Nature Conservation - some foresight considerations

Nature Conservation - some foresight considerations

The natural world is afflicted by a wide range of pressures, mostly man-made, from climate change to poaching. Encroachment on wild spaces by human developments has many impacts and finding a balance between local communities and wildlife is becoming increasingly difficult.

Biodiversity

The accelerating loss of species around the globe is now referred to as the sixth mass extinction. It is driven by an unprecedented loss of vital ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, the result of social and economic systems that are focused on constant growth. The latest UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15, the second session of which is due to take place in October 2022, aims to implement ambitious measures for stemming biodiversity loss.

Anthropogenic extinctions have been occurring for millennia but recently it is the industrialised societies’ focus on economic growth and resulting need for “natural resources” that creates challenges. A  key element in solving  threats is a  transformation in the way society values nature.

Threatened species across the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are set to benefit from £6.4 million government funding announced in May. A total of 20 environmental recovery projects will be supported with a share of the Darwin Plus initiative to deliver marine conservation, research into threatened species, and improve resilience to climate change.

Pollution

Pollution is responsible for 9 million premature deaths per year worldwide , the majority of which are caused by air pollution. Nearly all pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries

Plastic particles smaller than 5mm (microplastics) have frequently been reported  in ocean and freshwater habitats:  microplastics have been found in rivers of the Himalayas,  deep in the Pacific Ocean and snow close to the peak of Mount Everest was found to contain on average 30 microplastic particles per litre. Microplastics can change the acidity, water holding capacity and porosity of soil. This affects plant growth and performanceby altering the way roots bury into the soil and take up nutrients.

Poaching

Wild animals are being poached on a massive scale, with millions of individual animals  including elephants, rhinos, lizards and monkeys  killed or captured from their native habitats. Wildlife trading is a major black market that has increased with rising wealth in Asia and more use of  e-commerce and social media websites.

Chimpanzees are hunted for meat which is the biggest  threat to their survival. This and other threats such as habitat loss has pushed chimpanzees onto the IUCN red list of endangered species. In  parts of Africa, chimpanzee populations have declined by 80% since 1990.

The illegal sale of donkey skins is thriving in online marketplaces, with traders openly flouting local laws, and social media multinationals such as Facebook doing little to prevent the illegal trade. About 4.8 million animals are killed each year in a trade largely driven by Chinese demand for traditional medicine.

Peru is among the world’s top ten most biodiverse countries. It ranks in the top five globally for amphibians, mammals and plants. This has made the nation a hotbed for wildlife trafficking. Some of this wildlife is poached for the pet trade. It is also hunted for bush meat, or sacrificial items for traditional remedies and religious rituals.

Species migration

Marine life in marine protected areas will not be able to tolerate warming ocean temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The marine protected areas at the greatest risk include those in the Arctic and Antarctic, in the northwest Atlantic, and the newly designated no-take reserves off the northern Galápagos islands Darwin and Wolf.

Recent heavy storms flooded puffin burrows on the Farne islands and washed away soil, and wider climate change could have affected sand eels, which are their primary source of food, leading to fears about their overall numbers.

For seabirds in the Australian region, climatic and oceanographic variation and change has been associated with changes in distribution, success and timing of breeding, chick growth and survival of adults and immature birds, across many foraging guilds and regions.

Growing plant trade may spread invasive species  but help ecosystems adapt to climate change. As commerce and tourism have become globe-spanning enterprises, humans are purposely or unintentionally moving many plants or their seeds and cuttings. This process can help species adjust the range in which they live to fit their climate requirements. Many of their former habitats are becoming too hot or dry, so moving can ensure plants persist in  changing landscapes. However dispersal by humans can accelerate the spread of  potentially invasive species that alter ecosystems and crowd native species out.

In Jamaica, native trees are being driven further up mountains towards extinction. Climate change is slowly shifting the range of plant and animal species into previously colder zones, towards the north and south poles and up the slopes of mountains. New research  shows  species migration was accelerated by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Human behaviour is driving evolution.

The peppered moth changed colour in response to air pollution, poaching has driven some elephants to lose their tusks and fish have evolved resistance to toxic chemicals. Human impacts are leading to exceedingly rapid alteration of our world and habitat loss. These accelerated rates of adaptive evolution can affect population dynamics and hence natural selection has the potential to partly mitigate effects of current environmental change.

Attitudes

Anthropocentrism results in the treatment of other species and nature as objects and resources for human ends. This assumption still underlies the way many people approach conservation. In environmental science and resource management, the concepts of “natural resources” and “ecosystem services” reflect the prevailing anthropocentric approach for assessing natural value, especially through cost-benefit economic analyses.

Technology

Researchers are using autonomous underwater robots to sample environmental DNA and monitor the biodiversity of marine systems. The  DNA offers insights into biodiversity changes in sensitive areas, the presence of rare or endangered species and the spread of invasive species. The autonomous robots are able to study previously unsurveyed regions of the ocean, and this new data could help strengthen global ocean health.

Whale images aid crucial research – British Antarctic Survey (bas.ac.uk) A new dataset featuring hundreds of satellite images of whales has been published to support the development of artificial intelligence systems which will aid crucial conservation work.

Scientists at NERC’s British Antarctic Survey (BAS) developed algorithms to automatically identify wildlife in remote and inaccessible areas from high resolution satellite imagery. The techniques have been used for a range of animals including whales, penguins, seals and albatrosses, and have delivered far more accurate data than previous survey methods at much lower cost and with minimal disturbance to the animal

AI could help spot viruses like monkeypox before they cross over  and help conserve nature. There is a need to be better prepared for spillover of viruses from animals,  focus on the connections between human, environmental and animal health. This is known as the One Health approach, endorsed by the World Health Organization. Artificial intelligence can help understand this web of connection and show how to keep life in balance.

The new European Space Agency satellite, BIOMASS,  will map how much carbon is held in forests, providing data vital for monitoring how deforestation and reforestation are affecting the global climate. BIOMASS will create 3D maps of the world’s forests, measuring the weight of the wood held within them and the height of the trees, providing information on deforestation and its reduction. The satellite will offer unprecedented insight into the changing state of the world’s forests.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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