This blog post has been provided by Peter Bridgewater. Peter is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Applied Ecology and Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis,
University of Canberra, and one of our Associate Editors. He tweets @Global_Garden0.
Predictably, there was considerable angst at the recent notice of extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small native rat inhabiting a low-lying cay nearer Papua New Guinea than Australia. This extinction, linked with effects from climate change, occurred while there is talk of developing a “new deal for nature”. Such a “new deal” is apparently needed as the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) struggles after three decades of poor performance to find purpose and renewal.
But how can we have a new deal for nature when nature is apparently disappearing in front of our eyes? Part of the problem is that we live in a world dominated by people and their actions; called by many the Anthropocene. In this human-dominated time the fate of both people and non-human nature does not depend on sustaining natural systems, since they have largely gone, but on how to make space for nature amid the space taken by people. And governments can’t do everything – the community must be more involved.
In searching for a new deal for nature, we must think broadly and consider known and predicted changes of the environment, instead of restricting action to threatened species and their long-term survival – which may be a quixotic and expensive effort. It is the conservation or ecosystem relevance of species that should be the most important determining characteristic, rather than some sort of threat to the species existence.
The proliferation of lists of threatened species is not necessarily helpful; decision makers and the wider public can easily succumb to threatened species fatigue. Conversely, poorly-known – yet often imperilled – species upon which much ecosystem function depends are frequently not listed. And threatened species are really symptoms of ecosystem dysfunction, rather than an end in themselves.
Internationally, threatened species feature as specific targets for the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the CBD. Examples of national threatened species legislation are the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act of 1999 and the US Endangered Species Act – with the EU Habitat Directive a regional example.
Jedidiah Purdy in his book After nature discusses the US ESA, summing up the dilemmas and conflicts produced threatened species legislation, goals, targets and policy advice, as: ‘‘(ESA) prohibits harm to endangered species and their ‘critical habitat’ in a way that assumes human beings can save everything……. The question is not how to save everything, but what to save and why, a question the ESA gives scant help in addressing’’. Transpose the ESA with other national and regional threatened species legislation and you have the same situation. Legislation alone cannot solve the problem Purdy identifies – local knowledge, alongside community action, can i.e. people reacting with the rest of nature.
What we really need is not ever more detailed descriptions of ways to save threatened species but a range of steps to make space for nature in development. Such steps include rewilding and the design of blue-green infrastructure in cities. Nature conservation in the Anthropocene must balance the realities of human pressures and demands with sensible strategies to keep as many elements of our current biodiversity as possible. And we can, through captive breeding and even relocation, if society so desires – and we could have done this for Bramble Cay Melomys.
In the context of a “new deal for nature”, identification and management of threatening process is important, yet often not prioritised well. An excellent example is the role of dingoes in the Australian landscape – under consideration since 2015, yet still not accepted, but with an even stronger evidence base since a paper in the journal Oikos late last year. Rewilding through better management of dingoes could help remove the current Australian obsession for conservation through fences.
The time and money spent on developing recovery plans for species with little likelihood of recovery needs a reality check. It is unnecessary for many listed species to have a dedicated recovery plan, which the Bramble Cay Melomys had, though too late to be effective. Too often, recovery plans mean scarce funds are spent on planning, rather than action; funds are rarely available to implement all the actions needed.
Increased attention must be given to conserving and managing functioning landscapes and their component ecosystems (increasingly perhaps novel ones) using community efforts such as the Landcare programme in Australia and an increasing number of other countries, Legal instruments are often cumbersome, but the Australian EPBC Act has a conservation advice process, an uncomplicated instrument that enables a timelier focus on reducing threats to species than full-blown recovery plans, can be more fleet-footed. Conservation advices can also give guidance to all concerned, including primary producers, Aboriginal groups, community Landcare, conservationists, scientists, and industry, that will help make Australia’s future conservation more effective and community-based over the next decades.
25 years ago, Martin Holdgate, a former IUCN Director- General, observed that “dialogue between all sectors of the community is needed. Especially needed is a dialogue between governments as custodians of the economy and regulators of policy and action, and local people who are the custodians of the land and its living resources”. Sentiments as relevant today as 25 years ago. Nature conservation, reimagined for the twenty-first century, will link people and nature to help manage and conserve all species. It will involve proactive action, using simple, effective and efficient tools like conservation advices, restoration, rewilding and recognise the role of novel ecosystems as key agents of ecosystem conservation. Such reinvigorated nature conservation creating partnerships between all sectors of society within a land/seascape focus is the way forward to a new deal for nature.
Finally, there are always encouraging stories that suggest some extinctions, at least, are not forever. The recent discovery of the Fernandina giant tortoise in the Galápagos after 113 years and Wallace’s giant bee in Indonesia after 40 years suggest we may even find the Bramble Cay Melomys again if we look hard enough!