By Cristián Samper, PhD
On September 1, 1914, nearly 100 years ago, the last passenger pigeon passed away in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo after many years in captivity. Her name was Martha. She was the last of her kind and with her, this extraordinary species went extinct.
What most people don’t realize is that the passenger pigeon was probably the most abundant bird species on the planet, with a population estimated to have exceeded 5 billion birds. The early chronicles give us an insight into its natural history. It would migrate over very large areas of the eastern United States following the mast fruiting trees, and create roosts of hundreds of thousands of birds. Local people would hunt pigeons by the thousands and ship them to large cities like New York.
But Martha’s story provides us a window into the past, telling us about the changes that were taking place a century ago. The industrial revolution of the 19th Century had resulted in the construction of railways across the nation, opening new frontiers for agriculture. Landscapes across the United States were transformed at a scale never seen before, or since, to provide natural resources to large urban areas.
Around the same time another remarkable species was also disappearing very fast. The American buffalo or Bison, the largest land mammal in North America, used to roam the prairies in herds of many thousands. It was a very important species in the livelihoods of Native American peoples. The United States government actively promoted the hunting of millions of Bison, as a deliberate strategy to impact Indian tribes. By 1900, there were less than 2,000 Bison alive. But this story has a different ending. The Bronx Zoo, which today is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, established a captive breeding program and reintroduced the bison into parts of its former range. National Parks, like Yellowstone, would offer refuge to small herds, and a few ranchers kept Bison on their range. After decades of work of protection and restoration, there are half a million bison in North America today. This story shows us that our efforts can change the future and, in this case, bring a species back from the brink of extinction.
One hundred years later, the world continues to change and we are losing many species despite our best efforts. Earlier this year Lonesome George died in captivity in the Galapagos Islands, marking the extinction of another species of Galapagos Tortoise. The IUCN Species Survival Commission estimates that more than 19,000 of the 65,000 species evaluated to date are in danger of extinction. More than half of the 328 species of turtles and tortoises of the world are in danger of extinction, most of them in Asia. The data coming from Africa is alarming, indicating that poaching of species like elephants and rhinoceros has increased dramatically over the past year, mostly driven by illegal international trade. Our impacts extend well beyond land and into the ocean, where sharks are being fished extensively. The good news is that we can do something about this together and avoid repeating Martha’s story.
The changes happening in land and sea not only impact other species, they are impacting our own lives. We rely on these species and ecosystems for our own livelihoods and well being. Last year marked two important milestones. Our own population reached seven billion people. Seven billion people who rely on food, water and energy for their daily lives, and a legitimate aspiration of better livelihoods for them and their children. The second milestone is that more than 50% of us live in cities. We are an increasingly urban species, and this presents new challenges and opportunities. Increasingly, large cities rely on other parts of the world to provide the food, water and energy used by millions of people. Cities like New York, Tokyo and Seoul are having an impact on species and ecosystems across the planet.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Many of us saw this as a turning point, a time when the world adopted a new paradigm for development. We have come to realize that economic growth and social justice cannot be achieved at the expense of the environment. We have made progress in recent decades. For example, the consumption of ozone depleting substances decreased by 93% since 1992. We have set aside large areas of the planet for conservation: 13% of the land surface, 7% of the coastal area and 1.3% of the world oceans are protected. But since 1992, we have lost more than 300 million hectares of forest, only 10% of the world’s forests are under sustainable management, and the number of over exploited, depleted or recovering fish stocks increased by 33%. The polar ice caps continue to melt faster every day, threatening many arctic species and ecosystems.
Our human footprint is growing every day and the challenges are many: How will we increase food production by 50% over the next 50 years? How can we reduce the emissions of CO2 without hampering industry and economic growth? How can we reduce the impact of invasive species that are moving around in an increasingly globalized world? How can we create effective governance mechanisms and greater awareness about the link between people and nature? How can we leverage new technologies to improve the exchange of information for conservation? How can we protect the species and ecosystems to make sure they are around for future generations? These are the questions and challenges we will be discussing during this congress. We can build on our success and learn from our mistakes. We can come together around common goals and reach out to other stakeholders that are not gathered here today.
The Aichi targets adopted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity last year provide us with a road map and a common set of goals. We know what needs to be done; now our challenge is to build the commitment of governments, industry and civil society to implement our decisions and build capacity to help achieve these goals.
The choices we make today will shape the world 100 years from now. Asia is going through many of the changes that took place in North America a century ago. What lessons can we learn from Martha’s story and what steps can we take to make sure this does not happen again? It was people, institutions and governments like the ones represented at IUCN today that made the recovery of the American Bison possible. It is this aspiration that brings us together today in Jeju and will inspire our work over the next ten days. Working together, we can help shape a future in which people live in harmony with nature.
Cristián Samper is the President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society