At this rate, with no forests or wildlife left, by the year 2050 we will need another planet

A century ago, there were 5 million elephants in Africa. There are only 450,000 left and they may disappear during our lifetime

epa08493362 A new born female elephant-calf (Elephantidae)  walks with her mother in their enclosure in the Cologne Zoo, in Cologne, Germany, 18 June 2020. The still unnamed calf was born on 17 June 2020.  EPA/SASCHA STEINBACH
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From the beginning of our existence, around 200,000 years ago, until 1880, our population rose to a billion people. By 2011 we were seven billion people. Now we are approaching 10 billion. Let that sink in. What previously took us a century now takes a mere decade. At this pace of growth and resource consumption, we will need another planet by 2050.

Natural disasters, such as droughts and wildfires, have an impact on animal populations, but they usually do not cause the irreversible decline that human encroachment does on wildlife habitats. The decline in the number of rhinos, elephants and other large mammals have as much to do with this encroachment as they do with, for example, poaching. A century ago, there were an estimated 5 million elephants in Africa. Today, due to poachers, ivory hunters and encroachment, there are only about 450,000 surviving elephants.

An increasing human population and a corresponding increase in human needs are causing irreversible transformation. We cut entire forests to plant palms for fuel and cooking oil. We overfish oceans that are already polluted by plastic. Animal habitats are destroyed by ever increasing livestock numbers, bringing danger to people and domesticated animals through contact with unknown pathogens like Sars, Ebola and the novel coronavirus.

We have disrupted great forests and many other wild ecosystems on our planet that developed over thousands of years. We have cut our way through the Congo, the Amazon, Borneo, Sumatra, Madagascar, Ethiopia and many more places. We kill and eat wild animals found in the most remote habitats.

Experts from Germany, Argentina and the US warned in a UN report last year that the “destruction of natural resources threatens human society”. The global illegal wildlife industry, worth an estimated $23 billion annually, is driven chiefly by demand for decorations or traditional medicines with no proven benefits. Wildlife is being offered for sale online. The 2018 Global Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London agreed that offenders ought to be punished the same way as money launderers and human traffickers, but corruption facilitates wildlife crimes and undermines efforts to enforce the law.

Despite an increase in conservation responses, the world is failing to achieve its global biodiversity conservation targets

Over 1,000 rangers have been killed on duty in the past decade, and often the killers escape punishment. At the current pace at which we are destroying natural ecosystems, we are placing many species of flora and fauna at the risk of disappearing forever. In the Hawaiian Islands 95 of the 142 endemic bird species have gone extinct, earning Hawaii the title of bird extinction capital of the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's “Red List of Threatened Species” is an authoritative source on the conservation status of species and as of 2017 has assessed 85,604 species worldwide.

Despite an increase in conservation responses, the world is failing to achieve its global biodiversity conservation targets. The state of biodiversity is worsening across our planet for many reasons: political, conflicts, negligence, logistics, and a lack of foresight.

Recent studies have revealed, however, how helpful and crucial conservation efforts are in safeguarding species and slowing the rate of biodiversity loss. Species may recover from near-extinction with the intervention of persons, groups, governments or private organisations. These efforts can include eradication of invasive species, captive breeding and re-introduction programmes, habitat protection and restoration.

A good example is the “Species Conservation Fund” established by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008. So far, the fund has distributed nearly $17 million to approximately 1,800 projects across the planet. Many species have been saved from extinction where a combination of conservation actions have been implemented by engaged scientists.

These programmes are often very difficult to carry out because they are expensive. Recovery of species from decline or extinction is often a success story, but we should never forget why these declines occur in the first place.

The Paul B. Loyd Jr drilling rig, operated by Transocean Inc., sits in the Port of Cromarty Firth in Cromarty, U.K., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Oil headed for a weekly decline -- only the second since April -- as a surge in U.S. coronavirus cases clouded the demand outlook, though the pessimism was tempered by huge cuts to Russia's seaborne crude exports. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
A drilling rig in the Port of Cromarty Firth in Cromarty, UK. Jason Alden / Bloomberg

A typical example for recovery is the Mauritius Kestrel, a species of bird, which was down to only four specimens in the 1970s. More than 100 species – some formerly believed extinct – have been brought back from the brink of extinction by individuals and organisations that have dedicated their time, passion, talent and expertise for preserving wildlife on Earth.

“Rewilding” provides hope for the future, and can breathe new life into natural landscapes and struggling rural communities. As things stand, elephants, white and black rhinos as well as mountain gorillas may disappear from the planet during our lifetime. The most important tool we have for conserving species is safeguarding their habitats. These efforts must be complemented by the enforcement of laws and regulations. Those are also the best tools for conserving millions of undiscovered species that do not currently receive targeted conservation attention.

The activities of 9bn people are causing the disintegration of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. We need to embark on conservation and reconstruction efforts now, before it is too late.

Dr Ulrich Wernery is the scientific director at Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai