Biodiversity Conservation

2023 February Rewilding

Rewilding came to the fore in 2022, with projects happening across the globe. Illustration: Valero Doval/The Guardian

2022: The year rewilding went mainstream

The Guardian’s biodiversity editor, Max Benato, writes that COP15’s long-awaited agreement is by no means the only good news for Nature to emerge from 2022. Away from Cop15, rewilding came to the fore in 2022, with projects across the globe, from the reintroduction of bison and cluster rewilding in the UK to big ambitions in Argentinalessons learned in the Netherlands and the US, and the 10th Rewilding Europe project launched. As we enter 2023, many are gaining inspiration from the past, with an uptick in regenerative farming, the return of ancient crops such as buckwheat and Welsh oats, and the harnessing of ancient irrigation systems. Others are looking forward, taking innovate steps in conservation, including collecting fogturning bus stops into homes for pollinators and utilising artificial intelligence.

Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris examines equipment used to trace movements of animals in O’Hair Park, on Oct. 8, 2022, in Detroit. Harris and colleagues have placed trail cameras in woodsy sections of 25 city parks for the past five years. With many types of wildlife struggling to survive and their living space shrinking, some are finding their way to big cities. Credit: AP Photo/John Flesher

Extinctions, shrinking habitat spur ‘rewilding’ in cities

In a bustling metro area of 4.3 million people, Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris ventures into isolated thickets to study Detroit’s most elusive residents—coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks among them. Harris and colleagues have placed trail cameras in woodsy sections of 25 city parks for the past five years. They’ve recorded thousands of images of animals that emerge mostly at night to roam and forage, revealing a wild side many locals might not know exists. Reports that up to a million animal species are at risk of extinction has driven the rewilding movement.  Rewilding generally means reviving natural systems in degraded locations—sometimes with a helping hand. That might mean removing dams, building tunnels to reconnect migration pathways severed by roads, or reintroducing predators such as wolves to help balance ecosystems. But after initial assists, there’s little human involvement. The idea might seem best suited to remote areas where nature is freer to heal without interference. But rewilding also happens in some of the world’s biggest urban centers, as people find mutually beneficial ways to coexist with nature.

A great egret flies above a great blue heron in a wetland inside the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in Trenton, Mich., on Oct. 7, 2022. The refuge consists of 30 parcels totaling 6,200 acres (2,509 hectares), including islands, wetlands and former industrial sites. It is an example of rewilding, which generally means reviving natural systems in degraded locations. Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Urban rewilding can’t return landscapes to pre-settlement times and doesn’t try, said Marie Law Adams, a Northeastern University associate professor of architecture. Instead, the aim is to encourage natural processes that serve people and wildlife by increasing tree cover to ease summer heat, storing carbon and hosting more animals. Or installing surface channels called bio-swales that filter rainwater runoff from parking lots instead of letting it contaminate creeks. Detroit’s sprawling metro area illustrates how human actions can boost rewilding, intentionally or not. Hundreds of thousands of houses and other structures were abandoned as the struggling city’s population fell more than 60% since the 1950s. Many were razed, leaving vacant tracts that plants and animals have occupied. Nonprofit groups have planted trees, community gardens and pollinator-friendly shrubs. Conservation projects reintroduced ospreys and peregrine falcons. Bald eagles found their way back as bans on DDT and other pesticides helped expand their range nationwide. Anti-pollution laws and government-funded cleanups made nearby rivers more hospitable to sturgeon, whitefish, beavers and native plants, such as wild celery.

“Detroit is a stellar example of urban rewilding, ” said John Hartig, a lake scientist at the nearby University of Windsor and former head of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “It’s been more organic than strategic. We created the conditions, things got better environmentally, and the native species came back.”

The foregoing is excerpted from © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Summary of action points toward more equitable and effective ecosystem restoration. Credit: BioScience (2022). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biac099

How social considerations improve the equity and effectiveness of ecosystem restoration

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal closed this past December with an unprecedented agreement to place 30% of global degraded landscapes under protection by 2030, especially emphasizing the need to respect indigenous and local communities rights in the process. Conservation efforts to date have fallen short and have been driven by insights from ecologists, especially by mapping studies outlining potential of restoration across scales. While these studies have been important, they often overlook the human element. In a recent study, published in BioScience, colleagues and I show how areas identified by other scholars to be of highest restoration priority around the world are inhabited by more than a billion people who disproportionately belong to groups with below-average health outcomes, education levels, and income. These people are in many cases directly dependent on their landscape for food security, and often have strong cultural ties to their lands. Current restoration often takes place in the context of strong power imbalances and objectives may vary depending on whom you ask. Land-use policies driven by actors in the Global North but implemented in the Global South have a burdensome track-record of increasing marginalization of local communities. Beyond ethical reasoning, restoration projects will be more likely to sustain, and thereby to realize ecological objectives, if they align with local communities’ desires for their landscapes. People are simply more likely to maintain a participative restoration project that benefits them.

