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Big Nature Debate

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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.

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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.

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David Ng is a science literacy academic based at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, Canada.  His interests generally look at unconventional intersections between public outreach, creative art, science education, as well as web dynamics.  He is currently on sabbatical at the Natural History Museum, London and encourages you to check out the PHYLO project.

 

I just noticed, with some amusement, that the 2010 Toy of the Year is something akin to a cute robotic rodent. Specifically, they are called Zhu Zhu Pets, a mechanical universe of furry and mobile hamsters, expandable with a hamster-like ecosystem complete with wheels, balls, and see through tunnels. The fact that this was announced during the International Year of Biodiversity seems deliciously ironic but maybe also informative?

 

Lest you think my thoughts on biodiversity outreach and education will settle uncomfortably on robotics, or perhaps even more frightening, hamsters, let me reassure you that, instead, I think this nugget of toy trivia highlights a problem with developed society in general. That is, we and more importantly, our children, have an apparent lack of connection with nature. After all, I'm pretty sure that any patch of green will reveal much more interesting examples of ‘animals that move’, which is unfortunate, because despite this obvious logic, I suspect that when presented to the eyes of the young, we all know who will win in a ‘Zhu Zhu versus the Green’ showdown.

 

This lack of connection is, I think, a very bad thing. In our television, computer, and now robot hamster driven world, we appear to be slowly losing the will to go outside and simply ‘take a look.’

 

After all, the act of going outdoors to look for biodiversity is still one of those few things that allow the citizen and child to undergo the very real act of discovery - a wondrous sensation that is not soon forgotten and often an entry into both awe for the environment and respect for the scientific method. Still, this is something that requires a bit of effort: a quick look doesn't suffice - you need a good long look, sometimes in the rain, which is perhaps why in the end the objects with batteries are winning.

 

There is, of course, another interpretation of connection. In this case, I'm referring to the general importance of biodiversity in the things that are near and dear to us, even things that an average person might not quickly equate with the natural world. Take our Toy of the Year as an example. No doubt, Zhu Zhu pets would not have been possible without careful study of the original prototype (an actual hamster). We can safely assume that the wheels would work a little less efficiently without our knowledge and use of materials from the rubber plant. The table from which people sat around to develop this toy idea was probably made of wood. I can also surmise that the room where this table might be found, is likely in a city or town placed ‘just so’ on a map, chosen to be there because the location was close to natural resources like forests for materials, soil rich in microbes for agriculture, a river ecology for clean water and transport. And let us not forget the food fuel required to power the minds that came up with the idea in the first place!

Seriously, it goes on. Truth is, if you were to imagine yourself part of a cult, one that rigorously abhorred the very thought of using anything connected to nature - a sort of extreme anti-vegan philosophy - your life would be severely lacking. Indeed, you might also be dead.

 

All to say that I think my point is this: that biodiversity education represents a wonderful opportunity to connect things. Whether it's the linkage between a child's thrilled senses and the backyard, or a person's bottom line to their natural surroundings, there is value in the discussion of biodiversity as yet another means to provide a holistic context in this noisy and frenetic world. In other words, why not with even more vigour, promote this connection to nature?

 

And how would this be achieved? I'd imagine this is already happening in wonderful ways, in many places, many projects. More so, I'd imagine that there are many opportunities where these values can be more emphatically applied. But I think this is where having a venue like this website where readers can post their ideas is fitting. Biodiversity is great because it is on the one hand represented by brilliant diversity and variety, and yet on the other hand, is unified in theme and focus.

 

Shouldn't there be an educational prerogative that works in the same way? I'd like to think so, since I know that that is one kind of noise I and others would love to hear more about.

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Paul Wilkinson is head of Living Landscapes for The Wildlife Trusts, and has responsibility for leading and supporting the achievement of their Living Landscapes vision across the UK. www.wildlifetrusts.org

 

Conservation groups such as The Wildlife Trusts will never give up our efforts to protect the UK's wildlife and habitats, but the truth is this can't be enough to ensure a bright future for biodiversity into the 21st century and beyond. Although we manage around 2,300 nature reserves across the UK, it's still not enough - we need nature to be thriving on a landscape scale.

