2020 was destined to be a crucial year for biodiversity, with the Cop15 conference in Kunming, China scheduled for October, in which the international community was expected to agree to a Paris-style agreement for nature. But the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic across the world forced biodiversity on to the agenda in a way previously unseen.
Despite the postponement of Cop15, world’s leading figures chose to focus on the environment as it became clear that the state of our planet has never been more urgent. In March, John Vidal was among the first to report on the link between our destruction of nature and Covid-19 – and the warnings continued.
In September, world leaders at the UN vowed to clamp down on pollution, embrace sustainable economies and eliminate the dumping of plastic waste in oceans by the middle of the century as part of “meaningful action”. The leaders’ pledge for nature was preceded by weeks of reports and studies about the state of the Earth, including the Living Planet Report 2020, which found that global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles dipped by 68% on average between 1970 and 2016. In June, scientists warned that the sixth mass extinction of the planet’s wildlife was accelerating.
Currently, the draft agreement for the postponed Kunming conference, which is hoped will take place next year, has headline targets of protecting 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030, introducing controls on invasive species and reducing pollution from plastic and excess nutrients.
As lockdowns happened all over the world, people started noticing nature in new ways. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted this month in announcing that its postponed World Conservation Congress will be held in September 2021 in Marseille: “The world is increasingly recognising the inextricable link between biodiversity conservation and human and economic wellbeing, a connection made all the more visible by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The Age of Extinction’s Wild Cities series reminded everyone that you don’t need to be in the countryside to see nature all around: as cities stopped bustling, so nature was seen to flourish.
But worrying stories of threats to wildlife made news throughout the year. As reports continue to demonstrate the shocking impact of the 2019-2020 fires, record breaking temperatures already in Australia this season have given rise to fears that more is yet to come.
Despite frantic efforts by the Canadian government, indigenous peoples and construction crews, the prospects for wild Pacific salmon trapped in a canyon in northwestern British Columbia remain bleak. But in a bid to prop up the ailing populations, fisheries officials have announced plans to create a permanent “fishway” to allow migrating salmon to bypass the debris.
However, all hope is not lost. From scientists such as Angelica Patterson investigating migrating trees, and those in Norway patiently learning from their study of dead reindeer, to people like Theo and Gloria Ferguson providing a refuge for humming birds and the entire Costa Rican suburb which elected to award bees citizenship, there are extraordinary people working to change how we treat nature and improve its life chances.
In February, the plight of the mountain lions penned in by freeways in California was highlighted and two months later, they were granted temporary endangered species status. Not saved yet, but moving in the right direction. Reports on birds being hunted in France
Technology is proving to be an important defence in protecting animals, for everything from bats to pangolins to jaguars and even coral. Yet traditional methods are also being recognised as vital, whether it is the way we graze cattle, rewild our woods or continue to honour ancient practices.
The need to recognise the knowledge of indigenous people as protectors of nature was a growing theme of the year. Earlier this month, representatives of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities met to discuss their views on the draft Kunming agreement and suggested it should be changed to recognise indigenous lands separately from those protected for nature.
“Indigenous lands are remaining islands of biodiversity surrounded by a sea of destruction,” Joji Carino, an Ibaloi-Igorot from the Philippines, and a senior policy adviser at Forest Peoples Programme said at an event about the UN draft, in words that echoed those of indigenous leader Célia Xakriabá earlier this year.
The conservancy model, in Kenya, with land managed by local people for wildlife conservation was also reported on. Covid-19 has since taken its toll but a rescue fund has been set up by the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association and its partners to provide emergency relief. India’s first “green” village continues to rely on its sustainable agricultural practices with tourism at a halt. In Canada, Quebec reached its Aichi target to protect 17% of its territory by the end of 2020 by working with the Cree Nation. In the UK, the reintroduction of the Manchester argus butterfly to Astley Moss peatlands, was another success story. Nearly 50 were released this summer, restoring them to a landscape from which they had been missing for nearly 150 years. The Great Manchester Wetlands Partnership was delighted to see evidence of mating before the butterflies naturally died off in August and are waiting to see how many eggs hatch into caterpillars in spring.
While 2020 saw more wildlife added to the IUCN red list of threatened species, there were many new discoveries to celebrate, from fantails and flycatchers in Indonesia to continuing surprises in New Guinea, the most biodiverse island in the world.
In all, 2020 has shown that our diverse, beautiful world is under threat, but we can still save it.