Biodiversity Climate Change Conservation

2023 January Biodiversity: COP15 and other news

Photo archives Agence France-Presse

COP15: Key outcomes agreed at the UN biodiversity conference in Montreal

Almost 200 countries have agreed to a new set of goals and targets to “halt and reverse” biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. The landmark deal was reached after two weeks of often tense talks in Montreal at the UN biodiversity summit, known as COP15. Observers hope that a strengthened mission, measurable targets and an “enhanced implementation mechanism” mean that the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), as it is formally known, will succeed where its predecessor – the Aichi targets, agreed at COP10 in 2010 – did not. Occurring two years later than planned due to the global pandemic, COP15 was characterised by the city’s frigid winter temperatures and sometimes-frosty negotiations. Tensions were high throughout the summit, with developed countries wanting to ratchet up the framework’s ambition, while developing countries sought assurance that developed countries would devote sufficient resources to allow them to do so. The final deal, reached in the early hours of Monday 19 December, included the oft-repeated headline target of “30×30” – an ambition to conserve 30% of the world’s land and 30% of the ocean by 2030. A second “30×30” goal also made it into the final package, with developed countries agreeing to mobilise $30bn for developing countries by 2030.

POST-COP 15 SUMMIT OPINIONS: The final outcome received wide news coverage alongside some editorials and columns. But, as opinion writer David Wallace-Wells wrote in his newsletter for the New York Times, it “received only a fraction of the press coverage lavished on the COP27 climate conference” in November. Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, wrote in a column for the Guardian that he left COP15 “feeling rather more optimistic than I did only a fortnight ago”. A Times editorial called the deal a “rare piece of good news in gloomy times”. Allison Hanes wrote in the Montreal Gazette that “the hoped-for ‘Montreal moment’ materialised”. Writing in the Scotsman, environmental campaigner and consultant Dr Richard Dixon said that the new framework is a “really big step forward for nature and human rights”, but that countries have been “slow to deliver on promised actions” and funding in past agreements. “The world has seven years to show it can do better for nature,” he concluded. (From Cropped email 2023/01/11).

The climate and biodiversity crises are intertwined. Credit: Chase Dekker/Shutterstock

Biodiversity treaty: UN deal fails to address the root causes of nature’s destruction, say professors

How historic is this deal, really? Judging from the effect of protected areas and major environment meetings over the last few decades, we should not get our hopes up. If there is anything that defines the history of mainstream conservation it is the steady rise of protected areas, covering about 2% of the globe in the 1960s to around 17% now. This progress was incredibly difficult, and still created many ineffective “paper parks” where species are protected from hunting and other threats in name only. Worse, it bred human rights abuses and violence as people were excluded from land that was declared off-limits. If it took 60 years to get to 17%, how realistic is a near-doubling of Earth’s protected areas over the next eight years? And how will it, despite the pact’s rhetoric of placing indigenous peoples at the centre of conservation, ensure that the violence of the past is not repeated? Perhaps, without these efforts, things could have been even worse for nature. But an equally valid argument would be that area-based conservation has blinded many to the causes of Earth’s diminishing biodiversity: an expanding economic system that squeezes ecosystems.

Roadmap to 2030: Delivering on Canada’s Land and Ocean Protection Targets

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has for the first time released a report that sets out a pathway to get the country to within striking distance of its commitment to safeguard 30% of land and ocean in Canada by the end of the decade. This Roadmap identifies dozens of opportunities for protection across Canada, both on land and in the ocean, that include ongoing or already committed-to land use and/or conservation planning processes, including many Indigenous-led conservation initiatives.

Silverback mountain gorilla feasting on bamboo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Underlining the importance of plants to biodiversity, Tim Knight of Fauna & Flora International writes about Five amazing plants and the endangered animals that depend on them. Pandas aren’t the only ones that eat bamboo, gorillas depend on it also. Gibbons dine on the evocatively named strangler fig, which starts life high in the treetops, when a bird that has fed on fig fruit elsewhere deposits poo containing undigested seeds. Mangroves, which serve to protect coastal areas from storm surges and erosion, are also important habitat and food sources for a variety of endangered species, including the pendulous-nosed proboscis monkey, one of Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches, and the Utila spiny-tailed iguana, named after the single Honduran island where it is found.

Rebecca’s front garden. Photo by Jon Last.

Small spaces can make a big difference to wildlife, new study suggests

Gardeners should take heart that they too can make a difference. Scientists from Lancaster University in the U.K., as well as Michigan and Washington State Universities in the U.S., conducted a study looking at the effectiveness of smaller wildflower planting and pollinator habitat creation. The results from the field study plots show that the beneficial effects of small patches are only found where there are multiple pollinator-friendly plots relatively closer together. The benefits were significantly reduced when there are fewer small plots spread out within large landscapes, such as big areas of farmland larger than 15 hectares. This research is supported by similar studies of little patches of pollinator-friendly plots within city environments, which have also shown to add up across a cityscape to be a huge natural resource for wild bees. The results were published by the journal Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment.

