In the wake of the “gut punch” of a report last month by World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) that confirmed a shocking acceleration in the rate of wildlife extinction globally since 1970, veteran meteorologist and Grist climate columnist Eric Holthaus is arguing that legislation has been—and needs urgently to remain—a powerful shield for the Earth’s non-human inhabitants.
Thanks to “exploding human consumption” and climate change spooling up, evidence that a sixth mass extinction is under way “has become overwhelming,” said ZSL Managing Conservation Biologist Nisha Owen. But Holthaus counters that “we know how to save wildlife from oblivion, and we’ve been doing it for decades” through such critical mechanisms as the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which do what they’re supposed to when “used and enforced”.
Proof of this efficacy, writes Holthaus, lies in recent research by Arizona’s Center for Biological Diversity, which “examined the long-term population trends of all species placed on the list between 1976 and 1980.” In the 40 years after they were listed, the protected populations thrived, expanding as much as 390%, according to CBD founder and Executive Director Kierán Suckling.
“The results are even stronger for birds,” writes Holthaus, with populations of both threatened and endangered birds “up more than 600% since protections under the ESA began.” In stark contrast, populations of unprotected migratory coastal bird species have “dropped by up to 70% over the same time period.”
The reason for this disparity, Suckling said, is obvious: “We actively manage ESA listed birds, and we’re successful at it. We passively manage more common birds, and it doesn’t work.”
But active management requires political buy-in, Holthaus notes, and without the political will to protect, legislation like the ESA becomes a paper tiger. A case in point is Brazil, where recent national elections brought to power a “president who has vowed to privatize and industrialize the Amazon.”
Raísa Vieira, an ecologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Goiás, told Grist that while his country currently “holds the largest network of protected area on Earth” and became a world leader in reducing deforestation rates, he fears President Jair Bolsonaro “represents a general setback.”
What is desperately needed in Brazil and everywhere else, writes Holthaus, are determined citizens committed to pressuring their leaders “to act much more boldly than they have so far.”
In addition to ramping up the fight against deforestation, plastic pollution, and climate change, the wild things of Earth need human beings everywhere to push for a “global Endangered Species Acton steroids,” he adds, citing the WWF/ZSL assessment that “current efforts to protect nature are not ambitious enough to match the scale of the threat our planet is facing.”
Meanwhile, a study just published in the journal Nature finds that just 23% of the Earth’s land mass remains classifiable as true wilderness, 70% of it in the boreal forests of Canada, the tundra of the Arctic, the deserts of Australia, and the rainforests of the Amazon.