The elegant and revolutionary uniqueness of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that they are all interconnected, but four of them are perhaps the foundation of all the others. Productive land, clean and abundant fresh water, healthy oceans and a stable climate are arguably the foundation of all the other socio-economic goals.
The rationale is simple: we are not going to build a just and prosperous future for all of us, on a degraded planet with an impoverished nature. SDG 15 under the heading of ‘Life on Land’, along with SDG 14 to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” and SDG 6 to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water” highlight the need for maintaining rich, productive and diverse natural systems.
Globally, biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate.
WWF’s Living Planet Report shows us that wildlife is in a downward spiral, with a nearly 60% decline in abundance of populations on average in wildlife across land, sea and freshwater in less than one generation since 1970 (See Figure Below). The most common threat to declining populations is loss and/or degradation of natural habitat, but unsustainable exploitation, invasive species and pollution are also major threats. And let’s not forget that climate change cuts through all of this.
The story of this decline in nature is not just about the wildlife that so many of us love. Biodiversity — all the animals, plants and microbial life — is the foundation for the health of the Biosphere we and all life on Earth constitute and depend on at the same time. This complex web of life is over 3 billion years old, and interacts together in a very delicate balance. All life forms that have evolved alongside us are the bricks of the walls that sustain our common home: if you remove too many bricks, the walls collapse. And a collapsed ecological balance will jeopardize the achievement of all the SDGs.
Monitoring the Wealth Health of Populations using the Living Planet Index (LPI)
As biodiversity decreases, we are depleting and weakening nature’s vital services which we all depend on — clean water, fresh air, food, pollination, and a stable climate — but which are especially critical for hundreds of millions of vulnerable people in developing communities who directly depend on forests, rivers, lakes and oceans for their lives and livelihoods.
As the UN Special Rapporteur John Knox recently pointed out in his powerful report on biodiversity and human rights, the loss and degradation of biodiversity and ecosystems undermines sustainable development and human rights, including the rights to life, health and an adequate standard of living, which is the exact promise of the SDGs.
The contribution of nature to the pillars of sustainable development such as our economy, social development, health and happiness is huge. Yet its services which we use every day for free are dangerously taken for granted. To date, our development model has been based on destroying nature, rather than nurturing its resources.
We know the problem, and we understand the consequences. It is now time we focus on the solutions which we know exist. It is time we started using the resources our society needs within the boundaries of the Earth’s regenerative capacity. We need to keep enough land in natural state to ensure the resilience of the vital ecosystem services. We must generate energy through clean technologies. We need to produce more food with less land, water, fertilizers and pesticides. We must harvest fish in a way that they can reproduce. Technology can play a big role.
The past fifty years have seen tremendous progress in technology and innovation and as we look for different ways to govern our natural resources, ICTs offer massive potential to develop game changing solutions.
With big data and technologies, the time for companies and governments underplaying deforestation, wildlife trade, poaching or illegal fishing is over. Artificial intelligence can now be used to help boost protection and resilience of natural systems instead.
Today, remote sensing plays an important role in planning, monitoring, and evaluating WWF’s work on the ground and has enabled WWF to monitor the developments of extractive industries in socially and ecologically-sensitive areas, including World Heritage sites. The Natural Capital Project uses remote sensing-based natural capital assessment to guide jurisdictional development planning, mapping supply risk for corporate sourcing decision, and helping conservation organizations target investments in forest restoration.
Even in the high seas, we can use satellite data and cheap GPS tracking devices to ‘see’ and understand global fishing and global vessel traffic. Increasingly, fisheries, the seafood-supply sector, governments and NGO partners have the opportunity to apply electronic catch documentation, seafood-traceability technologies and electronic trade information, together with big data, about the ocean and its ecosystems to enable real-time tracking, informed decision making and responsible seafood sourcing.
Similarly various technologies and ICTs can also be used extensively to observe, monitor, track and protect our terrestrial wildlife from poachers as well as other destructive activities.
We are working with governments and enforcement agencies to explore, fund, and test a wide range of technologies becoming available for wildlife conservation – from drones and wildlife tracking to radar, thermal cameras and gunshot detectors.
Over the years, WWF has found that unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs function best as ‘reactionary eyes’ in the sky, deployed when an alarm is sounded by another sensor. To that end, WWF is evaluating civilian-grade UAVs for conservation applications with plans to rigorously test the technology in protected areas in southern Africa (including in Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe).
The recent use of thermal imaging cameras by anti-poaching teams in protected areas in Lake Nakuru National Park and in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve has increased the effectiveness of security teams. The technology has increased their chances of catching poachers hunting antelope and rhinos at night. They are now able to capture poachers most nights the teams go out, increasing their effectiveness by over 60%. Anti-poaching teams have also been able to achieve all this with smaller numbers of patrol teams.
Wildlife management using tracking collars has also proved to be a very important tool in conservation efforts. In Kenya, elephants are fitted with satellite tracking collars enabling researchers and conservationists alike to monitor individual elephant movements and chart habitat and landscape connectivity. The collars have also reduced incidences of human-wildlife conflict by alerting rangers when the elephants leave protected areas and stray close to nearby farms.
Even the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) is making strides in conservation. An innovative study in the Mekong River used cutting edge eDNA sampling to detect the presence of critically endangered giant catfish and develop a better understanding of its remaining distribution. However, these technologies carry important caveats. Drones may prove intrusive on the very wildlife they are used to monitor and imaging and camera traps can be hacked and accessed by poachers as well to locate the rare animals which should be protected.
These weaknesses in technology are also a reminder of the important role people play in addressing the global challenges we face today. WWF believes that saving wild species from extinction can only be achieved when people, especially local communities, are actively involved and see the gains and benefits in conserving their lands, wildlife and environment.
Whether it is companies that use tools like WWF’s Water Risk Filter to assess their water risk and take steps to mitigate it or communities that use data and technology to better understand their environment and surroundings, we all have a role to play. Indeed, WWF has trained the indigenous tribe of Wai-Wais in the remote district of Kanashen in Guyana in the use of cutting-edge software, smartphones and GPS to gather data and map local communities in Guyana to report on the status of their land.
The world’s new commitment to sustainable development shows that we are clearly realizing just how linked today’s social, economic and environmental agendas are. This is an important step forward, but we now need to see this commitment in public and private decisions and investments too. The 2030 Agenda, and the SDGs, if implemented effectively, will help us make the change by driving initiatives to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment that safeguards the biodiversity that is the key to all life on Earth. Nothing can be more important that protecting and preserving the planet that sustains us – all other Goals and ambitions depend on this.
By Marco Lambertini, Director-General of WWF International