Whether in orangutans, lambs or human children, innocence conjures a call to the heart; one that, in the musings of the Prophet Isaiah, evokes a vision of the wolf, lamb, leopard and goat nestled together in harmony. Such hints of vestigial Eden present tantalising scenarios not entirely out of kilter with the best laid plan of conservation, namely, the protection of large ecosystems with their intact assemblages of plants and animals.
This was the dream of Abraham Lincoln, who not only brought the nation together, but sought to include within that community protected natural areas beginning with his gift to the nation of the Mariposa Big Tree Grove of Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Valley on June 30, 1864. This action led to the creation of the national park system which some consider to be the best idea America ever devised.
The ideal commending the public’s protection of ecological commons quickly became a global mandate, and one that surged from our deepest instincts: not those of fear or flight, but of loving engagement and protection of the natural world. The very act of celebrating nature may be as deeply woven into the human heart as any other intellectual conceit and could be a key to our species’ survival. With over 114,000 protected areas representing nearly 12 per cent of the terrestrial Earth, there is reason to be guardedly optimistic about our collective conservationist resolve.
That said, one cannot deny the plethora of negatives - not just the seemingly minor daily disasters, but all those incremental compromises resulting in the scraping of mountains for coal, conversion of tropical forests into palm oil, zircon, soy or biofuels, continuing huge gaps dividing rich and poor, global warming, the spread of nuclear weapons and the fact that human consumption, to paraphrase Boris Pasternak, resembles a runaway train in the dark night with its headlights turned inward.
The risk of losing precious lives and species has never been higher and this loss of biodiversity is by far the most pressing crisis - among many - that humanity and the Earth herself faces.
Take but one example that would have escaped most radar screens, but goes to the heart of changing biological parameters: in 2006 Californians witnessed a precipitous drop in the numbers of migrating butterflies. At one site, Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) declined from a recorded number of four per second to four per month.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is charged - under the authority of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) - with identifying and listing threatened or endangered species in North America. At the ESA’s inception, 78 species appeared on the list. By the end of January 2008, the agency had designated 607 animal and 744 plant species as threatened or endangered.
Today, the agency has Approved Recovery Plans for an additional 1,116 species. It must be noted that only 22 species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list, while many others have declined in numbers. In some cases, populations have been reduced by 98 per cent, as in the case of America’s Black-Footed Ferret.
Globally, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has red listed over 16,000 species as threatened or endangered and has identified more than 40,000 species at risk of becoming threatened. If current impact trends continue, many scientific organisations project the likelihood of our losing between 40 to 60 per cent of all life forms on Earth by the 22nd century.
New findings released in May 2008 - following a meeting in Bonn of the international signatories to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (a treaty formulated back in 1992 at the Rio Summit) - revealed that the species’ extinction rate has escalated to an average 25,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate.
That normal rate of three species per million years on average has long been perverted by humanity’s interventions. What is positively startling about this predicament are the numbers themselves. Until recently it was believed by zoologists that there were a maximum of ten million species on earth. Research discoveries have pushed that number to over 100 million species. If human consumption trends are not modified, a consensus indicates a likely decline of 60 per cent of all life forms during this century, or the loss of 60 million species.
Averages for the number of individuals per species vary across the entire suite of life forms, but some have pointed to a mean number of three million individuals per species: the extinction of 180 trillion individuals. Most of these will be of the Phylum Arthropoda, namely, insects, spiders and crustaceans. But the number will include gorillas, whales, lions, tigers, cheetahs, black-footed ferrets, cinnabar trees, orchids, dolphins, penguins, giraffes, parrots, falcons, wild tulips and wolves, among countless others.
First published as "Preserving innocence: the 21st century sanctuary movement" by the Dancing Star Foundation.