Global instability is a serious threat to biodiversity conservation

I get excited and motivated when I read about conservation success stories, and these elevate a sense of optimism about the future of our Planet. However, it would be foolish to believe that all is well in paradise. The Covid-19 pandemic is showing no sign of letting up and the continued lockdowns are having a detrimental impact on economic growth, with millions still unable to work. While we are long overdue for a massive reset, and perhaps Covid is the catalyst for this to happen, the reality is that we have a world population bursting at the seams and rapidly increasing poverty levels will lead to increased social conflict. We ignore this to our peril. 

I have just completed reading the 27-page summary of the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on 9 April 2021. Whilst this report is strongly biased towards United States interests, it does have global significance and influence. 

International disputes and disagreements have a dramatic impact on treaties and signed agreements as we witnessed with the Trump Administration, where the US pulled out of several significant agreements on climate change and other environmental resolutions. In recent years there has been a proliferation in military capability, particularly in China and the USSR, but also as far afield as Australia. The increased technological innovations are allowing for greater and more accurate delivery of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Despite continued pressure for de-escalation by international organisations, nuclear-armed countries continue to increase their arsenal and countries such as North Korea and Iran continue with their nuclear aspirations. Cross-border skirmishes between the USSR and Ukraine, China, India and Pakistan, and elsewhere, and the expansion of military and naval bases in many regions, have all raised concern that one misjudgement may ignite global conflict, most certainly with devastating consequences to humanity and the environment. 

In addition, environmental concerns are strongly noted within the National Intelligence report: “Ecological degradation and a changing climate will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises. The degradation and depletion of soil, water, and biodiversity resources almost certainly will threaten infrastructure, health, water, food, and security, especially in many developing countries that lack the capacity to adapt quickly to change, and increase the potential for conflict over competition for scarce natural resources.”

Our actions on the industrial level don’t only impact on natural areas, resources, and climate change, but the resultant pollutants are having a dreadful impact on air quality. “Air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor for premature death globally in 2019, resulting in approximately 7 million deaths, and has been found to increase the susceptibility to and severity of COVID-19 infections,” stated the report.  

Another noteworthy organisation overseeing the future of humanity is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (https://thebulletin.org). This organisation was founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago Scientists, who assisted in the development of the atom bomb.

This panel of scientists developed the Doomsday Clock two years later. It uses the analogy of the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of a nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. Over time, the Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.

The Doomsday Clock decision is made by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board in consultation with the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel Laureates. In January 2020, the Doomsday Clock moved to 100 seconds to midnight, closer to midnight than ever in its history:

“Given this and the lack of progress in 2020 in dealing with nuclear and climate perils, the Doomsday Clock remains as close to midnight as it has ever been – just 100 seconds to midnight.”

The recent attack in Palma, northern Mozambique, is yet another serious concern to regional stability and the protection of biodiversity in Mozambique. After prolonged civil war, Mozambique has made massive strides in its protection of natural areas and biodiversity over the last decade. Much investment has gone into research initiatives, the protection of natural assets, development of parks, and anti-poaching campaigns. 

However, rampant poverty and inequality is leading to increased social conflict, and this leads to easy recruitment of dissident citizens who are offered false hope by engaging in terrorist activities. The socio-political background to the Palma attack, and previous incursions, including sporadic conflict in other regions of Mozambique, runs back decades, but is exacerbated by the current level of inequality and endless promises of wealth to a desperate population. There are now apparently over a million people facing famine in Mozambique.

Desperate people turn to poaching to fulfil their needs, both in monetary terms, and nutritional sustenance in the form of protein. This places additional stress on already constrained conservation parks and reserves. The onslaught on natural areas is not only confined to conflict zones. Currently, there have been several news items highlighting proposed large-scale mining operations in Limpopo Province in South Africa. These mining activities threaten thousands of hectares of pristine savanna, even in protected areas. 

The Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone is a massive development in Limpopo Province, which, if it goes ahead, may destroy over 100 000 trees including mopane, ironwood and around 5000 baobab trees. There is talk of relocating many trees, but any ecologist will know that relocation is a complex issue and can cause further problems for a multitude of species. There is a strong possibility of displacing established species and introducing pathogens, thousands of invertebrates, and smaller animals into areas in which they may not necessarily occur, and if they do, they could compete with already established populations.

Nearby, another proposed strip-mining project is playing out in the courts. This particular one penetrates the Selati Game Reserve. This region is rich in biodiversity with several highly restricted and endemic plants and animals.

We can all agree that job creation and poverty alleviation are top priorities for the southern African region, and elsewhere in Africa, but can we justify wholesale destruction of irreplaceable natural assets? The promise of local jobs in these circumstances are limited, as mining operations require specialised skills which takes years to develop. Local communities are shut out, and labour is imported into these areas. Rehabilitation, if feasible, will take decades, if not centuries, to match the original splendour and beauty of the original landscape. 

Back to global instability…when the global community is caught up in civil unrest or conflict, biodiversity conservation and the protection of our natural heritage is easily overlooked and pushed aside. International agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity get to be ignored by signatories. This would paint a terribly sad, unforgiving picture and inheritance for future generations…

Article and photos by: Warren Schmid


Warren holds a Master of Science degree in Ecological Sciences awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has three decades of experience in ecology, conservation science, invasion biology and herpetology. He has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and lecturer, and has presented talks, seminars, and lectures.

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