From Plant Press, Vol. 20, No. 4, October 2017.
-By Kayleigh Walters
Sometimes it feels like everything is bad news. Everything that is wrong with the world can hover in the background of our thoughts like a heavy storm cloud. In the recent paper, “Earth Optimism: Success Stories in Plant Conservation,” Gary Krupnick (Department of Botany) and Nancy Knowlton (Department of Invertebrate Zoology) inform us that not only is this focus self-defeating, but it is often incorrect. Conservation biology has seen repeated successes through sustained hard work and focus. The paper was published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden (102: 331-340; 2017).
The field of conservation biology is suffering from a focus problem; it is one of the only scientific discipline in which loss and the negative is so heavily focused on. While it is important not to be blindly optimistic, the media and educational material primarily highlight habitat destruction and loss, rather than discoveries of new plants or conservation successes. Many experts are even unaware or simply uninterested in stories of positive progress, leading to fewer encouraging stories being published. This contributes to people's perception of an unending, insurmountable problem where their actions have little impact. Rather than forwarding an outlook of despair, we need to see stories of successful actions and exciting discoveries.
The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) acknowledged this issue, and came up with a plan. This document, originally adopted in 2002 and extended through 2020, includes 16 goal-oriented targets specifically established for the survival and preservation of the world's plant biodiversity. In support of this, Krupnick and Knowlton argue for a four-pronged approach to including more stories of optimism into public outreach and education. They are discovering species, saving species, protecting spaces, and restoring habitats. Hearteningly, there are more examples of stories from each of these categories than there is room in this short summary. With technological advancement, we are now closer than we have ever been to a complete database of all world plants. The development of image recognition software for identifying new species will also help in discovering new species.
Success in saving species is also an important area of focus. While people and organizations have been working to delist species from the Endangered Species Act through recovery, many areas around the world have developed programs to reestablish rare and endangered plants. One such area is Hawaii where a local program has taken recovery actions for 148 plant species. A specific example is the Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. sandwicense, the Big Island silversword, which went from 15 individuals in the wild to 13,600 on Mauna Kea alone after intervention.
Two more areas of success are in the protecting of spaces and restoring habitats. According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program and the IUCN, 14.7% of the Earth's land area, covering 202,467 spaces, is currently protected. Fear over the impact of climate change upon protected areas can even be somewhat tempered; a 2016 empirical study on mammal and bird species in protected tropical forest areas found that populations were not negatively impacted in ways that projected data would have predicted over a 3 to 8 year period.
As the article “Earth Optimism” states in its final paragraphs, “the goal is not to brush aside the bad news, but rather inspire the replication and scaling up of successful conservation actions.” While a sense of urgency is important, news and celebration of the successes conservationists have accomplished is equally, if not more, needed.