Article image

Economic growth can help wildlife numbers, but human population growth does not

New research led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has investigated how socio-economic trends in lower income countries may have affected bird and mammal populations over the last two decades. 

The study revealed that the combination of economic growth and more gender-balanced governments lead to better outcomes for wildlife populations. This dynamic was also found to link the UN’s human development and conservation targets.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was formally adopted by all United Nations member states to provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” 

The agenda is focused on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are designed to coordinate a global effort for reducing inequality, improving human health, promoting economic growth, addressing climate change, and conserving biodiversity.

Overall, these goals are complex and can lead to conflicting priorities. The ZSL team set out to determine whether the pursuit of socio-economic targets may limit the odds of meeting conservation targets.

The researchers compared data from the Living Planet Index on 298 bird and mammal populations with indicators of social, economic, and political progress towards the SDGs in 33 low- and lower-middle income countries.

The team identified consistently positive relationships between economic growth and wildlife abundance. In other words, biodiversity is increasingly protected as people have more money. There was also a correlation between safer biodiversity and longer life expectancy, more gender-equal societies, and less corruption within the government. 

“Our study suggests that at a national level, it is possible to work towards conservation and economic development at the same time and underlines the need for further integration of sustainable development strategies,” said study lead author Judith Ament. 

“We think this might be because as standards of living rise, people become less dependent on local natural resources for income and food, and environmental regulation becomes tighter. We are concerned that this could lead to more importing however, the impact of which would fall on wildlife elsewhere. This certainly merits further research.”

Wildlife numbers were found to be reduced in regions where human populations were growing the fastest.

“This is consistent with other studies that have shown how humans compete with animals for space and resources and if more people are concentrated in one place, more areas are open to wildlife,” said study co-author Dr. Chris Carbone.

“It wasn’t all good news though and we did find that aspects of human development had a negative impact on some species. Numbers of water-birds, for example, fell as wider water sanitation and treatment processes were implemented. It’s only by understanding these relationships that we can mitigate them and put forward policies that are good for people and for the natural world.”

“This paper provides the first empirical evidence that simultaneous progress for both international development and conservation is possible and, should further research uphold our findings, could revolutionise UN target setting in the future.”

The study is published in the journal People and Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day