The case for nature

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The case for nature

We have brought the natural world and its diversity to a crisis. Dinyar Godrej looks at the damage and writes about what we need to do.


An Indian tiger. India’s tiger numbers were fewer than 2,000 in 1970 and now up to about 3,000 as a result of a big conservation effort. But it has also forced many tribal peoples, who lived successfully with the animals, from their lands. PANORAMIC IMAGES/ALAMY

At the start of 2020 a strange, beautiful creature, the Chinese paddlefish, was gone for ever. It lived on the planet for at least 200 million years. We homo sapiens have lived only 300,000 years on the planet. And the dinosaurs were gone 65 million years ago.

The Chinese paddlefish could grow seven metres long, with a long nose to help find its food. It had very small funny eyes and a very big mouth. It did not go extinct naturally. We overfished it. During the 1970s, we caught 25 tons of paddlefish each year. And the dam on its Yangtze river home blocked the way to its spawning grounds. When we started to try to save it, it was too late. The last time someone saw a Chinese paddlefish was in 2003, and it probably went extinct years before.

In June 2020, researchers found that there were fewer than 1,000 of 515 vertebrate species alive and they were soon to be extinct. There were fewer than 250 of more than half of these. This is not the full story because we do not know about many of the species in our natural world. We think the number of all species facing extinction is one million.

Scientists say the extinction threat is as urgent as climate change and in a way worse because we cannot change extinction. When a species is gone, it’s gone for ever. With it goes all its evolutionary adaptation to its living conditions, over millions of years, and all its interactions with its ecosystem. Species are closely connected to their ecosystem and so the extinction of one species can start more extinctions, making nature poorer and poorer.



Extinction, by itself, is not new – it has happened since life began on Earth. But now it is faster. The fossil record suggests that maybe a vertebrate species goes extinct in one to three million years. Today the average expected lifespan is only 5,000 years. Plant extinction is 500 times faster than we expect naturally.

Global collapse

Extinction is the beginning of a bigger global problem. There are many more of the animals that humans eat. But wildlife is undergoing, what conservationists are calling, a biological collapse. In the short time between 1970 and 2016 the global population of wild mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles fell by an amazing 68 per cent.

Studies often overlook insects and many could go extinct without our knowing about them. Older car drivers can remember when after a long journey the car windscreen was full of squashed insects. But not now. A recent study across 41 countries in 5 continents found that the number of land insects was going down by nearly 1 per cent each year.

At the time of writing Covid-19 has killed only 0.017 per cent of the human population and the effects are clear. Covid-19 itself came from some of the causes of losing biodiversity - the close connection of humans to wild animals after they lose their habitats, and the industrial farming of livestock.

Today scientists are talking of a sixth mass extinction. Before, extinctions came from very big volcanic explosions or meteorite hits but this one is from human activity. In 2002, the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen called our age the Anthropocene. Ecological collapse is now not just a fantasy; it could lead to our own extinction or humans living, with great difficulty, in an ‘empty world’.

Conservation problems

But if we give nature the space, protection, and the opportunity, it can come back. But we need to make a very big effort: on habitat destruction, unsustainable exploitation of wildlife, the illegal international wildlife trade, the climate emergency, and pollution. And this is difficult in an unequal world where the richest put great pressure on every corner of the planet.

The first answer to nature’s destruction is conservation, saving habitats and species. But this is difficult with a changing climate. You could feed hungry elephants in the rainforest of the Congo Basin because the fruit they need is getting more difficult to find because of drier conditions. But what can we do about the falling numbers of insect-eating birds in the Amazon? The numbers are falling because the heat is killing the insects they need to eat. And what can we do about plant species that need to move to higher ground at an impossible speed to survive global warming? Or what can we do about animals needing to move to higher ground but they cannot because there are no migration corridors or new habitats to move to? What can we do when we know that as much as 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is nearly turning into grassland because of drought?

Robert Watson was the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). He said, ‘We cannot solve the dangers of human-made climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We must solve both or we solve neither.’

There is also a crisis in how we do conservation and a lot we cannot do. Often there is no political will and conservation relies on NGOs. But these NGOs happily accept funding from businesses that destroy nature – including mining and fossil-fuel companies.

Worse is conservation which tries to enclose land to protect biodiversity. This often takes away land from the indigenous peoples who live on it and who protect nature. A study of over 15,000 sites in Australia, Brazil, and Canada compared protected areas with lands managed by indigenous peoples. It found the indigenous lands have slightly more species than the protected areas and, in Brazil and Canada, they even supported more species in danger than protected areas even when the indigenous peoples were hunting on these lands.

Recently the US government cut $12 million of funding to conservation NGOs, including WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society. They talked about human rights abuses in Africa, and said that there would no longer be finance for these organizations unless they have the full agreement of indigenous people.

Big appetites

The UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has plans to reserve a third of our planet for nature. It’s not a surprise that organizations campaigning for the rights of indigenous peoples think the plans could be ‘the biggest land grab in history’. It is certain that nature needs space but space will only work if it includes nature’s protectors, the indigenous peoples.

Scientists think we grow enough to feed everyone without changing more land to agriculture. But two-thirds of deforestation in the tropics is due to big agribusinesses clearing land for soy, beef, and palm oil. Livestock takes up nearly 80 per cent of global agricultural land and gives us less than 20 per cent of the calories we need. And, if everyone eats like a US citizen, we will need 137 per cent of the world’s habitable land for agriculture, but only 22 per cent if we eat Indian diets. And, the biggest 1 per cent of farms cover over 70 per cent of the world’s farmland.

Today there is a lot of road building in many countries in the Global South and it threatens forests. Is it necessary? Unfortunately, most of these projects are not for local communities to connect them to healthcare services or job opportunities, but to help the mining and transport of their natural riches.


Will we see real change? Can we make changes faster? Let’s think about the 20 biodiversity targets set for 2011-20 by the 196 nations who signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. By the end of 2020 we had not met one target. The next talks are in May 2021 in Kunming, China. Can we hope for more action this time?

With vaccines on the way and Covid-19 causing about $26 trillion in economic damage and making billionaires richer, will capitalism continue producing too much and destroying nature? This will bring the possibility of the next pandemic closer.

Or can we make the political changes needed? The answer is equality. And secure economies to limit economic growth.

We are destroying nature. We need to act quickly.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)