Life on earth has always been marked by periods of extinction. 65 million years ago dinosaurs were wiped out, making way for other mammals to evolve, while before them the vertebrate species known as the trilobite dominated the planet.
These extinctions were believed to be sudden and caused by major climatic disruptions, such as sea level falls, methane eruptions, and in some cases collisions with asteroids.
Now a major extinction event is happening before us due not to any cataclysmic event but an unprecedented and ongoing pressure on the environment by humans. There an estimated 7.7 billion people today, making us the most populous large mammal on Earth.
“We’ve never had so many humans on the planet,” said Doreen Robinson, wildlife expert at the UN Environment Programme. “We’re experiencing an unprecedented loss of species in all ecosystems, further exacerbated by climate change.”
One million species are now on track to become extinct within the next few decades. In that context the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, aiming to repair 350 million hectares of degraded land between now and 2030.
The 2020 UN biodiversity conference to be held in China is anticipated to deliver a post-2020 set of global targets, and review the success of the 2020 goals set in Japan at the previous summit, most of which won’t be met.
This point of extinction could not have been better accentuated last week at the 18th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva, Switzerland, where fifteen new species were added to the most endangered list.
The animals—which include Asia’s smooth-coated and small-clawed otters, the pancake tortoise, and the African black crowned-crane bird—were given the highest level of protection under Appendix I of the treaty, meaning their trade is completely banned apart from in rare cases for scientific research.
Parties acknowledged that even well-known and majestic creatures such as the giraffe had decreased in number by up to 40 per cent due to habitat loss in the last 30 years. Because of this, all nine sub-species were placed on Appendix II, meaning that while trade in giraffes is still permitted, countries will be required to prove it does not further reduce their population.
Similarly, marine species like the blacknose and sharpnose sharks—highly valued for their fins and considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species—made Appendix II. In addition, the parties adopted a decision to record stockpiles of shark fins obtained prior to the listing and inspect fins in transit to markets so as to curb the illegal fin trade.
But biodiversity isn’t just a matter of giraffes and sharks, and the conference was sure to acknowledge this. Stronger measures to tackle illegal trafficking of tree species such as the rosewoods in west and central Africa and Madagascar, and the rare Mulanje cedar—Malawi’s national tree—were written with the view to preserve the threatened flora.
It may look daunting to the naked eye just how humans can find a sustainable way to coexist with nature while still providing for everyone. But the truth lies in nature itself. According to UNEP, there are many nature-based solutions to address the challenges we face, including forest restoration, sustainable farming, urban trees and others.
By working with nature rather than against it, we not only create low-cost and low-risk solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing our world, but can also protect the millions of species sharing this planet with us.