Considerable progress was made at the September IUCN World Conservation Congress.
By Brad Reddersen
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 10-day World Conservation Congress that opened September 1 in Hawaii was an opportunity for the world to get beyond the rhetoric of climate change, conservation and environmentalism and move toward concrete actions. It did so, for the most part, thanks to the hard work of policy-makers, scientists, governmental representatives and NGO delegates from 192 countries and communities from around the world.
It did so by building on such important starting points as the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. It also did so by taking its role seriously, as one driven less by the headlines the results would produce than how the world would change.
Much was accomplished in these 10 days. Some was the reporting and celebration of the good progress done to date in specific areas. Some was in the form of warnings for the future. Thankfully, a significant part was in the form of specific actions and plans that could result in further positive change going forward.
Below we have summarized a sampling of highlights from this important event.
Endangered Species and the Red List
The IUCN, like many single-nation organizations, maintains its own list of endangered species, put together for the purpose of alerting us to the possibility that we may lose some of these wondrous animals, birds and fish forever if we do not change our ways.
Unlike those other lists, however, the IUCN’s one is massive. Its Red List of Threatened Species contains a constantly updated status on 82,954 species around the world. And this year that list had some good news to report.
First of note is that the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) has been down-listed to Vulnerable. This is a major breakthrough and was credited to targeted conservation and protection efforts by the Chinese government. It was further noted that this shows what can happen when a government focuses its efforts on conservation of any kind.
A second big move was the reclassification of the formerly Endangered Tibetan antelope to Near Threatened. Commercial hunting of these animals had drastically reduced their populations to as low as 70,000 as of the early 1990s, with numbers rapidly moving down to zero. Today, thanks to tough regulations and careful conservation efforts, the current estimated populations are way up from that – from a minimum of 100,000 to perhaps as many as 150,000 – and increasing fast.
However, unfortunately there was bad news for the great apes of the world. Now, four of the six great ape species have been listed as Critically Endangered, primarily because of illegal hunting. The total numbers of the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), actually two subspecies, suggest big trouble. One of the two of that species, Grauer’s gorilla, has been cut by more than 77% of its population since 1999, with current estimates around 3,800 in 2015. The second species of the eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla (G. b. beringei), is still in trouble but recently increased to 880. The other two of the so-called great apes that are now considered Critically Endangered are the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan.
The other two of the six great ape species (the chimpanzee and the bonobo) are now listed as Endangered. That is far from good news, but they are at far less risk of extinction than the other four.
The full Red List can be found at http://www.iucnredlist.org.
Motion to Ban the Commercial Trade of Pangolins
The pangolin, which lives in many places in the world’s warmer climates, is a scaly animal that looks like a mix of armadillo (because of its scales) and anteater (because of its shape). They are highly sought out for their meat and for the presumed medicinal and healing properties of their scales. Modern doctors debunk the medicinal theories, but community elders swear to the healing values of the pangolin’s body parts.
Vietnam and China are areas where much of the threat of extinction is in place, although some still remains in Indonesia – even after a nationwide ban. One estimate said that as high as 14% of Vietnamese eat the pangolin meat and 5% use the scales for medicine.
The proposed ban is on all eight species of this more or less defenseless creature that curls up in a ball on the ground when it encounters danger. Those species are the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), tree pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) and long-tailed pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla).
A Vote to End the Ivory Trade
One of the major conservation goals was a vote on Motion 007, which calls on all member nations to put an immediate halt to all commercial ivory trade around the world.
The drive for this was the concurrent release of “The Great Elephant Census,” a study funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It showed that because of poaching as the primary cause, the savannah elephant population has declined at a rate of 8% per year during the past decade. That’s equivalent to 27,000 fewer elephants per year and a total decline of 144,000 in less than 10 years. The analysis went one step further, showing that certain populations, with some of the worst situated in West and Central Africa, are so low as to be risking potential extinction if nothing is done to stop the killings.
The vote is much needed, even as certain specific states (including Hawaii, New York and California) have blocked all imports or sales of such goods, as well as the United States and France now banning the practice. China and Hong Kong SAR are also expected to join the list of those closing their markets to ivory sales.
The next step is implementation, but with the situation so dire, the evidence so clear and the backing so universal, it is expected that the ban will turn into concrete corrective actions in enough places to make major changes quickly.
Naming of 14 New Ocean Hope Spots
Another major outcome of the event was the designation by Mission Blue and the IUCN of 14 new ocean Hope Spots around the globe.
These are marine areas that are considered critically important to the ocean’s overall health. These regions were selected as either needing protection or, if already protected in some way, needing some additional action now. Their importance is such that their ecosystems’ ability to stay resilient and evolving is an issue that every human being should be concerned about.
Two of the new Hope Spots are Hatteras in North Carolina and Malpelo, off the Colombian coast. All 14 were selected after a detailed study by scientists from around the world and from Mission Blue, the major external sponsor, and the IUCN’s scientific teams themselves.
