Nature needs half. This is a striking concept being advocated by scientists around the world who recognise that the area of the planet which is currently protected falls drastically short of meeting any real conservation objectives. Constrained by global politics, targets have been put forward with an eye to what can be spared, rather than what our ecosystems ultimately need to survive. The spreading idea that ‘nature needs half’ insists on a more ambitious outlook. In the words of the author and conservationist E.O. Wilson: ‘Half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life, to make a planet both self-sustaining and pleasant’.
The role of protected areas in conservation
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a protected area is ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’. Protected areas cannot be used for industry, though their resources may be available on a small scale for local use. Harvey Locke explains this as ‘the difference between tapping sap from a maple or rubber tree and cutting trees down to feed a pulp mill’.
These designated areas then remain largely free from the impact of human development, meaning that their ecosystems and biodiversity are preserved. The present era is becoming popularly known as the ‘Anthropocene’, in which humans are identified as a geological force that has changed the planet. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species indicates that today, 20% of Earth’s vertebrates are threatened with extinction. Protected areas give these species a tangible chance at survival away from human influence.
How much should be protected?
The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Target 11 commits to protect 17% of the world’s land and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Yet numerous scientists have compared the needs of different bioregions, and their research has demonstrated that in most areas, between 25% and 75% (or an average of 50%) needs to be protected if their biodiversity and ecological processes are to be kept intact.
However, protecting 50% of the planet will not necessarily lead to success. If the majority of inland Australia was placed under protection but no coastal areas were preserved, vital ecoregions would be overlooked. For this concept to work, at least 50% of each distinct ecoregion would need to be conserved. Not only that, but wildlife corridors would need to be maintained between these areas to allow for natural ranging and migration. No protected space would exist in isolation: connectivity plays an essential role in effective conservation.
Globally, 14.6% of land is protected by government and non-government organisations, and only 2.8% of global marine areas. Australia improves on these averages, with 15% of terrestrial areas and 41% of its oceans protected.
It is hard to deny that protection is needed. More than a third of the world’s mammal extinctions in the last 500 years have occurred in Australia, where so many of our species – almost 90% – are endemic. Areas free of feral predators have been found to be particularly important in protecting native Australian species, which are preyed upon by the cats and foxes introduced by European colonists.
More locally, Parks Victoria manages 4.11 million hectares of land and marine areas, or 18% of the state – and that’s only the areas protected by government, not accounting for NGOs and other groups managing land for conservation. Clearly there is an active interest in preserving our landscape and preventing further extinctions.
The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative aims ‘to protect, restore and reconnect important areas of habitat along the entire 3,600km length of the Great Eastern Ranges from western Victoria to far north Queensland’. This initiative, ongoing since 2007, is a clear demonstration of the Australian public’s commitment to ambitious schemes that don’t shy away from the reality of effective conservation.
Half a human world
‘Nature needs half’ is a necessary and important movement in our understanding of conservation. It is a recognition of our responsibility to ensure the survival of the species and ecosystems that we share our planet with. Considering the irreversible changes that have already taken place at human hands, it is ethically imperative - half is the very least we can do.
Banner image courtesy of Alex Mullarky
Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.
You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky