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Nature conservation must become more dynamic

Current conservation practices that are aimed at restoring nature to its historical state will not be enough to resist climate change. In a new report, leading ecologists and climate scientists propose a more flexible and dynamic approach to nature conservation.

According to the experts, allowing species to migrate naturally, or even be moved to more suitable habitats, could help to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. The study authors also noted that genetic material could be preserved from species that are at the greatest risk of extinction so that the plants could eventually be re-established under more suitable conditions.

The study draws from previously published research which found that the home ranges of many plants and animals are shifting away from the equator and toward the poles as temperatures rise. 

Professor Bob Scholes is an ecologist in the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. He explained that the question of whether to intervene to protect species or not is a heated debate in conservation circles. 

“Interestingly, the animal people are much happier in moving things around than the plant people, who are rather conservative, so to speak. This paper, in a way, was intended to shock the conservationists out of the state of just continuing doing things as they have always done,” said Professor Scholes.

The researchers argue that nature conservation strategies need to become more flexible and dynamic in how they address the impact of climate change on natural habitats, genetic resources of plants, the composition of species, and the functioning of ecosystems. Otherwise, any apparent short-term biodiversity gains could be lost in the decades to follow as a result of climate change.

Currently, none of the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biodiversity Diversity explicitly address the urgency of climate change mitigation as a critical component of biodiversity conservation. 

For example, the study authors refer to Aichi Target 12, which aims to prevent the extinction of all known threatened species and improve their conservation status. A traditional approach to conservation seems to be unrealistic considering that climate change has already significantly altered the home ranges of many species. “Even very low levels of future climate change are projected to reduce the range size of a substantial fraction of species and put many species at high risk of extinction,” wrote the researchers.

Professor Guy Midgley is an experts on global change and biodiversity in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University. He noted that several prominent measures to slow the rate of rising CO2, such as planting more trees, can conflict directly with the aims of biodiversity conservation in Africa.

“Large-scale afforestation of rich grassland ecosystems in Africa will not only threaten their unique shade-averse biodiversity, but also limit livelihoods options and reduce vital ecosystem services, like the delivery of freshwater, from these ecosystems,” said Professor Midgley.

There are complex interactions between ecosystem processes, atmospheric composition, and climate which we do not yet understand, explained the study authors. When this uncertainty is combined with human population growth, greater consumption, over-exploitation, and pollution, it becomes clear that there is cause for serious concern.

“Nature is clearly resilient to shocks like climate change, given enough time, and the earth’s biological diversity has shifted and changed in response to global crises in the deep geological past, like meteorite strikes,” said Professor Midgley. “It is therefore crucial for us to work with the natural forces that provide resilience rather than limiting conservation thinking to achieving fixed ideals based on our limited historical perspectives of natural ecosystems.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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