How Can We Avoid Mass Extinctions?
Humans excel at inventing new tools, but not necessarily at using them wisely. Historically, we manipulated nature without considering the consequences for our ecosystems. As a result, up to one million plants, animals, and other organisms currently face extinction because of human activities.
To avoid further biodiversity loss, a new global framework is currently being negotiated by the world’s governments through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It includes four goals with 21 targets to carry out these goals. As stated in “Goal A,” all participating countries pledge to reduce the number of extinctions by at least ten times their current rate, and to reduce the risk of extinction across all species by half.
This sounds very promising, but here’s the sticking point: Governments have already committed to similar strategies in the past, yet none of them could sufficiently reduce the extinction rates across all species. To put it differently, while some species were saved from extinction, others were not. The prior framework of the CBD seemed to be just as ambitious as the new one, but even so, it wasn’t broad enough to account for all threatened species. To make sure the new plan works out, this study explored how many species will really benefit from the eight suggested targets of Goal A in the new CBD framework, and which of these targets will be especially important to turn away further extinctions.
The eight targets are as follows:
- Target 1: Use spatial planning to maintain current ecosystems
- Target 2: Restore damaged ecosystems and engage in ecosystem connectivity
- Target 3: Conserve critical land and sea areas
- Target 4: Ensure active conservation management to restore and maintain species diversity
- Target 5: Hunting, trade, and other uses of wild animals should be “sustainable” and “safe”
- Target 6: Manage and/or reduce so-called “invasive species”
- Target 7: Address pollution
- Target 8: Reduce the effect of climate change on biodiversity
Most endangered species are affected by more than one threat, and threats can be tackled by more than one target. For example, climate change threatens the habitat of polar bears, while they’re additionally exposed to high levels of pollutants through their food. Protecting them means enacting targets 1-3 of the CBD framework, as well as targets 7-8.
To assess which threats are addressed by which target, the authors made use of the Red List of Threatened Species, which is regularly published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It includes more than 40,000 endangered species, of which 7,784 were considered in this study, and assigns each species with threats that affect them. According to this list, about one-third of all documented species are threatened with extinction. However, recent estimates guess that up to one million species are at risk of extinction, including ones that scientists haven’t yet discovered.
The results showed substantial differences in the number of species that would benefit from each target. Targets 1, 2, and 3, which generally focus on restoring and conserving ecosystems, address 95% of all species. These targets are effective because they tackle threats most species are affected by, particularly those resulting from agricultural activities. By way of comparison, minimizing the impact of climate change (target 8) and reducing pollution (target 7) would only help 21% of species. But as most species benefit from more than one target — with most benefitting from two — this doesn’t mean that any of the targets should be neglected. It just implies that some targets are more critical than others.
That leads us to the most important finding of this report: the extinction rates of at least 57% of species would not be sufficiently reduced without addressing target 4. Of all proposed targets, this is the only one that provides individually customized recovery actions to weakened species, such as by supplying them with vaccinations, extra food, or sheltered breeding sites. About half of all considered species require such actions because they’re facing threats not addressed by any other target. An additional 1,863 species rely on active interventions because we’ve restrained them to such an extent that they’re not able to recover on their own. Species depending on target 4 occur in almost every country, with a median of 54 species per country.
From the results of this study, it’s clear that individualized actions are critical for the survival of many wild animal species. However, you can’t provide targeted recovery actions to undiscovered species. So, while it is motivating that the CBD now includes such actions, it’s also important to remember that we’ve only identified a fraction of all threatened species — not even 5%, to be exact. Nevertheless, following the targets set out by the CBD may prevent further human-induced harm.
Animal advocates should bear in mind that there have been plenty of encouraging conservation strategies that repeatedly failed to meet their goals. So, if we don’t want the CBD’s latest framework to be another missed opportunity, we must make sure that governments, the CBD, as well as the general public prioritize species conservation as a matter of urgency. As soon as the new framework comes into effect, all participating parties must scrupulously monitor its effectiveness. In the meantime, advocates must also encourage the public to cohabit peacefully with wild animals and to reduce their individual impact on non-human animals and the environment.