Garden writer Lorraine Johnson, pictured above, used the outcome of COP15 to highlight how municipal bylaws can be weaponized against habitat and biodiversity in this editorial in the Toronto Star. While negotiators were meeting at the UN biodiversity conference, a resident of an Ontario city was negotiating with municipal officials to protect biodiversity in her front yard. Endangered monarch butterflies nourished by the milkweed in this naturalized garden were on their journey to Mexico. Bees were nesting in the stalks of goldenrods and asters that bylaw officials labelled “unkempt weeds.” These two negotiations — one global, one local — couldn’t be more different, but their implications for the future of biodiversity share a crucial similarity: human tenure on this planet rests on our ability to reconcile with nature, and the policies we construct, whether global agreements or local bylaws, will either facilitate our success in protecting biodiversity or create barriers that limit our chances. She notes that nature is inherently messy. Municipal grass and weeds bylaws are rife with vague language and they’re subjectively interpreted by enforcement officers in response to neighbours upset by landscapes that looks “different” or “unmanaged.”

Advice to residents seeking to garden on the “hell strips” that border their gardens is to speak to neighbours and landlords first. Here in Ottawa, the city is currently reviewing bylaws regarding the planting of rights of way, such as these hell-strips. The objective is to permit residents who would like to plant something other than turf and create habitat for native plants and insects.

Biodiversity Climate Change

COP15 Debrief

Official photo of the Adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework 

On December 19, 2022 at 3:33 a.m. ET, the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework Agreement was adopted – a historic, once-in-a-decade moment for nature. The framework comprises 4 goals and 23 inter-connected targets to be achieved by 2030. First among the goals is the much-bruited 30×30 — effective conservation and management of at least 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans, with emphasis on areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and services. Other targets include:

  • Having restoration completed or underway on at least 30% of degraded terrestrial, inland waters, and coastal and marine ecosystems
  • Reducing to near zero the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity
  • Cutting global food waste in half and significantly reducing over consumption and waste generation
  • Reducing by half both excess nutrients and the overall risk posed by pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals
  • Progressively phasing out or reforming by 2030 subsidies that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, while scaling up positive incentives for biodiversity’s conservation and sustainable use
  • Mobilizing by 2030 at least $200 billion per year in domestic and international biodiversity-related funding from all sources – public and private
  • Funding – raising international financial flows from developed to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States, and countries with economies in transition, to at least US$ 20 billion per year by 2025, and to at least US$ 30 billion per year by 2030
  • Preventing the introduction of priority invasive alien species, and reducing by at least half the introduction and establishment of other known or potential invasive alien species, and eradicating or controlling invasive alien species on islands and other priority sites
  • Requiring large and transnational companies and financial institutions to monitor, assess, and transparently disclose their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity through their operations, supply and value chains and portfolios

Commentators are mixed as to whether these measures will be enough. However, this outcome significantly exceeds the somewhat pessimistic projections that accompanied much of the debate, so just achieving an agreement is a win. The framework also includes: mechanisms for planning, monitoring, reporting and review; capacity-building and development and technical and scientific cooperation; and resource mobilization. As gardeners, we can do our bit to help foster biodiversity in our own backyards, and avoid planting invasive species.


COP15 Biodiversity Update

Avoiding climate breakdown depends on protecting Earth’s biodiversity—can the COP15 summit deliver?:

Thousands of delegates have gathered in Montreal, Canada, for a once-in-a-decade chance to address the accelerating pace of species loss and the dangers of ecosystem breakdown. COP15 brings together parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with a goal of negotiating this decade’s biodiversity targets and a new global framework for biodiversity protection. The summit risks being overshadowed by the recently concluded COP27 on climate change, but the issues are linked and the importance of biodiversity protection cannot be overstated. About one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. Not only are our activities driving this mass extinction, its consequences also threaten our own health and survival. COP15 needs to mark a step change in how quickly and how seriously the international community responds to catastrophic nature loss. The focus is expected to be on 30×30, a push to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by the end of this decade.

According to the Guardian UK’s reporters Daisy Dunne and Dr Giuliana Viglione, this proposal is backed by 114 countries, including Canada. But there are challenges. Some groups argue that protecting 30% of the world’s land and sea doesn’t go far enough. For example, Karl Burkart, deputy director of the NGO One Earth, likened a goal of protecting 50% to the Paris agreement’s highest ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5C. “30% to me really does feel like the 2°C and 50% is the 1.5°C,” he told a press conference held at the summit on Friday. Then there’s the question of which land to protect. Will countries chose to protect lands that are already biodiverse and ecologically significant, or designate brownfields for protection? And where does the target apply – to the whole world, or should it be specific to each country? What does land protection do to Indigenous rights? Past efforts to set aside areas for conservation have often meant dispossessing Indigenous peoples who have successfully stewarded the lands for centuries or millenia. COP15 recognizes the role that Indigenous peoples play in land stewardship, but there is no guarantee this will translate to effective protection for the rights of Indigenous peoples in each country that choses to adopt 30×30. Things become even murkier when we consider protection of the world’s oceans, 60% of which fall outside any nation’s jurisdiction. The UN’s nature body has no power over the high seas, and signatories to the treaty can only carry out actions within their own national boundaries.

It remains to be seen how all this will shake out in the final agreement.