How Can We Reverse the Extinction of Wildlife?

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Species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Wildlife populations have declined by more than two-thirds in the past 50 years, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund. The sharpest declines have occurred in the world’s rivers and lakes, where freshwater wildlife has dropped 84% – about 4% per year since 1970.

So why should we care?

Because the health of nature is closely linked with human health. The emergence of new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 tends to be related to the destruction of forests and wildlife. Healthy ecosystems are the foundation of today’s global economies and societies and are what we aspire to build. As more and more species gravitate towards extinction, the life support systems on which civilization depends are eroding.

Biodiversity loss is a troubling threat even to self-interested observers such as the World Economic Forum. Six of the world’s nine biggest threats ranked by the organization are related to the continued destruction of nature.

Economic systems and lifestyles that undervalue the world’s generous stocks of natural resources will have to be abandoned. However, resisting the catastrophic declines of wildlife that have occurred over the past few decades may seem hopeless. For the first time, we have completed a science-based assessment to understand how to slow down or even reverse these trends.

An article published in the journal Nature featured the work of 60 co-authors, and the article was built on the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Ambitious goals were assessed to save global biodiversity trends and ways in which the international community could achieve these goals were created.

Curve bending

The goals of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity require global terrestrial wildlife trends to halt the decline and begin to recover by 2050 or earlier. Changes in how land is used, from untouched forests to cultivated land or pasture, are among the biggest threats to land biodiversity worldwide.

So what are the conditions for biodiversity recovery while supporting thriving and prosperous human societies in the 21st century? Two key action plans emerge in this regard. First, there must be a request from the governments of the world to establish large-scale protected areas located at the most important points for biodiversity around the world.

These protected areas may be particularly small islands with species not found anywhere else. These reserves, where wildlife will freely live and roam, will need to cover at least 40% of the world’s land surface to help all ecosystems begin to recover and the curve to decline.

The location of these areas and how well they are managed is often more important than how large they are. Habitat restoration and conservation efforts should be targeted where they are most needed for species and habitats on the verge of extinction.

Second, we must transform our food systems to produce more on less land. If every farmer in the world uses the best available farming practices, only half of the total cultivation land is needed to feed the world.

Many inefficiencies can be eliminated, for example, by reducing the amount of waste generated during shipping and food processing. Society in general can assist in this endeavor by shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets and reducing food waste.

This must occur along with efforts to restore farmland and degraded land that have become inefficient as a result of soil erosion. These plans can return 8% of the world’s land to nature by 2050. Planning how the remaining land will be used is necessary to balance food production and other uses with the conservation of wild areas.

Without a similar desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will cause the world’s wildlife to pass badly in this century. Only a comprehensive set of policy considerations that transform our relationship with the land and rapidly reduce pollution can generate the necessary momentum.

But the benefits don’t stop there. These measures will simultaneously slow climate change, reduce pressure on water, limit nitrogen pollution in the world’s waterways, and improve human health.

When the world works together to halt and ultimately reverse the loss of biodiversity, it is not just wildlife that will thrive and be healthy.