Stanley Johnson is an Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species and author of several books on environmental issues. His most recent book is Survival: Saving Endangered Migratory Species.
A few months ago I traveled in a hot-air balloon over vast herds of wild animals as they migrated from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park into Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve. The sight was unbelievable, unforgettable. As far as the eye could see the plains were black with animals. One and a half million wildebeest; half a million zebra; another half million topis, elands and Thompson’s gazelles. This truly is one of the world’s great migrations, perhaps the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth.
Migrating wildebeest and zebra, Mara River, Kenya © Stanley Johnson
For the last five years, as I researched my most recent book, I have been privileged to visit the most far-flung corners of the globe. I have been in the Sahara desert, in the very heart of Niger, looking for the addax, the rarest of all desert antelopes. I have trekked gorillas in both Central and West Africa, spent time with giant river otters in Brazil’s Pantanal and in the Amazon, and camped among the orangutans in Borneo’s now much-threatened forests.
This has been one of the most exciting projects I have ever undertaken. One day, in Mexico’s Sea of Cortes I saw at least twenty blue whales, thought to be the largest of all the creatures that have even lived on this planet, a species which for decades has been hovering on the edge of extinction. Last summer, on Española Island in the Galapagos, I was able to observe at close quarters colonies of waved albatross.
Migratory animals constitute those 8 to 10 thousand of the world’s 1.8 million known species. Because many of them move from country to country, mostly between feeding and breeding grounds, international action is often essential. The battle to save the world’s endangered migratory species can itself be seen in the context of the wider struggle to conserve global biodiversity. Since January 2007 I have been honoured to be an Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Under the auspices of the CMS, more than two dozen international treaties and other instruments have been negotiated with a view to protecting migratory species.
The challenges that remain are great. Treaties have to be implemented, as well as signed. New threats are constantly arising. As I write, plans are afoot to drive a road right through the heart of the Serengeti with untold consequences for migrating wildlife. At a recent meeting of the International Whaling Commission. the international moratorium on commercial whaling came close to unraveling. The consequences for wildlife, such as marine turtles, of the horrendous oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico have still to be assessed, as do the implications for species like the orangutan of the mad rush, mandated by the EU, to fill our cars with biodiesel made from palm-oil, not to speak of the impact of global warming on migratory patterns.
Now is the time to seize the opportunity to draw attention, in this context, to the astonishing biological treasure represented by migratory species, and of the threats which they face. I hope these efforts may inspire decision-makers, both in the UK and elsewhere, even at this time of financial crisis and budgetary stringency, to press for more effective action to protect some of nature’s most precious resources.