 

The Wildlife Trusts' vision for A Living Landscape, a recovery plan for nature, was launched in 2006 and there are now more than 100 landscape scale schemes across the UK, covering over 3.5million acres.

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Image: Pumlumon, Montgomeryshire, the site of one of The Wildlife Trusts flagship Living Landscape schemes. © Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust

 

In trying to deliver these schemes we are working amid Government policies that tell us how land should be used and managed, few of them designed with nature in mind and virtually none actively supporting its restoration. Decisions about land use are being made by different organisations and government departments, with different interests, but this decision making is not aligned or suitably integrated towards achieving a common vision, and so wildlife and the natural services on which we all depend continue to decline.

 

Ahead of the General Election this year we were pushing for a White Paper on the natural environment as a way of addressing this. We envisioned this being a new driver to restore the natural environment, putting wildlife back on the front foot. It was a great cause for celebration when the coalition Government committed to a Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) in England. It's currently at a public consultation stage, where anyone can submit their views on what should be included. You can find out more on our website. We'd recommend doing so to anyone with an interest in nature and wildlife.

 

From The Wildlife Trusts' point of view, the NEWP should ensure all our existing wildlife areas are fully protected and valued, that they are enlarged and connected so wildlife can move between them, and that we are making the most of natural processes for the purposes of flood prevention, carbon absorption and crop pollination. It should also see partnerships continuing to develop between central and local government, businesses, communities, voluntary sector and landowners - a joint commitment to restoring nature. Wildlife, with the myriad benefits it brings, should be part of all of our lives. And Government needs to provide the impetus and means for this to happen.

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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

Over the past 20 years there has been a lot of interest in ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of animals, plants and microorganisms on Earth, their genetic makeup and the ecosystems in which they live.  There have been peaks and troughs – a peak with the massive excitement globally at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, when the world’s leaders seemed to pick up the biodiversity flag, and troughs with continued threats to ecosystems from rainforests to seabed, and no clear turning point to a more secure future.

 

So what happened to the tide of optimism generated in Rio?  We got a ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ out of it, but what has it done, and what will it achieve at its next major meeting in Nagoya?  At one level, the Convention (‘CBD’) has achieved a vast amount.  With 192 signatory countries, plus the European Union, it is the largest Environmental Convention.  It has 42 legally-binding provisions, and its major biennial meetings (the Conference of the Parties – ‘COP’) have taken nearly 250 detailed 'Decisions' about how the CBD should be implemented and what should be prioritised.  These have led to a great deal of work across the world, and money directed to biodiversity issues.  On the other hand, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it or, if they have, they have only a hazy idea of what it does.

 

The CBD is a policy process, a forum where global agreement can be reached and policies adopted.  However, these policies (the COP ‘Decisions’) are for national implementation, and are not legally binding.  Under the CBD “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies …”.  Biodiversity does not belong to all humanity as it did before Rio, but belongs to the countries in which it exists.  The CBD cannot fund implementation, and does not have staff to take part in ‘hands-on’ biodiversity work.  Thus projects tend not to be clearly labelled ‘CBD’ and it is difficult to see what CBD policies are achieving.  The policies themselves are written in complex language, and are far from ‘user-friendly’ to most of us.

 

CBD policies are not just about conservation, but are in support of the three equally-important objectives: Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity.  In terms of general understanding, ‘conservation’ is pretty easy, and many people stop there.  ‘Sustainable use’ is rather more complex, especially when we are not very clear about what that use is.  In fact ‘use’ encompasses everything from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual support to food and water provision to pollination and a whole range of other ‘environmental goods and services’ – the life support system of good old ‘Planet Earth’.  In that framework ‘sustainable’ might mean anything from ‘exactly as it is now / was at some time in the past’ to ‘enough to allow us to survive’.  In fact, since the issue is rarely discussed in a comprehensive way, the decisions on what action to take to ensure sustainability are rarely addressed and even more rarely put into practice.  I’ll come back to benefits from genetic resources in another post, because the nub of the matter is discussion, understanding and action.

