Conserve Nature, Conserve Humankind

Photo Credit: Andy Miller

By Dr. Dian Spear

In honour of World Wildlife Day 2017, Dian Spear writes about her love for nature and the interconnections between humankind and all things wild.  

My first love is nature. Wild life and wild places enrich my life and feed my soul. Even at home I get such joy from watching sunbirds, robin chats, common waxbills, cape skinks, chameleons and field mice in my garden. The biggest threat to nature is us, humans, and the way we live our lives (Sala et al. 2000). Anthropogenic climate change may be the biggest threat to nature yet, with some authors expecting the sixth mass extinction to be on its way (Thomas et al. 2004, Thuiller et al. 2005, Bellard et al. 2012).

I don’t think most people realize how important nature is for our lives. Healthy ecosystems are needed to provide numerous services including fertile soils, fresh water, clean air and buffering against storms and floods (Costanza et al. 1997). Therefore, impacts on biodiversity are going to have major consequences for the services nature provide and in turn will affect human wellbeing (Chapin et al. 2000, Diaz et al. 2016).

Many people want to protect individual animals and species e.g. Save The Rhino campaigners. However, taking care of wildlife is much bigger than this. I’ve written before about how our lifestyles impact the environment, for example, how our lifestyle choices (including diet selection) determine the amount of land and resources needed to sustain us and therefore the amount of nature that is destroyed in providing for us. What I haven’t written about is how measures that can safeguard nature in the face of climate change can also have huge benefits for us humans. This is the idea of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). An example of EbA is the restoration and maintenance of watersheds in their natural state, which protects the environment and provides numerous services to humans, including protection from floods (Jones et al. 2012).

One way in which climate change affects nature is by changing the environmental conditions which plants and animals are exposed to. The impacts of this are that some species do not do well under the new conditions and in some instances species that are more sensitive will no longer be able to survive in a particular place. The way that species respond to climate change is by changing their phenology e.g. timing of reproduction, changing their range i.e. the geographical space they occupy or changing their physiology i.e. how they function e.g. thermal tolerances (Bellard et al. 2012). Obviously these processes take time, but plants and animals will adapt if they can. However, human assistance is necessary to enable the movement of species along climatic and ecological gradients.

As part of my work on the ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) project, which focuses on humans and their livelihoods, we are doing work looking at the need for transformational adaptation in the face of climate change. Some of this includes changing livelihoods, but also the possible need for people to move. In nature adaptation is automatic through evolution. Plants and animals generally know what is best to sustain their own populations. However, plants and animals will be limited in their ability to shift their ranges without human intervention, as we have fragmented the landscape. This means that species could be trapped in an environment that can no longer support them. The same can be said for people in the places most affected by climate change. People are living in places where their current livelihoods may not be able to be sustained in the face of climate change but they stay there and they keep doing what they have always done.

If we take a lesson from nature we could change the time of year we do things, we could change where we live or we could change our ability to function in the environment. People do take cognizance of phenology and they have shifted when they plant their crops. However, this doesn’t help crop yields in drought years. People do move and sometimes they can move somewhere and do the same thing but like plants and animals there are too many people elsewhere on the earth so there isn’t much land to move to. There are few open niches. In terms of changing functioning in their systems some people try to do this, but many don’t adapt. In some cases the only way people survive in rural environments, which are often the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, is through outside assistance. Be it drought relief or remittances sent home from family members working in an urban area. Wild plants and animals don’t have this luxury of being brought supplementary resources from outside the system in which they live or being able to create a microclimate around them. They also can’t just change their livelihood overnight.

Along with reserve networks, a suggestion for saving some species from extinction as a result of climate change is assisted migration (McLachlan et al. 2007). However, even this is unlikely to solve the problem in many cases, especially where climatic change is intense and where particular climates disappear altogether from localities (Williams et al. 2007). Wildlife is at serious threat from the effects of climate change and although climate change is not always as visible as a poacher or a bulldozer - it is catastrophic and really needs to be mitigated and responded to. Response is needed, if not for the plants and animals, then directly for ourselves. We can take a lead from nature and better adapt to the conditions we face, move somewhere we can survive, or change the system in which we live. In the same way that we can enable wildlife to survive through the creation of new protected areas and networks of reserves across climate and ecological gradients, humans need to create the enabling environments necessary for transformational adaptation as well as transformational mitigation - so that all life on earth can be sustained.

Photo Credits:

1. Andy Miller


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