What would the earth look like if 50 percent was reserved for nature?

| 3rd April 2018
Robin in snow

Robin in snow

Humans have been growing exponentially in population, taking up space that would otherwise have been inhabited by wildlife. The amount of land untouched by humans has decreased. EO Wilson proposed a concept where half of the earth is set aside as a nature reserve. This could be the answer to many problems, argues EMILY FOLK

The genetic bottleneck of isolation will no longer be set in stone: species can travel from one preserve to the next and cross-breed as they do.

Something bad is coming our way. Though various theories are floating around, one thing is frighteningly clear: human actions are having profound and unpredictable effects on the rest of the world.

As climates warm, as ocean circulation grinds to a halt and as the atmospheric composition slowly shifts, things are going to get pretty weird.

Some of the most dramatic predictions evoke a future that is downright apocalyptic — a worldwide extinction event similar to the Cretaceous meteorite.

Vulnerable areas

While we can’t be sure this is the future we have built for ourselves, well-documented instances of human meddling in the natural realm can be seen every day.

One of the easiest statistics we can use to track this influence is the rate at which species are going extinct. While some activities — poaching or property development, for instance — have always contributed to the untimely demise of endangered species, widespread climate change is increasing this rate with distressing speed.

Some believe it is only so long until a truly integral pillar of the natural environment joins the list of lost species, unbalancing the natural harmony of entire ecosystems around the globe.

Efforts on the part of national governments and third-party organisations to prevent this catastrophe have resulted in increased natural preserves around the world, particularly in vulnerable areas. But it might not be enough.

For decades, conservationists have argued that a significantly larger percentage of the earth must be set aside for the preservation of nature.

Remaining prey

EO Wilson's book, Half Earth, outlines this belief. Wilson, a biologist out of Harvard, maintains that the current conservation efforts must be dramatically expanded for the species of earth to stand a fighting chance.

While the scattering of nature preserves around the globe are certainly in the right spirit, they also cause some problems for the animals within.

The largest set of issues stem from the isolation of the species within the preserves. Within these contained — often fenced against poachers or other human contact — zones, conservationists are tasked with recreating entire ecosystems, which is nearly impossible.

For instance, natural predators are more easily able to corner their prey with the restrictions of space within nature preserves, resulting in plummeting numbers of natural prey and an abundance of predators.

This, of course, causes troubling population swings as the predators begin competing for the few remaining prey, and ultimately causes a reduction in all species — the direct opposite effect hoped to be achieved by the nature preserve.

Ambitious plan

Genetic isolation is another, somewhat more insidious effect on species contained within nature preserves. Normally, when animals are free in the wild, they have the opportunity to travel and cross-breed with other compatible species in different areas of the world.

When contained within the boundaries of a nature conservancy, species cannot move to new areas, and their genetic diversity suffers as a result. With lower genetic diversity, a population risks disease-related extinction or being unable to adapt to certain changes in the environment.

Both of these issues can result in hugely troubling long-term ramifications for species relegated to the preserves. Fundamentally, when a species adapts to a specific, limited environment, reintroduction to the outside world can be a harsh ride.

Even beyond the problems associated with the reserves themselves, reintroduction could just as quickly result in the total extinction of several species as they are exposed to new predators, new diseases, and new environments while genetically stagnating in a smaller, isolated area.

To remedy this, EO Wilson and other conservationists have outlined an ambitious plan of action: set aside half the world for preservation purposes.

Wardens and observers

While the call to action has been ridiculed and questioned by critics and conservationists alike, it also presents the most viable option for fixing the problems outlined above.

Beyond just expanding the natural boundaries of the existing nature preserves, the plan also provides for extended corridors of protected land which will allow vulnerable species to travel from one area to another.

This project will reduce most of the significant factors impacting wildlife survival within the reserves. The genetic bottleneck of isolation will no longer sit in stone: species can travel from one preserve to the next and cross-breed as they do.

Predation will also be maintained in natural order: prey species will have more extensive areas to flee and escape routes to separate zones.

Human impact — as with any other preservation zones — will also be kept to a minimum. While some human contact, including wardens, boundary maintenance and observers, will be necessary, these will be trained professionals in their fields.

Preserving wildlife

The plan will also remove the largest human-contributed culprits from the equation. In particular, it will significantly mitigate the destruction of the natural environment.

Logging and human-created forest fires — the latter of which consumes thousands of acres of wildlife and can travel at close to 15 miles an hour — will no longer destroy the homes of protected wildlife.

Devoting half the earth to natural preservation seems like a big ask. Many countries rely on their natural environments as economic resources and will be widely opposed to the idea of massive, interconnected nature preserves.

However, while it is a drastic step and a tough sell, EO Wilson's plan represents the most realistic and effective plan for preserving wildlife from the destructive touch of humanity.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.