 

In Nagoya the CBD COP will meet for the tenth time.  As with previous COPs, hundreds of government servants and others will spend the first week hammering out the details of new Decisions. In the second week environment ministers will join the stew to deal with any national political issues that can’t be addressed by the other attendees and then agree the final texts.  One of the major outcomes will be a new Strategic Plan for the CBD, including targets for 2020.  Whether those targets can be met depends entirely on how willing people across the world are to prioritise them against other policies, and to tell Government how much time, money and effort should be directed towards meeting them.  This has been an issue all along; Government may agree to CBD policies but can only implement them – bring the necessary benefits to biodiversity (and us!) – if voters want this to happen.  If we do not fully understand what these policies are, or even know they exist, there is little chance that Government can take the next important steps.

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

Bob_Bloomfield.jpgThe recent Mori Poll confirming that British people are concerned about the loss of species is no surprise. For many years we have worked to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty such as our network of national parks. As a nation of nature lovers we take great interest in our wildlife. While many of us do this from our armchairs, many others volunteer with NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and a host of other societies. Good progress has been made in protecting pockets of nature and specific species. Despite this over the past decade the United Kingdom, like the other 193 signatory countries to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has failed to meet the overall target of reversing biodiversity loss.

 

Biodiversity is the variety of living things, so biodiversity loss is happening at all levels – a decline in the genetic variety within species, individual species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and the decline in the variety of diverse habitats and ecosystems. What is happening now is without precedent, scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is maybe 1000 times the natural rate, and this erosion is due to human activities, primarily the consequence of the combined effects of human population growth and resource demands. These in turn fuel massive land-use changes with the expansion of agriculture and fishing, transport systems and urbanization, along with a host of industrial process with cause pollution through extraction, processing and waste disposal.

 

So here we get to the rub of the issue, while the efforts of Government environment departments, NGOs and volunteer organisations are having success, this is not dealing with the root cause of biodiversity loss which is the impact overall of human activity. Looking ahead to make a real difference humans need to look see things differently and do things differently.

 

The good news is that we are also becoming more aware of our dependence on biodiversity. Without green plants we would have no oxygen to breath. With no insects there would be no pollination of all the plants which provide our foods, fabrics, fuels and the host of other products for human use. Invertebrates, bacteria and fungi prevent us from being buried in our own waste and natural material would not be recycled which is essential for the maintenance of fertile soil. Without forests and moor land Insurance companies would pale at the risks of floods and drought, as these systems act like sponges to buffer the movement of rain to our rivers. Without genetic variety in nature we would have nowhere to turn to find the new strains of crops resistant to emerging pests and diseases, or for the natural pharmacopeia which is the basis for developing new medicines to protect people and our livestock. Even more significant today when we face the prospect of human induced climate change is the biological capability of forests, reef, ocean plankton, marches and bogs and other ecological systems to take in and lock away the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As humans allow biodiversity to degrade we threaten these Ecosystem Services, as they are called, and many more which I haven’t even mentioned.

 

Even more astounding is the emerging understanding of the economic cost of this loss. Conservative estimates of the economic costs of forest loss alone are between $2-4000000000000000000 ($2-4 trillion) each year (equivalent to about two global bank crises a year). Which brings me around to why it is so disturbing that so few people are aware of the meeting of the Convention On Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya in October, when targets for the future protection of biodiversity will be set.

 

The Rio Earth Summit in1992 highlighted three agendas to be addressed; climate change; sustainable economic development; and biodiversity loss. What is now abundantly clear is that these are not separate agendas; quite the contrary, if we cannot address biodiversity loss we cannot hope to succeed in either of the other two, human society has to see all three as intimately bound and needing to be addressed together. As a life-long naturalist and environmentalist this is self-evident, that our complex interacting living system earth is something which we cannot be apart from, and if we do not tend to its vital organs, its oceans, rivers and forests, we will suffer as it declines. The good news is that the new economic awareness of the importance of biodiversity might be understood in the world in international politics and so we may see positive outcomes from Nagoya.

 

However biodiversity action needs the understanding of people too. People who can provide the mandate to ensure politicians provide the policy framework that will make a difference. People in business who can champion the green economy of which biodiversity preservation is a central part; and ordinary people who have the vision to see a world where we make space for biodiversity is the only way to ensure the health wealth and wellbeing of future generations.

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