For centuries, it had a bad reputation: not only lambs, but small children, would be carried away to the underworld by the bearded vulture. This massive bird with a wingspan of close to three meters frightened humans to the extent that more than 100 years ago, this last “giant of the air” was driven to extinction in Germany.
Soon, however, the formerly extinct bearded vulture will once again soar above the German Alps – thanks to an international species protection project. The Klausbach Valley in Berchtesgaden National Park, is to become home to two young bearded vultures. Together with eight other chicks, they hatched in the mountains of Andalusia – a minor miracle. “Despite difficult conditions in the breeding program, we are pleased to be able to provide two bearded vultures to Berchtesgaden for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild”, says Dr. Alex Llopis Dell, director and coordinator of the Bearded Vulture Breeding Program in the Spanish breeding center at Guadelentín.
This reintroduction project is not based on nostalgia – other alpine countries already reintroduced the first specimen to their native habitats in the 1980s. After all, the bearded vulture plays a significant role within the ecosystem of the Alps. As a scavenger whose favorite food is bones, the bearded vulture removes the remains of dead animals, and thus prevents transmission of disease from animals to humans.
One-quarter of all species in peril
The bearded vulture was lucky. Thanks to engaged conservationists, this majestic bird of prey has been able to regain its alpine habitat. In contrast, many endangered animal and plant species face a much darker future, as climate change, and the destruction of nature, threaten biodiversity more than ever before.
According to reports published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which serves as scientific advisor to policy makers on the subject of biodiversity and ecosystem performance, approximately one quarter of all plant and animal species worldwide are under threat of extinction. This means that the extinction of species is progressing ten to a hundred times faster than it did on average during the past ten million years. Intensification of agriculture, deforestation and pollution contribute to the disappearance of species, and the growing human population, increasing consumption, and climate change magnify these effects.
Global environmental awareness is on the rise
The good news: an analysis commissioned by the environmental organization World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) determined that environmental awareness is, in fact, on the rise. For example, the number of Google searches, tweets and news on the topic of nature loss have increased dramatically in recent times. “Concern about nature loss and ecosystem degradation is shared by people all over the world, and many are already feeling more acutely the impacts of deforestation, unsustainable fishing, species extinction and the decline of ecosystems”, says Sabien Leemans, biodiversity expert with the WWF European Policy Office.
What people experience globally has since been proven by science: nature conservation and the diversity of species, as well as climate protection, are crucial to human survival. Nature provides food, drinking water, fresh air and medicine; its condition will decide our future on Earth. Scientists are explicit about the fact that nature conservation cannot be achieved without concession. Professor Josef Settele of the Helmholtz-Center for Environmental Research, and one of the co-authors of the IPBES report, frames it in a positive light: “It is not about foregoing quality of life. On the contrary, it is about foregoing a negative, polluted environment and poisoned bodies of water. This, in reality, does not mean going without – it is, in fact, a huge gain.”
Decade on ecosystem restoration
The global community appears to have recognized the dramatic situation in which we find ourselves – and it is intent on attempting an about-face. The optimistic message: by 2050, the world is to find its way back to a “life in harmony with nature”. To this end, the United Nations declared the upcoming decade the UN decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Within the new agreement on biodiversity, the member countries of the convention have agreed on the expansion of protected areas to 30 percent of land and water surface; the restoration of degraded soils; as well as the reduction of the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the generation of plastic waste.
Technology – certainly not a cure-all
The ways in which the world intends to move in the direction of a sustainable future are subject to discussion. According to scientists, conservation cannot be achieved by technological means alone, but instead it presents a societal challenge which requires accountability similar to that outlined in the Paris Agreement. “The answer is not more technology, innovation and investment, but a shift in focus. Evolved regulatory regimes would boost technologies that meet human needs while also benefiting climate, wildlife, soils, water and broader ecosystems“, explains Dr. Kai Chan, professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.
Certain successes already justify optimism: at this time, protected areas constitute more than 17 percent of the land surface and ten percent of the ocean surface. Rewilding, i.e., the reintroduction of animals formerly native to a region, has also shown remarkable success. Since, for example, the wolf was returned to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the ecosystem has recovered surprisingly fast. The reason: these predators keep the elk population in check. Their numbers declined as the numbers of wolves increased, allowing the vegetation to recover. Almost completely extinct tree species, such as poplar and willow, and also beaver and grizzly, have returned to Yellowstone. Where terrain had formerly experienced desertification, colorful new vegetation is now thriving. This example shows that all the species on Earth are important for a complete and functioning system.
Every one of us is needed
At the end of the day, according to IPBES, the world will only be able to halt the extinction of species through fundamental, transformative change which will transcend technological, economic and social factors – and with the help of broad societal support. It will be down to every one of us. Laura Pereira of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, emphasizes: “Building a better future requires everyone’s buy-in. The scientific community is starting to realize how important it is to listen to voices from the ground. Without these voices, targets for the planet will remain out of reach.”