Big actions speak louder than big words

Posted by Willie — 19 January 2010 at 4:22pm - Comments

Charismatic megafauna at play. Did we get your attention?

The word 'biodiversity' is often bandied about as shorthand for 'lots of lovely animals and plants'. We probably think of African plains teeming with herds of antelopes, zebra and wildebeest, a jungle cacophonous with crickets, monkeys and birds, or perhaps a coral reef that looks like a still from Finding Nemo.

But that's because most of us are a little shallow when it comes to the species we co-inhabit this planet with. We get overexcited by the big things, the cuddly things, and the wow! things.

So it's a lot easier for campaigners to motivate us to save whales, pandas or jungles than getting us to act to help save beetles, toads or scalloped hammerhead sharks. It's a real problem. Many unfortunate (and less glamorous) species no longer exist in the wild - either having gone extinct in the past century, like the passenger pigeon and the Baiji, or existing only in protective captivity, like golden toads and Spix's Macaws. (Mostly because there is nowhere safe for them to live, as us humans have such an unending need to trash, develop, and exploit the natural environment.) 

Now, while I'm keen for all of us to grow to love cephalopods and appreciate the importance of peat bogs, we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for having an inbuilt preference for cuddly and iconic species. Protecting the more glamorous species can bring wider benefits - the drive to protect species like tigers, pandas and turtles has highlighted that we have to secure their living space by protecting their habitats. And, in turn, that has led to an understanding that because ecosystems are interwoven and interdependent in complex ways, protecting other species is also crucial.

Because it's difficult to evaluate the loss of a particular species unless it's one we particularly care about, the fact that biodiversity is more generally on the political agenda can only be a good thing. Indeed the UN has designated 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, officially launched by German President Angela Merkel this week.

Later this year a meeting of the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) will look at the state of the world's species and what is being done to preserve them. Our own environment minister Hilary Benn is hosting a preparatory meeting this week in the UK - and in this online BBC editorial he eloquently sets out why biodiversity is important, and why the UK is keen to lead the world on the issue of preserving biodiversity.

So far, so good. But as we know actions speak louder than words. And the UK's own record in protecting species here is not blemish-free. It's politically easy for the UK to take a strong stance on protecting ecosystems and species that are in other parts of the world, it's a bit more tricky when it comes down to translating that into actual policies that make sure the UK is not aiding and abetting the destruction of species and habitats. RSPB Wales have a few things to say on the matter this week.

For me, the well-meaning words of Mr Benn will see their first real test this spring, when the UK and other countries have to show just how committed they are to protecting some of the more iconic species through the CITES process.

Polar bears and bluefin tuna are likely to be the headline acts at the CITES meeting in Doha - charismatic symbols of some of the huge impacts we are having on our planet. If we can't get it right on the species which are in the spotlight and where the government feels at least some pressure, I'm a little sceptical that there's any real hope for the rest of them.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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