We face an uphill struggle to preserve our planet’s biodiversity. Although there is broad agreement that conservation efforts are working to some extent, the political consensus required to take meaningful action is often missing. On November 13th, a two-week UN biodiversity conference started in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, offering a unique opportunity for governments to build on existing successes and find consensus on many of the issues threatening biodiversity in the world today. Two recent success stories should give us hope: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCR) recently announced that due to campaigns against hunting and poaching, numbers of two iconic endangered species, the mountain gorilla and the fin whale, have almost doubled in number in the past few years. The importance of nature conservation goes much further than animal welfare, however. Conservation touches every corner of the human experience, from where we live, to what we eat and what shapes the foundations of our culture. Achieving sustainable change is not an ideal, it is a practical necessity for the future of humanity.
We can clearly see the links between damaged biodiversity and reduced communal prosperity in the practice of illegal logging. In West Africa, the Vene tree has just been added to the IUCR’s endangered list for the first time. With a global demand for cheap furniture, flooring and kitchen utensils, harvesting of the Vene increased fifteen-fold between 2009 and 2014. Less than 2% of the tree’s native forest is protected and, as much of it lies in conflict zones, logging has gone almost completely unregulated. Local populations are dependent on the Vene for their livelihood. It is used for building homes, fuel, and dye and has numerous medicinal purposes. Sources of income are being lost, and ancestral homelands ruined, yet war and commercial interests make finding a resolution very complex.
In Africa, the over-reliance of many communities on fishing is becoming a serious cause for concern. In Lake Malawi, the IUCR has indicated that 3 out of 4 species of the country’s most economically valuable fish, the Chambo, are now critically endangered. With one third of Malawians depending on Lake Malawi for food, its most important fishery is now on the verge of collapse. This situation could rapidly develop into a crisis – and there is no easy solution. In many sub-tropical developing economies, indigenous communities have built a way of life around specific species; but human population growth, alongside pressures to export, have made the situation untenable. The fate of the Chambo is inextricably linked to that of the community it supports, and a strategy for its conservation is now vital.
In Indonesia, the rapid development of palm oil plantations has severely damaged biodiversity on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra – and the local population is suffering. Due to a loss of habitat on Borneo, numbers of orangutans have halved between 1999 and 2015, while on Sumatra, the numbers of Titan Aram ‘corpse flowers’ have been reduced to fewer than 1000 individuals in the wild. On top of this, indigenous people are being driven out of their forest homes, making conservation action an urgent requirement. Even those who are currently enjoying the short-term employment benefits of palm oil will not be unaffected and pay the price in the long-term. After 25 years, plantations become unproductive and must be replanted; meaning that soon, there will be no space left on Sumatra or Borneo. The UN must do its part. Policy-makers must protect locals for whom the orangutans and corpse flowers are integral to their environment.
Ecosystems are precarious, and the fate of flora and fauna will be determined by human activities. Reducing our dependence on certain endangered species is necessary for both those species and the people who share that land. The complexities in each case cannot be overstated, with the incentives for development so strong. Change can only come from political consensus. The successes of the mountain gorilla and fin whale show that such agreements can be found, but only when policy-makers put long-term thinking before short-term gain. Through international collaboration and forward thinking, it is possible to find solutions which benefit both the environment and the development of local economies.