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Valuing Biodiversity

A vital report was released today that may finally communicate the importance of wildlife and habitat conservation in a language that could lead to it being taken more seriously by decision-makers: economics. The final report of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study – sponsored by the United Nations – shows that the cost of losing ecosystems and their biodiversity will ultimately be far greater than the investment that is required now to save them. Three years in the making, this represents the first ever effort to quantify the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The report has been launched on the third day of an all important conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan. The target of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 – set in 2002 both at a previous CBD conference and at a UN World Summit on Sustainable Development – has not been met, and the problems have been getting worse. It is therefore hoped that this latest CBD conference will come up with firm new targets to be hit before 2020.

Environmental politics has of late been mainly dominated by climate change, while the long-term damage being caused by an escalating loss of biodiversity and ecosystems has largely been overlooked. As quoted recently in The Independent, the situation was put succinctly by the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Professor Stephen Hopper: "Biodiversity loss is as big or even more significant a long-term challenge to us – extinction is final, whereas with climate change we have the prospect of getting on top of it if we change our behaviour”.

With its vision of “making nature economically visible” the TEEB report has set out to redress this imbalance. As the report lays out, the conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of important ecosystems is essential for the value they provide to human societies through “ecosystem services”.

Such ecosystem services include the direct use values of “provisioning services” (wild foods, crops, fresh-water, natural medicines etc.) and the non-consumptive use values of “cultural services”, which include recreation, education, spiritual and aesthetic values). Until now there has been a great push on the field of conservation to find ways of having wildlife “pay for itself” through such services. One of the best examples of this is ecotourism – a non-consumptive, recreational service – where maintaining wild environments and the animals they contain can provide a sustainable, competitive income for people, particularly at a local level, and in some cases even at a national level. Ecotourism can work, but not everywhere, and efforts to force it to work can place wider conservation efforts in jeopardy in areas to which it is ill-suited, especially when the promised economic returns fail to materialise. Even where it does work, either greed or the relentless need to keep competing with other economic demands, or both, can push ecotourism beyond sustainable levels and actually do more damage to the environment or the species that it sets out to help in the first place.

The bigger picture has therefore been required for some time, and while the TEEB report does incorporate the economic role that ecotourism can play, its real value is in highlighting the intrinsic value of biodiversity and ecosystems to life on the planet, through its indirect use values. These include “regulatory” and “supporting” services: everything from water purification, climate regulation (e.g. carbon storage), pollination and protection from disasters of the former, to soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling of the latter. One example of this quoted in the report is that US$3.7 trillion of damage from climate change would be averted if deforestation rates were halved by 2030. And yet this figure doesn’t even take into account the other benefits of forest ecosystems.

Incorporating the values of nature into decision-making at all levels by following the TEEB report’s recommendations would place much needed greater emphasis on the importance of conservation. This will require a “transformative journey” and the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke of similar with specific reference to Asian elephants at last month’s Labour Party Conference debate: “Those who are involved in wildlife and natural environment organisations.... and care about climate change, understand instinctively why these things are important and matter. But not everybody sees that value for the future of humankind. We really have to change the way in which we think about the world and the natural environment in particular”.

For Elephant Family, Asian elephant conservation is about so much more than just saving one endangered species from extinction: it’s about preserving some of the most important environments on the planet. Asian elephants are not only flagship species for these environments, they are also what ecologists refer to as “keystone” species, meaning that their very existence and behaviour is important to maintain the richness and character of their particular environment. For example, elephants maintain the variety of plant species in their habitat through extensive browsing; they help maintain and in some cases create waterholes; they disperse (and help germinate) seeds in their faeces; and so on. Losing elephants from any particular habitat has a highly detrimental knock-on effect to its levels of biodiversity. As the TEEB report makes clear, biodiversity has a key role in delivering certain ecosystem services and contributes to the ability of an ecosystem to keep providing these services under changing environmental conditions, what is known as ecosystem resilience.

This year has been the International Year of Biodiversity, and Elephant Family has been proud to be an active partner of the UK partnership in support of this. With Asian elephants as such important standard bearers for biodiversity, Elephant Family therefore hopes that the representatives at the CBD conference in Nagoya can take heed of the TEEB reports recommendations, and develop some very definite plans for halting the loss of biodiversity before much more is irretrievably lost.

Read more from the BBC news website here, or The Independent here

Has Enough Value Been Placed on Biodiversity?

A week ago today, the conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan, reached what was widely considered to be a successful conclusion. Unlike last year’s Copenhagen climate talks, an agreement was settled, and having failed to stem the loss of biodiversity against previous targets, a new ten-year plan was developed. Amongst other things, the parties “agreed to at least halve and where feasible bring close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats”. Targets were set for 17% of the planet’s land surface and 10% of the seas to become protected areas by 2020. And substantial increases in the level of funding provided to carry out the plans were pledged. But is this enough, even if the targets are met this time round? 

Reaching such an agreement between 18,000 participants from the 193 parties to the CBD is certainly an achievement, and with so many competing demands it is understandable that targets might not have gone as far as many had hoped. Yet other conservationists have been quick to point out that up to 13% of the Earth’s surface is already protected, while the target of protecting 10% of the seas remains unchanged from before. Having already failed the 2010 target of a “significant reduction” in the rate of biodiversity loss, the agreement still openly acknowledges that many more natural habitats are going to be lost.

Some still see a ray of hope in the fact that the issue is now firmly on the political agenda. The release of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report – the first ever effort to quantify the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems – has been seen as crucial for this. It is in many ways depressing that “this approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy”, as George Monbiot put it earlier this week in The Guardian. But as mentioned before, at least now it’s in a language that decision-makers will not only understand, but will also hopefully take more seriously. Perhaps even heads of state will attend the next biodiversity conference!

