Nature is sending us a message with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. Humanity has placed too much pressure on the natural world with damaging consequences, and if we fail to take care of our planet, we fail to take care of ourselves.
At the start of 2020, we were looking ahead to what was being termed a ‘super year’ for the environment and biodiversity, due to a packed calendar of major international meetings scheduled to tackle some of the most pressing threats to wildlife and conservation around the world. Sadly, like many things affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of these important meetings have had to be postponed or cancelled.
Had it not been for the pandemic, today, on the International Day of Biological Diversity, the IFAW team would have been at one of a number of key meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where governments are negotiating the new Global Biodiversity Framework. This framework is designed to set targets for the next decade to protect nature.
Nonetheless, the International Day for Biodiversity gives us opportunity to pause for thought about what we need the CBD and other international environmental agreements to achieve, once we are back to ‘normal’, and these and other negotiations can be concluded.
It’s worth remembering that ‘normal’ was not a good place for nature. At the root of emerging zoonotic diseases, like the COVID-19 pandemic, lies the destruction of nature, which is causing increased contact and conflict between wildlife and humans, allowing diseases to spill over to humans. The COVID-19 pandemic demands that we re-examine our relationship with the natural world. It may not be the ‘super year’ for biodiversity we imagined at the beginning of 2020, but it is now more urgent than ever that we renew our determination in overcoming the environmental challenges facing the world today.
It is critical that the global response to COVID-19 and the economic crisis that has followed includes ‘building back better’ for nature and for people. This includes a complete revamp of the international laws protecting nature. A vital component of IFAW’s work, as well as protecting animals out in the field, is to protect them and their habitats through legal frameworks and international agreements. This is essential in helping to protect the long-term future of some of our most threatened and endangered species of wildlife.
While key meetings on the future of wildlife and conservation in 2020 may be shelved, the work does not stop, and nor should it wait. At such a critical time for our planet, with one million species at risk of extinction, we cannot afford to postpone or cancel any of our ongoing efforts to save wildlife and the places they call home.
That is why IFAW is busy ensuring hard fought gains from recent international meetings are implemented, and that preparations for future meetings continue.
At the last CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP18) held in Geneva, Switzerland in August 2019, IFAW campaigned successfully for trade in an additional 18 species of endangered sharks and rays to be regulated. We continue to work with partners and governments around the world to ensure that these new protections are implemented effectively.
The CITES CoP18 also saw decisions calling for greater action on wildlife cybercrime, domestic ivory markets and the trade in jaguar parts. We continue to work with governments around the world to ensure such action is taken.
At CMS CoP13 in Gujarat, India in February 2020, one of the last major environmental forums to take place before travel restrictions were introduced, governments agreed greater cooperation across international borders to increase protection for three of our most vulnerable migratory wild species; the Asian elephant, jaguar and oceanic whitetip shark. With our partner the Wildlife Trust of India, we are supporting the world’s pre-eminent experts on Asian elephants to guide decisive action through the IUCN’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress was due to take place in June this year but has now been postponed until January 2021. Another critical forum for conservation policy, IFAW is leading efforts to ensure its policies reflect the pressing needs of animals, including an IFAW-led motion to protect species from wildlife cybercrime. In the meantime, we continue to work with governments and tech companies to tackle the illegal wildlife trade in online marketplaces and social media platforms.
June was also supposed to have seen the UN Ocean Conference take place. We should have already had the final negotiation session for a new UN treaty to protect the high seas. And the biennial meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), scheduled to take place in Slovenia in late September has also now been postponed. All of these meetings will be critical opportunities to ensure the way our ocean is governed is fit for the crisis it faces in the 21st Century.
But these delays do offer opportunities to build further support among governments for ambitious and comprehensive agreements on biodiversity, oceans and climate, commensurate with the challenges we face. These ‘high ambition’ coalitions are critical if governments around the world are to seize the mantle and transform our relationship with the natural world.
The theme of today’s International Day of Biological Diversity is ‘our solutions are in nature’. It emphasises that despite all our technological advances as a species, we are still completely dependent on healthy and vibrant ecosystems for our water, food, medicines, clothes, fuel, shelter and energy, to name just a few.
If we are to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis, then it must be to build a future in harmony with nature. This includes creating international frameworks that will safeguard nature, and in doing so help safeguard ourselves, including from zoonotic pandemics.
If the lockdowns resulting from COVID-19 tell us anything, it is that the political will and capacity exists to enact decisive measures when confronted with a critical threat. What we need now is that political will extended to the biodiversity crisis we face. We can and must continue to make progress and begin the recovery that our planet and ourselves so desperately need.
-Matt Collis, Director of International Policy