Buried under apocalyptic headlines, there were a host of positive biodiversity stories in 2020. Progress in habitat protection and species reintroductions suggest that we are seeing efforts to combat biodiversity loss. Last year scientists discovered dozens of animals that were thought to be extinct as well as hundreds of new species ranging from large mammals to tiny amphibians. These discoveries help us to understand that this planet is teaming with more life than we know..
Local initiatives are taking place all around the world. One of the most well known is the Trillion Trees Initiative. This global initiative has garnered support from business and political leaders.. Last year Pakistan announced a tree planting program that will employ 63,000 people. Bans on plastic are also becoming more common and ocean clean-ups are now an international phenomenon. In 2020 Hawaii’s Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI) collected 103 tons of plastic and other debris out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch setting a new record for the world’s largest ocean clean-up. In 2020 Costa Rica became the first country in the world to completely reverse deforestation. There were even hopeful signs in China where the Wildlife Trade Ban was expanded to include wild animals.
Since 1900, the abundance of native species in land-based habitats has decreased by at least 20 percent, according to a United Nations Report. Over 40 percent amphibian species, nearly 33 percent reef-forming corals and over a third of all marine animals are threatened. As reported by Nature, humans are driving at least one million species to extinction. Some estimates suggest that half of all wildlife on Earth is headed towards extinction.
This decline in species was exacerbated by the outgoing American administration which has amassed a track record of harming wildlife. The weakening of the Endangered Species Act is the crowning achievement of their war on nature. However, even under this anti-environment administration there was some good news that included the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act which provides funding for the restoration of parks and public lands and makes funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent.
In recent years we have seen a number of conservation success stories. In 2020 we saw more wild places protected through global, national and local initiatives. According to the Protected Planet Report there are currently 258,608 designated protected areas recorded in the World Data Base on Protected Areas (WDPA). Land protections collectively cover 20,275,454 km2, which is equivalent to 15 percent of the earth’s land surface. Marine protected areas cover 27,389,788 km2 of the earth, representing 7.6 percent of the world’s oceans. According to the 2020 Protected Planet Report marine protected areas continue to increase and the future commitments collected by the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat suggests that coverage of terrestrial protected areas will also increase significantly over the next two years.
Early in 2020 the UN Convention on Biological Diversity drafted a framework calling on its international constituents to protect 30 percent of their land and seas by 2030. More than 70 world leaders signed the science-based habitat protection initiative known as 30 by 2030 Agreement that will combat biodiversity loss and climate change.
The Canadian federal government has promised to protect 25 percent of Canada’s land and inland waters and 25 percent of Canada’s oceans by 2025. The program will be expanded to safeguard 30 percent of Canada’s land and water by 2030. Late last year the Canadian federal government announced a project created by Arqvilliit Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) that will fund Indigenous people and help them to protect wildlife including species at risk like whales and polar bears. This project involves setting up a protected area in Ottawa Islands (known by the Inuktitut name of Arqvilliit) which is located in Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec. This program is part of the Canada Nature Fund’s Target 1 Challenge.
New species and the discovery of species thought to be extinct
Conservative estimates suggest that there are 8.7 million species on earth. However, the number of species may be far greater than this estimate. Estimates suggest that we know 20 percent of all the life forms on Earth. Scientists do not know the exact number, but there is broad agreement that there are millions of unidentified species There are a number of species that were discovered hiding in plain sight because they look morphologically similar to known species. However, in 2020, DNA evidence (barcoding) revealed that despite morphological similarities they are different species. This includes species of African leaf-nosed bats and chameleons.
“Our understanding of the natural world’s diversity is negligible and yet we depend on its systems, interconnectedness and complexity for food, water, climate resilience and the air we breathe,” said Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum. “Revealing new and undescribed species not only sustains our awe of the natural world, it further reveals what we stand to lose and helps estimate the diversity we may lose even before it’s discovered.”
Scientists at London’s National History Museum discovered 503 new species in 2020 including a lungless worm salamander and an armored slug. There is a vast diversity of life forms that have yet to be discovered by science. In 2020 scientists identified hundreds of previously unknown species and unknown populations. Here are examples of new species and species discovered that were thought to be extinct:
- A new species of beaked whale was discovered off of Mexico’s Pacific coast
- A new population of blue whales was found in the Indian Ocean
- The Jonah’s mouse lemur was discovered in northeastern Madagascar
- A new species of primate called the Popa langur (aka the trachypithecus popa) was found in Myanmar’s forests
- A new species of iridescent snake (Achalinus zugorum) twas discovered in the forests of Northern Vietnam,
- A new species of venomous snaked called the mountain fer-de-lance viper was found in the Andes mountains
- The tiny lilliputian frog was discovered in the Andes
- North Carolina’s 64th salamander species was discovered and named the Carolina Sandhills salamander
- A new dwarf gecko known as Cnemaspis avasabinae was found in India’s Eastern Ghat
- A new sub species of comb jellyfish called the duobrachium sparksae was officially classified
- Two new species of greater gliders were identified in Eastern Australia’s forests
- A new spider species called the Loureedia phoenixi was discovered in Iran
- A new species of snail called the Tegula Kusairo Yamazak was discovered in Japan
- Scientists rediscovered a chameleon in Madagascar that was last seen 100 years ago
- A critically endangered smoky mouse that feared lost during Australia’s bushfires was found alive in a New South Wales national park
- A wild population of New Guinea’s singing dogs, believed to be extinct, were found
- Once thought to be extinct the devil-eyed frog was spotted in the Bolivian Andes
Reintroduction/return of species
A captive breeding program for a Galápagos tortoise has been officially brought to a close after one prolific breeder brought them back from the brink. Thanks to a breeding program the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot population showed signs of recovery. Tasmanian Devils, a threatened and endangered species, were reintroduced to New South Wales after going extinct in Australia. The swift fox was reintroduced to Northern Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation. Bison have been reintroduced in Colorado and are once again roaming the great plains and Colorado’s legislature voted to reintroduce wolves into the Southern Rocky Mountains..
For the first time in a generation chinook salmon spawned in the upper Columbia river and after more than two decades an orca pod known as A5 has returned to the Broughton Archipelago, off the coast of BC near the northern end of Vancouver Island.
What remains to be done
According to a 2019 study half of all land must be kept in a natural state. An ambitious plan called the Global Deal for Nature, states that countries need to double their protected zones to 30 percent of the Earth’s land area, and add 20 percent more as climate stabilization areas, for a total of 50 percent of all land kept in a natural state. All of this needs to be done by 2030 to have a real hope of keeping global warming under the “danger zone” target of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) and to prevent the world’s ecosystems from unravelling.
Climate change is known to have been a key driver of species extinction in the distant past so combatting climate change is key to slowing species extinction. To combat the climate crises and biodiversity loss we must learn to live in harmony with nature. To get there we will need to see transformative change.
Despite the hardships we experienced last year 2020 is also a harbinger of hope. We have been given a second chance to protect biodiversity and combat climate change. We know what we must do, it remains to be seen if we will do it.
Discovery of Cryptic Species Shows the Earth is Even More Biologically Diverse (Guardian)
The Best Positive Environment News Stories in 2020 (Planet Ark)
These Conservation Stories Prove 2020 Was Not All Bad News (Smithsonian Magazine)
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