Gumbs | ZSL

In the wake of the global failure to achieve the Aichi targets, the CBD is once again working with experts and nations to draft a suite of new targets to combat biodiversity loss over the coming decade. There has been a significant push to ensure any new targets are even more ambitious than before, with proposed targets to increase the area of land covered by protected areas to 30% by 2030 (the figure is 15.5% as of April 2021). This would go beyond merely preventing extinctions to recover populations of all declined species to ensure we safeguard the evolutionary Tree of Life and maintain biodiversity’s contributions to human societies. However, discussions between experts and member nations are still underway ahead of the next CDB summit – the 15th Conference of the Parties – which is currently schedule to take place in Kunming, China in October 2021. This is where the new targets will be agreed for the decade to come, and it remains to be seen just how ambitious the world’s governments are prepared to be, following more than a year of global turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sulawesi flying fox (Acerodon celebensis) an endangered bat species endemic to Sulawesi.
Image by Nils Bouillard via Unsplash

This deadly worldwide pandemic has highlighted the importance of our relationship with nature, and serves as a reminder of the severity of the consequences that result from continued loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems. Combined with increasing recognition of the impacts of global climate change and how our choices as consumers impact the natural world, it is possible that shifting attitudes towards our relationship with nature means that now is a better time than ever before to be challenged with setting an ambitious strategy for global biodiversity.

It’s not all bad news

The past decade did not pass by without any positive news for global biodiversity. Recent conservation actions prevented the extinction of as many as 25 bird and mammal species, and without such actions, extinction rates for the decade may have been up to four times greater. Since 2010, the proportion of areas of particular importance for biodiversity that were formally protected has increased from 29% to 44%, and the rate of deforestation globally has fallen by around a third compared with 2001-2010. With the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), where global nations will commit to enhanced ambitions to curtail climate change, also scheduled to take place this year, humans are devising the most significant plans for the natural world in our history. While the consequences of another decade of failure do not bear thinking about, there is perhaps some room for optimism or, at the very least, hope.

It is important to remember that the drive for change should not be limited to governments and international agreements. We, as individuals, can also take actions to lessen our impact on biodiversity and use our choices as consumers to affect change on a wider scale. For example, we can reduce our consumption of meat, and those of us lucky enough to have gardens can make small changes to provide a home for nature. One action, particularly pertinent this year, is to contact elected officials to express how important it is to make decisions that benefit biodiversity.

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