Beyond Conservation: A personal opinion
Conservationists have long recognised not just the desirability of but also the need for conservation of biodiversity. These sentiments have been largely dismissed by the ‘business as normal’ and the ‘jobs and growth’ mentality that dominates much of economic and political thinking. Given recent data however, it seems that we must urgently address the decline of natural ecosystems and the accompanying extinctions and loss of biodiversity.
While there has been a modest increase in the number of officially protected areas in the world, few countries have met the 2020 UN target of 17% land and 10% ocean protection. Further, many of these protected areas are poorly managed or of poor quality. In addition, unprotected areas continue to be exploited and degraded even though we assumed they could be important biodiversity refuges.
More tellingly perhaps of the declining state of affairs is the data for lower species diversity and higher rates of extinction. Almost every group of plants and animals are undergoing population declines and extinctions. Most people are familiar with the extinction of iconic species such as the Passenger Pidgeon due to over-exploitation or the extensive loss of Australian mammals simply due to habitat loss. What is less well known (or acknowledged) is the scale of extinctions for numerous other groups over the past century. The historical rate of extinction is 0.1-2.0 species per million per year. Data suggests the current rate is 34 species/million/year (3000% above background). In Queensland alone there are nearly 1000 species of plants officially listed as ‘Endangered’, ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Near Threatened’ (the actual figure is probably much higher). The diversity of insects including bees has declined by 50-70 % in some areas.
Extinction rates and areas of declared reserves are of course only part of the bigger picture. Ecosystems are themselves complex and diverse and their functioning is linked to the progress of climate change and other sources of degradation (eg pollution). Research suggests we should be aiming for 30% of land and sea protected for long term sustainability. An international group (50 nations) has set a target of achieving this by 2030. Realistically (and given the history of missed targets) this is unlikely to be met. Never-the-less a recent survey of CEOs found that 70% think climate change and environmental damage are a threat to business growth [W/E Australian 13/14 MAR 21, pg 48].
The time would seem to be right to move beyond simple conservation since this on its own is unlikely to achieve long term sustainability with the maintenance of high species diversity. Similarly, seed banks and gene banks are at best a stop -gap measure if we do not have suitable habitat for the organisms. Serious consideration needs to be given to restoring and expanding natural ecosystems.
This year will see the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Overseas there have already been several large-scale rewilding schemes (usually for large iconic species). Significant progress can only be expected if there is government commitment (and real resourcing). This however is unlikely to be successful on its own. Real progress will require the cooperation of landowners and the community generally.
As individuals we can participate by planting a diverse array of native plant species which will support native animals. Landowners can contribute by setting aside a certain percentage of their land to be preserved in (or restored to) its natural state. We will be unlikely to see figures of 30% achieved but 15% would be good and even 10% preserved private land would make a significant difference. There will be issues such connectivity but these are secondary to the urgent need to stop and then reverse the decline in biodiversity within the next generation.
Contributed by Dr Bob Newby (June 2021).