We need to talk about nature. But not because today is the International Day for Biological Diversity. We shouldn’t need an awareness day to remind us how important biodiversity is.

Over the past few months, we have profiled some of the neglected species whose fortunes Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is helping to turn around. The take-home message, we hope, is that giant snails, pygmy hippos, dragon trees, sturgeons, Caribbean reptiles, cao vit gibbons, Kyrgyz tulips and Siamese crocodiles are not only worthy of attention in their own right, but also integral to the bigger picture.

And that picture isn’t a pretty one. We’re systematically unpicking the threads that make up the warp and weft of life’s rich tapestry. That includes not only the carefully delineated individual figures, from majestic elephants, tigers and baobabs to anonymous arthropods, but also the intricate detail of the all-important backdrop – the forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and seascapes – without which the entire showpiece would fall apart.

Worldwide underfunding of nature

The statistics speak for themselves. An estimated one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. Around 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost between 1980 and 2000. Animals that are front and centre in our culture are fading fast in reality. We live in a world where giraffe teething toys are far more prevalent than their real-life counterparts.

Reticulated giraffe populations have plummeted in the past three decades. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Let’s be honest, nature is more than just neglected. Our relationship with it is utterly dysfunctional. A lethal cocktail of greed, apathy and ignorance has led us to use and abuse the natural world for longer than we care to remember. And that abuse has now reached unsustainable levels. If the planet were a company, the degree of mismanagement we’ve witnessed these past few decades would have led to calls for heads to roll at board level.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse, and greed never was. We understand the consequences of our actions – and inaction – only too well. Yet we continue to undervalue nature and underinvest in its protection and restoration. The world has failed to hit every single one of the Aichi biodiversity targets agreed a decade ago in Japan.

Biodiversity challenge

If ever there was an example of biting the hand that feeds, this is it. The solution to the climate crisis – and to a healthy planet – is staring us in the face. Why do we wilfully disregard the gift-wrapped box of biodiversity goodies hiding in plain sight? Or, worse still, stamp on it like some petulant child? Far from being a luxury we can’t afford, biodiversity is an essential item we can’t afford to lose, but our attitude to it is ambivalent at best.

It’s time for a radical rethink of our relationship with nature. Time to stop burning down old-growth forest to make way for cattle ranching and oil palm plantations. To stop trashing the seabed at the expense of marine diversity and climate. To stop draining peat swamps to produce cheaper toilet paper. To stop drilling in fragile ecosystems for fossil fuels we shouldn’t countenance using. To stop building theme parks in pristine wilderness and calling it ecotourism. To stop chopping down ancient woodland to shave 15 minutes off our journey time.

Ulu Masen Forest, Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.
Halting the destruction of old-growth forests and other natural allies in the struggle to combat climate change must be made a top priority. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Wherever we look , we see speed limits exceeded (fishing quotas are just for show); red lights run (hello, deep-sea mining); no entry signs ignored (let’s put a pipeline through this national park); people driving without a licence (the logging permit is in the post). We are witnessing a slow-motion car crash. And we desperately need a critical mass of competent, compassionate and committed people to take the wheel. To invest in nature protection. To put planet before profit.

Not fade away

In some quarters, there are encouraging signs; just last week, we heard that the UK government’s plans to protect and restore nature, tackle the climate and biodiversity crises and help deliver on its net zero commitment include a world-leading target for 2030 aimed at halting species decline. But we urgently need others to get with the programme if we want COP 26 to be more than just another talking shop.

Our stories of FFI’s work with neglected species are stories of hope – small but significant victories in the Sisyphean struggle to roll the conservation rock up an ever-steeper hill. At the risk of mixing mythological metaphors, we have a Herculean task on our hands. And we’ve been cleaning out the stables with one of those hands tied behind our back for far too long.

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A destructive wave of monoculture sweeps aside the myriad biological riches of Ecuador’s rainforest. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

This is not intended to be a rant. Think of it as a paean to the planet and its natural wonders. And let’s ensure it doesn’t end up as a eulogy. A world without wildlife is just 50 shades of grey in redacted form; monochrome, monotone, monopolised by the mediocre, and arguably not worth living in. Some may disagree, but one thing is irrefutable. Whatever we think of biodiversity – or nature – and however much or little we value it, we can’t survive without it. Our lives depend on it in the most literal sense.

It's now or never

Building back better will be contingent on economic change, political change and social change. We need our world leaders, our captains of industry – all of us, in fact – to seize the day. There are tough decisions to be taken. These may not be vote winners or popular with shareholders, but they might just save the planet – our one home. Whatever catchphrase we choose to hang our hat on, we need to act now and act decisively, without fear or favour.

If we do that, we can consign the International Day for Biological Diversity – and similar well-meaning but largely symbolic gestures – to the history books. We already have ample evidence of what can be achieved when we come together, when we think and act beyond the boundaries of our own traditional bubbles. The rapid development of an effective Covid-19 vaccine demonstrated that there are no limits to what can be achieved when we commit time, money, resources and brain power to the realisation of a shared vision.

We need to address the biodiversity and climate crisis with that same sense of urgency and common purpose. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to leave the planet in better shape. To that end, here’s an important petition that we’d love you to sign.