Wildlife: Biodiversity Is Declining Fast—But It Would Be Even Worse Without Conservation Efforts

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As the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) continues in Nagoya (tip for attendees—check out Los Tacos!), hopes are dwindling for any kind of broad, global deal to aggressively protect nature. That’s partially due to the fact that diplomats are locked over contentious arguments about how to divide up the world’s bioresources. But the reality is that global efforts to stop biodiversity loss have always fallen short of their aims, victim to rapid development and the low priority most governments, businesses—and citizens, really—actually place on nature. At the 2002 meeting of the CBD, governments promised to cut the rate of species extinction by 2010. They did not. Chances aren’t looking much better for the future.

But as a comprehensive new study of the state of global biodiversity shows, it could be much worse—and there is hope for nature, if we try. The study in the October 28 Science—put together with work from most of the world’s top conservation institutions—used from 25,000 species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to gauge the status of the world’s vertebrates. (Animals without backbone apparently don’t merit counting.) The idea was to track how species numbers had changed in recent years, to understand both how biodiversity was declining, and how human activity might be speeding—or slowing—the process. “This report is essentially the first global audit of this group of organisms,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species and a lead author on the Science paper. “And it’s clearly showed that we are not taking good care of our natural capital.”

Indeed—the paper found that on average, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. Those threats are most dire in Southeast Asia, thanks to deforestation due to oil palm plantation, logging and unsustainable hunting. But countries around the world—and species on every corner of the planet—are in danger. Almost one-fifth of existing vertebrate species are listed as threatened. Just a few of the numbers:

  • 13% of birds are threatened
  • 41% of amphibians are threatened
  • 14% of sea grasses, 32% of freshwater crayfish and 33% of reef-building corals are all threatened

The bad news can get numbing after a while. But buried in the litany of near-extinctions, the Science authors found evidence that what conservation work that has been done over the past few decades really has made a difference. More than 12% of the world’s land surface has some degree of protection, and that protection begins to add up. Without that conservation work—without the parks and the reserves, the Endangered Species Act, the World Wildlife Fund—the status of biodiversity would have declined another 20%. We’re still fighting a losing battle, but it’s a battle that could be going much worse. “Conservation solutions can work and this should really add to impetus to the efforts of governments currently negotiating in Nagoya that it’s critical that an agreement should be reached,” said Stuart Butchart, a researcher at BirdLife International and another author of the study.

Will these numbers make a difference? Probably not at Nagoya, where national interests are trumping natural ones. But at the very least, the Science study should give solace to the millions of people who work in conservation, who care about the fate of species on this planet other than human beings (and them too). It does make a difference.