Kew Millenium Seed Bank

Conservation

What efforts are humans making to preserve biodiversity?

Humans have changed the world. Our appearance on Earth is associated with the dawn of a new age, informally known as the Anthropocene epoch or era.

Although the Anthropocene has only been briefly compared to the Mesozoic era, which saw the reign of the dinosaurs, our impact has been dramatic enough to trigger what is now also considered to be a mass extinction. (See this article in the ‘Economist’ for a geological timeline.)

The mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic era killed off 70 per cent of all plant and animal species. In the Anthropocene, species are again going extinct at a rapid rate.

Positive impact

What’s different about this mass extinction is that humans are in the unique position of being able to do something about it. We are conscious of our effects on the planet, and through conservation efforts we are trying to reduce our impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. It is worth remembering that there are selfish reasons for doing this: the natural world provides important benefits, referred to as ecosystem goods and services, that we all enjoy. These include food, medicines, carbon storage and the purification by plants of the air we breathe.

Currently 193 nations around the world are working towards goals set out under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Under the Convention targets for 2020 include halving (at least) the rate at which natural habitats are being lost, ensuring that fish stocks are being used sustainably and reducing pollution to levels that are not damaging to biodiversity.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, is also important for conservation. Climate change is expected to shift the habitat range of many species towards the poles or to higher elevations. It has been estimated that the current mass extinction could result in 20–30 per cent of all plant and animal species disappearing by the end of this century if the planet continues to warm. Species with small populations will be the most vulnerable.

At the same time, renewable energies such as solar power and wind energy – which are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – represent additional threats to wildlife. For example, birds and bats are known to collide with wind turbines. However, careful planning of the location of wind parks away from important habitats can minimise the risks to vulnerable populations such as eagles and rare bats.

Choices

Conservation approaches that focus on protecting habitats and ecosystems, rather than individual populations or species, may be more useful for saving a greater number of species. Focusing on single species may also neglect the important relationships they share with others. For instance, a project to reintroduce red kites to England’s Lake District has been criticised for its impact on songbird populations.

Conservation can also take place outside a species’ natural habitat, for example in zoos or by establishing populations elsewhere. Some projects attempt to preserve biodiversity in banks that store eggs, sperm or seeds of threatened species. The Kew Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, for example, aims to conserve 25 per cent of the world’s plant species by 2020, and has already banked over 11 per cent.

Lead image:

Kew Millennium Seed Bank.

Fluffymuppet/Flickr CC BY NC

References

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Populations’ in June 2014.

Topic:
Ecology and environment
Issue:
Populations
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development