“Biodiversity” is the word

2020 has been touted as the “super year for nature”. However, it has come to light this year that each of the agreed Aichi Biodiversity Targets (set in 2010 by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity ahead of the designated “Decade on Biodiversity”) has been missed, providing a stark reminder that globally we are not doing enough to protect our planet.

The recently published UN Global Biodiversity Outlook report (GBO 5) reviews the world’s progress on the Aichi targets, which provided guidelines on a range of actions aiming to safeguard our planet’s biodiversity. The findings show that whilst some progress has indeed been made, efforts need to be scaled up quickly given the alarming rate of biodiversity loss we are witnessing.

WWF’s 2020 “Living Planet Index” has also emphasised these shocking levels of biodiversity loss at the hands of population growth and human consumption, with wildlife species declining by 68% worldwide since 1970.

We are seeing a growing number of reports, assessments, conventions and summits being announced each week, all of which are looking to the future and what it holds for humanity. With increasing attention on biodiversity and nature conservation, we maintain hope that positive change can still be achieved – as long as the B-word remains top of the global agenda.

What is biodiversity and why does it matter that we’re losing it?

Biodiversity is the rich abundance of animal and plant life that call our planet home. Every single species has its own uniquely important role, with each one relying on the next to create the delicately balanced equilibrium that is “life on earth”.

Forests are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. They provide habitats for countless wildlife, and we rely on them for assets such as water stability and absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. It is estimated that over one third of the world’s population has close dependence on forests and forest products, 350 million of whom rely on forests for their livelihood. With such a huge role to play in maintaining our planet’s health and supporting communities across the world, it is vital that these biodiversity hubs are restored and protected.

Science shows that we are currently living through the planet’s sixth mass extinction event. Our unquenchable desire for growth is destroying essential ecosystems, causing this delicate balance to topple. If our exploitation of nature continues, 1 million species will face extinction within the next few decades , and global pandemics and natural disasters will become ever more frequent.

As stated by Sir David Attenborough in the BBC’s “Extinction: The Facts”, ‘humanity is at a crossroads and the decisions we make now will affect the future of us all. We can no longer afford to feign ignorance or claim that the problem is too big to solve, action must be taken.

What happens next in the global conversation?

Today, 30th September 2020, global Heads of State and Governments will attend the UN Summit on Biodiversity to discuss the crisis facing humanity through biodiversity loss, and the urgent need to accelerate action that protects biodiversity whilst also ensuring sustainable development.

They will discuss the learnings from a number of reports, including the GBO 5 report which assessed the current state of nature and biodiversity; the progress made on reaching global biodiversity targets set in 2010; and how to accelerate change in the next decade.

Leaders attending the summit will then present the results of these discussions at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP15). This convention is expected to agree a set of new international goals and targets as part of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework through to 2050.

CoP15 was originally scheduled to go ahead between 15th and 28th October 2020 but due to the global pandemic was rescheduled to May 2021 – the irony of which cannot be lost.

Where does Elephant Family fit in?

The GBO 5 acknowledges that if we are to achieve global success, we must address the crisis at a local level. It identifies the importance of designating protected areas of land, and highlights the role which indigenous and local communities play as integral – echoing some of the key learnings which Elephant Family have made over the course of its 15 year history.

When Mark Shand rescued an elephant in India in 1988, the plight of these endangered and charismatic animals was little known; overshadowed by Western media attention on their African cousins. To change this and to save a forgotten species, Mark founded Elephant Family.

He dedicated the last 27 years of his life to saving Asia’s elephants, and in doing so learned that it is not possible to conserve a single species alone without working alongside local communities, and protecting its habitat. Subsequently, Elephant Family’s focus evolved to protect the forest landscapes that these magnificent creatures live in, thereby providing homes for Asian elephants, a multitude of wildlife species, and simultaneously supporting the people sharing these spaces.

Millions of people in India also depend on these forests and as they are lost at an alarming rate (50% in the last 30 years), humans and wildlife have come into increasing conflict as they are forced closer together than ever before, resulting in deaths on both sides.

Currently, less than 5% of India’s forest landscapes are designated as Protected Areas (the 2020 Aichi target was 20%, and is expected to rise to 50% globally by 2050). Being such a small total area, this cuts off migration routes for wildlife and increases human-wildlife conflict which now affects 90% of the country. Expanding these protected areas is a necessity identified by the GBO 5 report, but without connecting and conserving additional forest habitats, this expansion alone does not offer a solution.

As we have done for the past 15 years, Elephant Family continue to work with leading conservationists across South Asia, whose knowledge of their landscapes and ability to work with local communities is essential for conservation both in and outside of Protected Areas.

In India – where our story started – we are building on work that has secured several wildlife corridors in Kerala and Assam, home to the largest populations of India’s wild elephants. By connecting previously fragmented habitats, these corridors have generated an increase in the presence of wildlife and created higher incomes for local communities.

We also continue to work with partners such as scientist, Sanjay Gubbi, who in 2012 initiated action that ultimately lead to the securing of 2,385 km2 of tiger and elephant habitats as protected areas.  This is the largest expansion of protected areas in India since the 1970s and has helped to connect 23 protected areas within the state of Karnataka.

What does the future look like?

As the world continues to grapple with the effects of a global pandemic, and the international conservation community assesses the impact of failing to meet its biodiversity targets, Elephant Family continue on our mission to build landscapes that support human-wildlife coexistence.

In response to the growing biodiversity crisis and urgent need to rebalance the equilibrium of the natural world, we have already adjusted our strategy, expanding our remit to include all Asian wildlife. In 2019, we merged with the British Asian Trust, and this partnership has further enabled us to broaden our impact by delivering solutions to human-wildlife conflict that work at scale.

Our history and our work have shown us that coexistence with wildlife is the only way to protect biodiversity, and secure the future health of our planet and that of humankind. As we move forward as a combined organisation, human-wildlife coexistence forms the basis of our new conservation strategy, putting Elephant Family’s work at the heart of international efforts to bend the curve on biodiversity loss.