All the same, Monbiot (who also points out that a binding agreement from Nagoya has yet to actually materialise) issues a far more grave concern: “As soon as something is measurable it becomes negotiable. Subject the natural world to cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians will decide which parts of it we can do without."

Sadly, in the short-term this is probably so. Therefore the real challenge is to get governments worldwide to take the long-term view, where the value of ecosystems and biodiversity will literally stand the test of time.

Take Asian elephants, for example. Calculating their long-term economic value would still surely be a useful exercise that could aid their conservation.

Elephants are one of the greatest examples of an ecological “keystone” species: the lives of so many other organisms depend on their existence and they define the ecosystems in which they are found. Their consumption of vast amounts of vegetation, and even how they physically open up clearings, for example, ensures that certain plant species don’t come to dominate in any one environment. This results in a much greater variety of plants and also animals that feed on them. Elephants’ feeding behaviour is also such that what they spill or shake free from high branches can suddenly become available to other animals. Elephants are also known to enlarge and deepen water supplies with their tusks in times of drought, and this too benefits countless other animals. Furthermore, numerous plants rely on them to disperse their seeds and help them germinate in their very own parcels of organic fertiliser. Animals that subsequently feed on these plants, and the animals that feed on them, therefore indirectly depend on the elephants. Because of the great quantity of seeds that they are passing and the distances over which they do so, one can see how elephants genuinely do shape their environments. Lose the elephants and the ecosystems rapidly deteriorate.

The sort of “ecosystem services” that these environments provide to the planet, as well as to sustain human life, include everything from water purification, climate regulation (e.g. carbon storage), pollination and protection from disasters, to soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling. Therefore, because of the key role that they play (let alone their cultural value and the income they help generate through tourism), wouldn’t it be useful to know just how valuable Asian elephants are to the world?

It seems that there is still a great deal of convincing to be done before biodiversity and ecosystems are valued sufficiently. In the meantime, once the agreement from the CBD conference does finally emerge, it will first and foremost be our collective responsibility to ensure that governments worldwide do come good on all that they have agreed for biodiversity. And then push for more!

Read the George Monbiot article in The Guardian here

2011 – The International Year of Forests

It is estimated that the Earth loses 80,000 acres of its forest each day. To put this into perspective, forest areas practically the size of England are disappearing from the planet each and every year. If the current rate of deforestation continues, we will see the world’s rainforest vanish entirely within a hundred years. Therefore in a bid to raise awareness of sustainable forest management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests, the United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests, an initiative that Elephant Family fully supports.

Forests are some of the biologically richest environments on Earth, but they are also among the most threatened. These crucial ecosystems are of global importance, not solely for their biodiversity but also for regulating the global climate and sustaining human life: over 1.6 billion people’s livelihoods depend on their existence.

The principal threats to the world’s forests are agriculture, illegal logging, resource extraction, human settlement and poor governance. The destruction of rainforests is resulting in the extinction of hundreds of species, many of which have never been scientifically documented. Much of the world’s remaining forest is now increasingly fragmented and degraded. It is within forest fragments like these that the Asian elephant is struggling to survive.

Asian elephants are a migratory species. Their existence depends on age-defined forest routes that allow them to migrate seasonally to feed and reproduce. These forest lifelines are rapidly being severed and elephants are being forced into ever-decreasing pockets of land, sparking a devastating rise in human-elephant conflict.

Through our projects in India, Borneo, Thailand and Indonesia, Elephant Family is working to mitigate human-elephant conflict and protect Asian elephant habitat. For us, our work is about a great deal more than saving one endangered species from extinction: it’s about conserving some of the most important ecosystems on the planet. Asian elephants are not only flagship species for the landscapes they inhabit: as ecological keystone species, their very existence is important to maintain biodiversity within their particular environment.

Parbati Barua – the subject and inspiration of our founder Mark Shand’s book Queen of the Elephants – puts it succinctly: “Elephants are important for our survival. By saving them we are forced to save big forests. By saving big forests we save all animals. If we do not, all nature will disappear and we destroy ourselves”.

We are about to launch specific campaigns around issues such as palm oil. The demand for palm oil is ever-increasing and it is used in everyday food products, cosmetics and in biodiesel. The phrase ‘cheapest oil in the world’ is often used in relation to palm oil when the grim reality is that oil palm plantations are costing the world its tropical forests and having a devastating impact on vital ecosystems. Our Head of Conservation, Dan Bucknell, recently visited Sabah Province, Malaysia. Along the two-hour drive to the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary – where we’re working with Hutan to reduce human-elephant conflict – he witnessed the harrowing affects of the demand for palm oil first hand:

“It was a sobering sight. The plantations went on forever and so little forest is left in what is still widely acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots. Plantations have squeezed the wildlife – elephants, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and some of the richest birdlife on the planet – into forest fragments that can barely sustain them. We really have reached the eleventh hour for saving these forests, yet still too few people realise that they are unwittingly consuming the culprit on a daily basis.”

There is an urgent need to prevent further concessions being granted that allow vast forest areas to be felled for oil palm plantations. It is also imperative that, internationally, we ensure all types of industry are using palm oil sourced from plantations that have not cost the Earth its rainforests. With this in mind, it seems incredibly fitting that 2011 is the International Year of Forests. We can but hope that increased awareness of the importance of the Earth’s forests will see declining rates of deforestation worldwide.

The above photo shows elephants within palm oii plantations in Sabah, taken by Sulaiman Bin Ismail, Head of Hutan's Elephant Conservation Unit