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Lessons From Okavango: Saving the Earth’s Strongholds of Biodiversity

Our world’s last remaining wild places are the treasuries of biodiversity and home to most of the world’s remaining wildlife, sustaining remnant communities of wildlife in marginal, degraded habitats through immigration or migration. We must act now to protect our last wild places and ensure the planet's future by committing to protect 30% of our planet by 2030.

This post was written by National Geographic Fellow and Okavango Wilderness Project leader Steve Boyes.

Our world’s last remaining wild places are the treasuries of biodiversity and home to most of the world’s remaining wildlife, sustaining remnant communities of wildlife in marginal, degraded habitats through immigration or migration. These central banks of the natural world are effectively being broken into by a growing global population approaching eight billion people in search of opportunity, land, freedom, and resources in an increasingly depleted and unequal world.

The destructive force of humankind is taking an unprecedented toll on what few wild places we have left and particularly on the wildlife they sustain. On average, 200 unique species go extinct every day; it is an extinction rate that is 1,000 times faster than that the natural extinction rate. According to a recent IPBES report, over one million species are currently at risk of extinction. We urgently need to protect the places that are the last strongholds for global biodiversity and wildlife. If these wildernesses are compromised, we have no backup plan.

I learned this firsthand when I took part in an expedition to Terra do fim do Mundo, the “Land at the end of the Earth,” so named because it is one of the most remote parts of eastern Angola. This vast wilderness is one of Earth’s last intact forest refugia of this size, a sanctuary for the unique biodiversity of these high-altitude, high-rainfall mist-belt miombo woodlands and forests. In 2015, we were the first visitors from the outside world in 42 years.

Over the next three years, as part of the Okavango Wilderness Project, we discovered 11 species new to science and 60 more that are potentially new discoveries, and more than 90 species previously unknown in Angola. We found new populations of endangered species, like wild dog and cheetah, along with those of lion, leopard, hyena, roan antelope, and more.

Hidden within these unending forests is a vast, previously undocumented system of source lakes and peatlands now recognised as the lifeline for three of the wildest rivers in Africa, the Okavango, Cuando, and Zambezi. It is a natural wonderland and a biological time capsule from our past that we now have the opportunity to protect. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to visit this one-of-a-kind wild place known to the local Luchaze people as Lisima Lya Mwono, which means “Source of Life.”

Understanding the Lisima Lya Mwono landscape, technically the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower, has fundamentally changed our understanding of the rivers downstream. Protecting the water tower is crucial to the future of these rivers, and it can be done only by working with local communities to build conservation-focused economies that will rapidly improve their livelihoods.

Almost all of the world’s unprotected last wild places have communities of indigenous people living in them. We must be very mindful of how the world interacts with the communities living in our planet’s last wild places. We must work in collaboration to scientifically determine sustainable harvesting techniques, rotations between harvesting sites, and sustainable annual off-takes for target species. If we celebrate and protect heritage rights to land and traditional knowledge systems where they exist, we are most of the way to protecting these landscapes.

We need to act with great urgency to secure and protect our world’s remaining unprotected or protected and poorly managed intact wild ecosystems. Over the next decade, we need to make an unprecedented direct investment into the preservation of our planet’s last wild places for the benefit of people, wildlife, and ecosystems. According to the world’s top scientists and experts, protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, and 50 percent by 2050, would provide us with a strong foundation on which to build a more sustainable future. In partnership with the Wyss Campaign for Nature, the National Geographic Society and a growing coalition of conservation advocates are building the movement to get world leaders to commit to meeting these goals.

But large-scale investments to hold onto what we have left will not be enough. We need to completely overhaul the way in which our modern society functions and sustains itself. We need to empower and protect local communities to preserve and restore the natural world around them. Fundamental to this step is improving the lives of the world’s poorest communities, while not diminishing the standard of living in already prosperous communities. If we do not fix this, the degradation of our planet’s last wild places will continue.

The “great work” of the living generations today will be to secure 50 percent of our planet’s surface for conservation and sustainable use by 2050. We could very well be the living generations that did the most damage to the planet, but we are also the ones capable of turning our destruction around and safeguarding the Earth for future generations of wildlife and humanity.

National Geographic Fellow Steve Boyes and his Okavango Wilderness Project team are receiving the 2019 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award. You can watch the festival via livestream June 11-13 at natgeo.org/watchfestival. Learn more about how we’re working to help protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030 here.

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