What is the biggest problem that the planet faces?
This is not an easy question and the “right” answer is always going to be subject to personal assessment and debate. Though, I imagine that if we asked a group of people this question the same answers would keep cropping up: global warming, pollution, over population, environmental destruction.
Which is the most important? Does it matter?
Maybe “the most important” does not matter, they are all important issues, mostly interlinked with overlapping solutions. Nonetheless, I wanted to choose an answer to that first question that was right for me, that I believed in and that I could have a go at solving (or at least contributing in some way to the solution).
Since 1970, in the vast majority of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish populations, we have seen an overall decline in population sizes of 52%. Put another way: In the lifetime of most people on the planet, over half the world’s wild animals have disappeared. This has been coupled with the destruction of millions and millions of hectares of wild spaces.
The statistics for many individual species are in fact much worse than this. In my lifetime (I’m 32) African Elephant populations have declined by 70%. This year, 35,000 Elephants will be killed by poachers. This is likely to happen again next year, and the year after. It has been happening at this rate for the last 5 years. That is 100 Elephants that are shot and killed every single day somewhere in Africa. At these current rates they will be extinct in 25 years. One of the species that I will be working with in the next year, the Lowland Gorilla, have lost over 60% of their numbers in the last 20 years.
Without change, we can predict how these trends will end. We have already witnessed the extinction of countless species. Few puncture the collective consciousness, but some of the more iconic do. The Yangtze River Dolphin, the Javan Tiger and (perhaps most sadly) the Western Black Rhinoceros – all gone, forever, lost in our lifetimes. It is not just these iconic big mammal species that we are losing. Thousands of undiscovered species are likely to have been made extinct by our human obsession with destroying wild places. A compact way of expressing this problem is that we are in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction. Sadly, we are the cause.
The evidence is quite clear that ever since we made it out of the Rift Valley, Homo Sapiens have been leaving devastation in their wake. We have been decimating wild populations for thousands of years, causing extinctions as we have spread across the planet. This current surge is just the latest tragic chapter of our relationship with the natural world. The ways in which we do this are fairly straight-forward. In the modern language of Conservation Biology we call them “Habitat Loss” and “Poaching”, but put simply we either destroy where animals live because we want to use it for something else, or we kill them, either to eat them or for some other reason. Using nature in this way has been fundamental to the progress that our species has made. However, and this is a concept I will come back to, I believe that there is such a thing as too much progress and we have now reached a tipping point.
It is, fortunately, not all doom and gloom. In the last 50 years there have been significant strides made in protecting nature and plenty of success stories. Some wild populations are increasing, whales are no longer slaughtered in the huge numbers they once were, countless acres of wild land (more than ever before) is now under legal protection in National Parks and other reserves. Millions of people give billions of dollars every year to organisations who work to protect nature. There are precedents. It can be done. It is possible for us to coexist on this planet with the millions of other species who also live here. However, this will only happen if people take action, and protecting the natural world is easily the biggest, most difficult challenge that the human race, and the planet, faces today.
I would argue, passionately, that this is worth doing in and of itself. That there is intrinsic good in protecting and celebrating the natural world. But even if we do need more immediate, anthropocentric reasons to protect the natural world, there are plenty of them too. Human beings depend on healthy, properly functioning ecosystems for our very survival. Without them there would be no pollination, no crops, no food to eat, no clean air or water, the list goes on. There are a number of studies which show that the economic contribution of ecosystems runs into the trillions, but frankly you cannot put a price on natural processes that we simply cannot replicate. Add to this the incredible resource that healthy, biodiverse ecosystems offer for medical research and scientific understanding. Maybe most importantly, nature and wild places are good for the human spirit. They help us understand what it means to be human, they are the places we go for contemplation, reflection and happiness. All of this is in jeopardy.
So, we can either protect nature because it is a good thing to do, or we can protect it because we have no choice. Either way, if we want the world to survive and prosper, protecting nature needs to become the rallying cry of our generation. One way or the other, it needs to happen.
So this brings me to now, October 2015, writing this blog deep in the Congo rainforest. I’ve decided that I want to spend my life saving the world’s wild places, preventing priceless ecosystems from being destroyed and stopping the slaughter of wild animals. Communicating the value of these things to other people is essential and I hope in a small, modest way that this blog will be part of that.
This first role in the Central African Republic is the beginning of my efforts to contribute. I have a huge amount to learn about Conservation Biology and I have no doubt that it will be more complex and challenging than I can possibly imagine right now. There will be many lessons to learn and insights to be had, I will endeavour to share them here on this site.
If you’ve any thoughts or questions, on this or any of the future posts, please feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy my blog.