Humans dominate the planet. We are influencing the climate1, driving species to extinction at unprecedented rates2, and even changing the looks3 and behaviours4 of the wildlife around us. We surely can’t reverse extinction – yet – but what about preventing extinctions? It looks like, if we try, nature is very resilient, biodiversity will gradually return and ecosystems will slowly gain back their balance – that is if we act in time.
Look at Chernobyl, located just over the border in northern Ukraine, when in April 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear accident happened. The town was soon evacuated, and the exclusion zone today covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus5. As people abandoned the radioactive landscape, wildlife slowly returned and repopulated the deserted zone. In just a couple of decades, the disaster zone turned back into a functioning ecosystem filled with wildlife. Even wolves have returned to roam the area, and since these apex predators are at the top of the food chain, their return symbolises the recovery of a now rather healthy ecosystem, consisting of multiple trophic levels with different types of species from plants, to insects, birds, herbivores and other smaller carnivores – the whole picture is there.
Chernobyl’s story, if anything, gives us hope that if we allow nature to recover, it will. It is noteworthy to mention, however, that for nature to recover we must first ensure that we don’t wreck ecosystems beyond irreversible levels. For instance, as mentioned above, species’ extinctions are a clear indicator that we went too far and caused irreparable damage.
Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, people are still restricted from resettling the evacuation area, dubbed the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The absence of humans has created an opportunity for nature to thrive. A new study using remote cameras reveals abundant populations of gray wolves, raccoon dogs, and red fox.
Another anecdote is the recovery of large carnivore populations in Europe during the last half a century6. What it’s even more exemplary about this recovery is the fact that Europe’s landscapes are highly developed and densely populated. The return of carnivores such as wolves, bears and the lynx was aided by international agreements and legislation (including the Habitats Directive and the Bern Convention) which made it illegal to persecute these species. The reintroduction of herbivore species across the continent has also helped, along with the abandonment of agricultural landscapes by many people who moved into cities looking for better job opportunities.
Distribution of large carnivores in Europe in 2011. Brown bears (top left), Eurasian lynx (top right), gray wolves (bottom left), and wolverines (bottom right). Dark blue cells indicate areas of permanent occurrence, and light blue cells indicate areas of sporadic occurrence. Numbers refers to population identifications in tables S1 to S16. Orange lines indicate boundaries between populations. Image Credits6
Overall, it would seem that public attitudes towards wildlife and its conservation have been improving since post-war times7. Some social scientists, notably Prof Michael J. Manfredo at Colorado State University, U.S., argue that society’s values are shifting away from a materialist society towards a post-materialist one. While in the pre-war period people’s worries were on getting a roof over their head and food on their dinner table, today’s improved economic situation means that people can worry less on such primary needs, and rather focus on other issues such as wildlife conservation. With that said, if we couple today’s shifting values with nature’s intrinsic resilience, we may be able to see a concrete hope for nature.
We need to act now, before it’s too late, if we want nature to recover. Sadly enough, we have already overshot safe planetary boundaries within which to operate in many cases, causing many extinctions along the way. While such losses are unrecoverable, it’s better to act late than never. At the moment, the biggest threats to nature are climate change, habitat loss, and overharvesting. Our focus should be on mitigating these issues if we want nature to recover. Our actions, including our lifestyle and who we choose to vote, have a massive meaning for what the future will hold in terms of nature conservation.
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- Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P.T., Anderegg, W.R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E.W., Carlton, J.S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A.G., Green, S.A. and Nuccitelli, D., 2016. Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4), p.048002
- Pigeon, G., Festa‐Bianchet, M., Coltman, D.W. and Pelletier, F., 2016. Intense selective hunting leads to artificial evolution in horn size. Evolutionary Applications, 9(4), pp.521-530.
- Hebblewhite, M., White, C.A., Nietvelt, C.G., McKenzie, J.A., Hurd, T.E., Fryxell, J.M., Bayley, S.E. and Paquet, P.C., 2005. Human activity mediates a trophic cascade caused by wolves. Ecology, 86(8), pp.2135-2144.
- Chapron, G., Kaczensky, P., Linnell, J.D., von Arx, M., Huber, D., Andrén, H., López-Bao, J.V., Adamec, M., Álvares, F., Anders, O. and Balčiauskas, L., 2014. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. science, 346(6216), pp.1517-1519.
- Manfredo, M., Teel, T. and Bright, A., 2003. Why are public values toward wildlife changing?. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 8(4), pp.287-306.
Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/2nhMoWx