Actions to preserve the habitat of the White Rhino in South Africa helped save the species from extinction.© wikipedia
In the early 1990s, the international community came together with much fanfare and signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD was designed to preserve 10% of the world’s ecological regions by 2010. Sadly, no country is anywhere close to meeting this target. Human activity continues to destroy habitats, which has resulted in a massive decline in biodiversity. Twenty-five percent of the world’s mammal species, 20% of the world’s birds, and 40% of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction. Ninety percent of the world’s commercial fish species are over-exploited or have crashed.
Lessons from the White Rino
Many activists complain that governments are not infusing the cash that is needed to invest in environmental programs. They are right. However, during these times of ballooning deficits and fiscal austerity, environmental projects usually fall down the ladder of a government’s priorities. More resources are needed, yet they can come from another, under-utilized source—one that will protect critical habitats without putting new demands on over-stretched government finances.
Biospheres in their natural state can generate substantial revenues through programs that have low environmental impacts. Indeed, the best way to preserve habitats is to show that they have a greater value when they are protected than when they are cut down, bulldozed, polluted or paved over. This lesson was learned by a number of countries in Africa and Latin America. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the story of the White Rhinoceros, the world’s second-largest land mammal.
In the late 1800s, there were only 60 of these magnificent animals left on the planet, all huddled along the banks of the Umfolozi River in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The South African government of the day saw that this species would become extinct if they did not act quickly. First, they created the Imfolozi National Park to protect the habitat where this last population of White Rhinos lived. They then used the park to generate revenues from eco- and ethno-tourism, selling the meat of culled animals at a low price to people in the surrounding areas, and creating employment. Proceeds from these initiatives were diverted back into the park for conservation purposes, but were also used to fund primary health care, education and basic infrastructure. As a result, those who lived in the area saw that the reserve had a direct benefit to their lives and thus they acted to protect the park. This mechanism of generating funds from biospheres and providing benefits to rural populations is now being used in a number of countries, including Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Costa Rica and Brazil. In each case, habitats have been protected, species have been rescued from the brink of extinction, and the lives of people in rural areas have improved.
The Costs of Destruction
Destroying wild spaces may offer short-term benefits, but it comes at a massive long-term cost. Habitat loss results not only in the annihilation of species that could have been used for medical and commercial purposes, but also increases the prevalence of diseases and decreases water quality. These biospheres are also carbon sinks, so their destruction will exacerbate global warming, which negatively affects food security and weather patterns.
If world leaders in Nagoya merely come out with another protocol, then there is little hope that the march to extinction of so many species will be halted. If, however, world leaders connect development initiatives with environmental projects that preserve and use wild spaces to generate revenues sustainably while providing direct benefits to those who live near these habitats, then biospheres will be saved and our collective security will be strengthened.
Human security is contingent on environmental security. The health of our species is inexorably tied to the health of our planet. If we fail to implement solutions that support this natural equation, then our survival will be threatened as will that of the remarkable panoply of biodiversity that lives with us on our only home, planet Earth.
DR. KEITH MARTIN is a physician and Member of Canada’s Parliament who has worked extensively in Africa and the developing world in medicine and conservation. He is the founder and chair of Canada’s first All-Party International Conservation Caucus, which brings top scientists to Parliament to advise politicians, NGOs, bureaucrats, and diplomats about environmental solutions. He also founded the International Conservation Forum (www.icforum.info).