Give half the world to animals, say scientists

Emergency: Artist Ernest Zacharevic cut a distress call into an oil palm plantation in Sumatra.

Could we save the planet by turning 50% of it into a nature reserve? As climate change grows and wildlife numbers plummet, this is the radical idea being discussed by scientists in London.

It was a young orangutan named Jenny who first convinced Charles Darwin of the link between primates and humans. The great red apes can use tools, express emotions, and learn sign language. Darwin once described their home island, Borneo, as “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.”

But orangutans are in danger. Last week a study found that hunting and habitat loss have caused the Bornean population to drop by over half in just 16 years.

And that is just one species; according to the WWF, the planet’s total wildlife numbers have more than halved in 40 years. Many scientists now talk of a “sixth mass extinction”.

But all is not lost yet — conservation projects can be successful. Giant pandas are no longer endangered in China, and neither are black bears in the USA. Wolves have returned to Belgium for the first time in a century.

Meanwhile, scientists at a conference in London are considering a radical proposal to protect wildlife by turning half of the Earth into a nature reserve.

This idea was discussed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson in his 2016 book Half Earth.

“We [humans] thrash about, appallingly led, with no particular goal other than economic growth and unfettered consumption,” he wrote. “As a result, we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity.”

His “Half Earth” idea does not mean choosing between north or south, east or west, or even turning vast land masses into giant nature reserves. As Wilson points out, protecting Antarctica would “be an excellent idea”, but it would not help lions in Africa.

Instead, Wilson suggests creating interlocking “corridors” across the planet, linking up existing nature reserves so that animals can move freely between them. “You’ll almost never not be in a national park,” he explained to Smithsonian Magazine.

He predicts that this would save up to 90% of Earth’s species.

Could it be done?

Wild ideas

Yes, say some, and the sooner the better. Humans must realise that we are not the most important species on Earth. We are one among millions, and we depend on other plants and animals to survive. If you think about it that way, half the planet does not seem like a lot. We would not even have to move; part of the plan involves making cities greener, and learning to live alongside wildlife. What’s not to love?

It would never work, argue others. For one thing, animals have no respect for human boundaries; there would be no way of guaranteeing that dangerous creatures stuck to their “corridors”. What’s more, humans should be allowed to exploit Earth’s resources if it helps economies to grow. That is how people are lifted out of poverty. Giving up half the Earth is too much.

You Decide

  1. Should half the world be a nature reserve?
  2. Are humans more important than other animals?

Activities

  1. Imagine that the Half Earth plan is now international law — and it is your job to draw the boundaries. Print out a map of your local area, and then use a pen to outline which parts you would turn into nature reserves. Remember, you are aiming for about 50% of the map. Once you are done, compare with the person sitting next to you.
  2. Choose one of the animals mentioned in this article. Then, write and research your own news report about their population. Is it growing, or under threat? Is its habitat protected, or being destroyed?

Some People Say...

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

Gary Snyder

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Last year the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that there were more than 23,000 animals and plants threatened with extinction. In general, wildlife numbers are dwindling across the planet, thanks to a combination of factors — from humans hunting and killing animals, to deforestation, to changes in the climate.
What do we not know?
The true numbers of wildlife lost every year. Although the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) reports that numbers have declined by almost 60% in four decades, this is only an estimate. The figure is reached by looking at the data for around 6% of vertebrate species around the world, and then analysing the trends. Some of this data is more reliable than others, leading some to criticise the study’s methods.

Word Watch

Over half
According to a study published in the journal Current Biology. It estimates a loss of 148,500 orangutans between 1999 and 2015.
Halved
According to a joint report by the Zoological Society of London and WWF, released in October 2016, wildlife numbers have fallen by 58% since 1970. It blamed human activity, including poaching, habitat destruction and the effects of climate change.
Sixth mass extinction
For contrast, the fifth mass extinction occurred 66 million years ago when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.
Conference
The title: Safeguarding Space for Nature and Securing Our Future.
Nature reserve
In 2010, governments committed to protecting 17% of Earth’s surface and 10% of its oceans by 2020. According to the Zoological Society of London, around 15% of land is protected and around 7% of oceans with two years to go.
E. O. Wilson
Harvard biologist and author of several books, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and the world’s leading authority on ants.
Millions
Although it is tricky to know how many species there are on Earth, a 2011 estimate put it at about 8.7 million.