In forests, jungles and oceans around the world, there is a little-known war underway. Wild animals and plants, even insects, are struggling to survive the war being waged against them by humans.
The earth’s biomass—its combined mass of organisms—has changed dramatically during the relatively short span of human existence. Today, the biomass of livestock (mostly cattle and pigs) is 14 times higher than the existing remaining wild mammals. There are three times as many domesticated birds, or poultry, than there are wild birds. There are more humans born each day than there are great apes left on earth. Even the total plant biomass has been cut in half since the appearance of human civilization.
The combined effect of climate change, habitat destruction and the massive use of pesticides could also lead to the extinction of about 40% of the world’s insect species in the next few decades. Insects provide pollination for our crops, help regenerate soil, and provide other invaluable “ecosystem services” for our survival. If insects die, we will follow. There is no technology that can save us.
The war on wildlife started when we lost our deep connection to nature. When humans moved from a nomadic existence of hunters-gatherers to an agricultural life, we lost our dependence on the healthy ecosystems we once needed to survive. Wild animals were seen as pests that could destroy crops or threaten livestock. Forests were cut down to make space for plantations and grazing areas.
As the human population soars to the near the maximum capacity of the planet, the space for wildlife is shrinking. It took humanity 200,000 years to reach one billion, and only 200 years to reach seven billion. Each year, 80 million more people are born. We are headed towards 10 billion by mid-century.
Will there be space for wildlife in our future? In some areas of the world, wild animals continue to thrive – albeit in remote and difficult-to-access locations. Just recently, it took me about two days of difficult travel followed by two more days of trekking in deep jungle to find and photograph wild orangutans and siamangs, both critically endangered species. These incredible primates are still there because they are protected by their remote location. Wild animals and plants also still thrive, or at least survive, in protected areas and sanctuaries reserved for them.
This shows that if we give wild plants and animals the space, they could bounce back. Marine protected areas, even if under pressure from industrial fisheries and uncontrolled development, are an example. They are invaluable tools to preserve biodiversity while providing livelihoods, food security, climate resilience, and other co-benefits to coastal populations. They are also a starting point to repopulate the oceans when we finally decide to stop the war on wildlife.
While some progress is being made to make wildlife protection a core aspect of development projects, more work needs be done. Transport infrastructure, such as roads and railways, can be ecologically sensitive in design and factor in the potential risks of encroachment in natural areas. They must include measures to avoid fragmenting habitats, incorporate wildlife corridors that provide safe passage for animals, and build in community awareness programs to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. For example, an ADB project to improve a road network in the southern region of Bhutan included four wildlife underpasses. Monitoring data has shown that these are being successfully used by elephants.
Energy projects—transmission lines and wind energy in particular—need to include measures to avoid and prevent collisions with wildlife. In an ADB-funded wind farm in Sri Lanka, the developer plans to use radar-based technologies to detect incoming birds during migration season, and shut down the turbines to reduce the risk of collisions. Agriculture projects can also be designed to minimize impact on critical habitats such as wetlands so that water birds and multiple other species can coexist and survive.
These types of nature-based approaches are being promoted through ADB’s Protecting and Investing in Natural Capital in Asia and the Pacific technical assistance which will support developing countries in making investments to restore, protect, and sustainably manage their natural assets such as rivers, forests, ecosystems and wildlife. Some targeted ADB initiatives include helping the Philippines address illegal wildlife trade within and across its borders and reduce demand for wildlife and wildlife products, and stewarding the development of guiding principles for the design, and financing of ecologically sensitive infrastructure across the Asia-Pacific region.
Measures to protect wildlife in development projects do not require significant financial costs nor do they threaten, or hinder, economic progress. Wildlife-friendly solutions have been around for many years and have shown to represent an insignificant proportion of total project costs. Not only are these measures cost-effective, they provide environmental, social and economic benefits to local communities, and ultimately are essential to our own survival.
Scaling up wildlife friendly approaches will allow us to come closer to a ceasefire in the war against wildlife and begin working for peaceful co-existence.
This blog was first published on the Asian Development Blog.