As world falls behind on U.N. wildlife targets, bright spots offer hope

LONDON (Reuters) - All the world’s governments have fallen short on pledges made a decade ago to protect wildlife, though cases of conservation show that the destruction of nature can be slowed, and even reversed, according to a U.N. report published on Tuesday.

The report outlined recommendations for far-reaching changes in sectors from farming to urban planning, and a rapid phase-out of the fossil fuels driving climate change, to help save a million species scientists say are at risk of extinction.

“There is no doubt that the business-as-usual trends are dire,” lead author David Cooper, deputy executive secretary of the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity, told Reuters.

With countries due to meet for a U.N. summit on biodiversity later this month, the report underlines the need not just for stronger commitments in stemming a precipitous decline in wildlife, but also in seeing those commitments through.

The United Nations is pushing for governments to collectively set aside 30% of the planet’s land and sea areas for conservation when they meet next year in China to negotiate a new wildlife pact. Currently, about 17% of the world’s land falls into areas that receive some form of protection.

Scientists have said the world may need more than 30% to survive, if not thrive.

The report, however, was not without bright spots. For example, the endangered Japanese crested ibis, which had once almost vanished, started to produce chicks in the wild after conservationists released captive-bred birds.

FILE PHOTO: A tract of Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared by farmers in Rio Pardo, Rondonia, Brazil September 15, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

In Pakistan, a programme is protecting the snow leopard by conserving Himalayan ecosystems. In Malawi, a community-based project is replanting the Mulanje cedar, prized for its aromatic wood and resistance to termites and fungal diseases.

“We also see that governments have made efforts. And where they make those efforts, they deliver results – and that’s where we get some hope,” Cooper said.

Without conservation efforts, the number of bird and mammal extinctions would probably have been at least twice as high during the 10-year life of the pact, the report said.

Concerns over the impact of industrial society on the natural world has escalated amid the coronavirus pandemic, believed to have originated in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The destruction of wild spaces increases the risk of disease jumping from animals, scientists say.

The report assessed 20 goals known as Aichi Biodiversity Targets brokered within a global pact in Japan in 2010. Those goals aim, for example, to slow deforestation, preserve wetlands and raise public awareness of the importance of nature to a healthy planet.

None of the main targets had been met, the report said. However, there were signs of progress. For example, while global deforestation was not reduced by the goal of at least 50%, it did slow by about a third over the last 10 years relative to the previous decade.

And while a third of marine fish stocks were over-fished, a higher proportion than a decade ago, stocks have bounced back quickly in areas where protections were put in place.

The authors warned that conservation goals were still being undermined by subsidies supporting industrial agriculture, fishing and other businesses that damage ecosystems.

Last year, the IPBES international panel of scientists said that a million species were at risk of extinction unless countries can prioritize conservation.

About two-thirds of the world’s animals - mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles - have vanished over the last 50 years, a report by the World Wildlife Fund said last week.

“We are optimistic that the shocking findings coming out of a number of recent reports will really enable all of us to rethink our actions,” Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, told Reuters. “That’s also going to put governments under pressure.”

Reporting by Matthew Green; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker