ALERT’s scientists have been striving to track major threats to Earth’s wildlife and ecosystems, and here is our view of the biggest conservation issues of 2016. These include emerging themes and key regional issues in which ALERT has been actively involved.
Growing Perils for Africa’s Wildlife
Almost everywhere one looks, threats to Africa’s iconic wildlife and ecosystems are growing. These range from massive infrastructure projects, such as over 50,000 kilometers in proposed “development corridors” and a Nigerian superhighway that ALERT is actively opposing, to widespread illegal logging, poaching, and habitat loss. New research shows that species such as giraffes and cheetahs are increasingly threatened—joining the ranks of other endangered species in Africa including gorillas, elephants, and rhinos.
Battle for the Amazon
Deforestation in the vast Brazilian Amazon fell by at least 75 percent over the past decade, but there is no time for complacency. In 2016 there were major political efforts to undercut Brazil’s Forest Code and weaken key environmental protections. Particularly devious were back-room deals that were struck or advanced while the nation was distracted by the impeachment of the Brazilian president.
A refuge for Asia’s megafauna
The Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra, Indonesia is a biological wonder—the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos coexist. ALERT has been actively supporting efforts to protect Leuser, including an international conservation campaign and a lawsuit by Indonesian citizens and conservation groups to halt damaging new developments. The biggest near-term threats to Leuser are a proposed geothermal project and hydroelectric dam and aggressive road-building schemes. Such projects could fragment this imperiled ecosystem and destroy habitats crucial for wildlife movements and survival.
People need infrastructure, but the pace and extent of road, rail, dam, mining, and other infrastructure expansion is beyond dizzying—and is arguably the most immediate human threat to nature. Roads have already shattered Earth’s ecosystems into some 600,000 pieces. The onslaught is happening everywhere: from megadams in the Congo, to massive alteration of India’s waterways, to giant coal-burning plants in the wilds of Bangladesh. Many of Earth’s ecosystems could collapse unless we learn to say ‘no’ to damaging infrastructure projects.
Wilderness in retreat
In 2016 ALERT researchers helped generate new research showing that the Global Human Footprint is expanding while Earth’s wilderness areas are in retreat, shrinking by a tenth from 1993 to 2009. The biggest losses occurred in the tropics and in fertile areas that can support agriculture. Half of the world’s major ecosystems are at immediate risk—with rapid habitat loss and relatively few protected areas. In 2016 researchers discovered yet another key reason to protect wilderness: species in wild places have greater genetic diversity—and thus a greater capacity to adapt to new threats—than do the same species living in human-modified habitats.
Asia continues to be the global epicenter for the illegal international trade in wildlife pelts, parts, and pets, with China by far the biggest consumer. As a result, much of Southeast Asia has been defaunated, losing many of its wild animals and the ecosystem services they provide. The threat extends elsewhere, such as to Africa, where populations of elephants and rhinos are being decimated for their valuable tusks and horns. Large expanses of the planet are being silenced by chronic hunting, fishing, and wildlife harvesting.
Real hope for nature
Despite many alarming trends, ALERT scientists have argued emphatically in 2016 that there still is abundant hope for nature conservation—providing we identify and act on the most urgent threats. The biggest and most immediate killers are habitat disruption and overharvesting of wildlife and fisheries, which on land are being hugely accelerated by rampant infrastructure expansion. We vitally need better and more proactive land-use planning, especially in developing nations—a key field where ALERT and other conservation scientists are actively working.
Beyond this, protected areas can and do play a major role in saving biodiversity and key ecosystem services—but we need to expand and manage them better. Zero-deforestation agreements by large corporations are a hugely important trend, and show serious promise to reduce forest loss. And while the illegal wildlife trade is insidious, China has just announced it will outlaw its domestic ivory trade in 2017. If it comes through as promised, could this be a watershed moment for overhunted wildlife?
There’s no question that great challenges lay ahead. But with energy and sustained effort, there is still time to head off a modern mass-extinction event on Earth—for the enormous benefit of both nature and humanity.