There are now 76 Hope Spots around the world. Australia’s Moreton Bay Marine Park, Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina and Canada’s glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound are also among these carefully curated and protected marine regions.
Climate Change, Ocean Warming and Deadly Impacts to Earth’s Marine Ecosystems
Much of the talk about climate change is phrased in terms of “What if the temperature increases too much?” A new report prepared for this event lays out the facts and the science showing that ocean warming, as a minimum, is already well on the way to creating dramatic effects on fish stocks and crop yields, extreme weather and even a higher possibility of infection to plants, animals and people from water-borne diseases.
The new report is titled Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Scale, Effects and Consequences and is the result of a detailed analysis of the marine ecosystem by 80 scientists from 12 different countries.
Many have read about flooding along the coastlines around the world. This report goes far beyond that, explaining in detail, for example, how species that are highly dependent on precise ocean temperatures – species such as plankton, jellyfish, turtles and seabirds – have had to move as much as 10 degrees up or down relative to the equator to seek cooler waters. This in turn causes other fish and mammals living in the sea that are dependent on those other creatures to move as well. The result is creating a rapid shift in where and how the marine ecosystem lives and thrives, which also affects the total numbers of species that are able to survive it all.
Not everything is able to move as easily as the creatures named above, however. Coral reefs, which are responsible for much of the life on the planet, either directly or indirectly, cannot just pick up and go to a new location when the oceans start cooking. The reefs die when it gets too warm, and species that live and hunt within the confines of those reefs often die off as well. In Southeast Asia, for example, marine fishery harvests are now predicted to drop by 10% to 30% by 2050, relative to the numbers from 1970–2000. And even that analysis assumes that greenhouse-gas emissions slow their growth rates, something that other reports suggest is not even remotely possible.
The sad truth, according to the report, is that over 93% of the increased heat forced on the world because of human impacts (and our greenhouse-gas emissions) has been absorbed directly by the oceans. When heat rises were small, the ocean acted as a sort of ecological “muffler” for the impacts of climate change, but that is no longer the case. Now, the increased heat is transforming the ocean ecosystem in more ways than just causing movement and local extinctions where it is too hot. Pathogens such as algal blooms and disease-carrying bacteria such as cholera and other bacteria are exploding where conventional ecosystems have begun to die out.
Along with the ocean warming have come the corresponding and far more serious hurricanes. The analysis of the scientists here suggests that the number of severe hurricanes has gone up by as much as 25% to 30% per degree of global warming. Other weather impacts include more torrential rains and heavier monsoon seasons in some areas, along with shifts of rain away from other regions, creating drought in places that did not have to deal with such things previously.
The full report can be found at https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/46254.
Support of Indigenous Peoples
One of the major developments from the IUCN is a much stronger sense of support for indigenous peoples and their role – and rights – to be part of the thinking and planning on how we protect our world and its ecosystems.
This was demonstrated in many ways throughout the event, with the following three major items illustrating that the member communities “got it” and were after more than just nice words of support.
Creation of a New Category of IUCN Membership for Indigenous Peoples: This elevates indigenous peoples to a much higher level of voting ability and involvement in the decision making of the entire IUCN Members’ Assembly than ever before. It effectively gives them equal rights, voices and power in all major decisions of the entire body.
Passing of Motion 26: This calls for businesses “to respect all categories of protected areas as ‘no-go’ areas for environmentally damaging industrial activities” and highlights the need for respect of indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent.
Passing of Motion 48: This asks governments, private companies and global financial organizations to avoid loss and degradation of primary forests and to “meaningfully engage and support indigenous peoples and local communities in their efforts to conserve primary forests, including intact forest landscapes.” The discussion related to this specifically asked that these protected areas be considered “no-go zones” for industrial developers.
ECOLEX – The Most Extensive Environmental Legal Resource Available
One of the other very important outcomes of this congress was the announcement of a single-website resource where all international laws, regulations and important legal cases regarding environmental issues can be found.
This project, now known as ECOLEX, was launched as a long-term initiative 15 years ago, in 2001, by the IUCN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The website has been live in various forms for some years (at http://www.ecolex.org) but is now better than ever, with a significantly revised interface and document organization. Users can now easily search legal materials gathered and indexed from over 180 countries.
The information accessible from the site now includes:
- 2,100 multilateral and bilateral environmental treaties
- 113,000 national legal instruments
- 1,500 court decisions
- 10,000 decisions by treaty governing bodies
- 37,000 bibliographic references to law and policy literature
Some of what is not reported here includes the awards and accolades handed out to the many tireless researchers and organizations who have worked behind the scenes of the IUCN. Out of context, those specific awards might not mean much. But in the aggregate they – along with all those who worked together before, during and now after this year’s gathering of the IUCN – are making positive waves to help the world adapt to the human-driven ecological challenges of the 21st century.
We urge those interested in being a part of any or all of these causes to check out their ongoing work at http://www.iucn.org. Individuals, the private sector, NGOs and governments are all welcome to be a part of it.
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