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Human population continues to grow at the expense of nature. Humans are now the driving force in species extinction. Long-term wildlife conservation cannot be addressed without first considering the perspective of human development. Human population growth is the “elephant in the room” for conservation, yet few are talking about it.
People concerned for the status of wildlife often cite historical population numbers to sound the alarm of species extinction. There used to be a million elephants in Africa. Millions of bison once roamed across North America. These figures are irrelevant in today’s world of conservation. Unfortunately, due to human population explosion, there is simply not enough habitat remaining to support the large wildlife populations that existed 50 or 100 years ago.
Chief Executive of the Population & Sustainability Network (PSN), David Johnson, who presented at the 2015 African Wildlife Consultative Forum in South Africa, provides some insight on human population growth. Data from the PSN show that we have been adding a billion people to the planet about every 12 years in recent decades. Around 1 billion people live in Africa now, but that number is expected to rise to almost 4 billion by the end of this century. Africa represents the last stand for some of Earth’s most iconic megafauna, but is also projected to maintain the fastest population growth in the world. How will people and wildlife coexist in the future?
Other parts of the world will be affected as well. Development in Asia has already forced the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, into extinction. China, whose expanding middle class is fueling demand for ivory and endangered species products, is facing serious environmental problems as it races to meet rapid development goals. The United States, Western Europe and other developed nations have more stable population growth. These industrialized nations, however, significantly altered their environments in the process of developing and now spend millions of dollars on restoration
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), current extinction rates are 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate, and it’s no wonder that humans are responsible. Habitat destruction, land conversion for agriculture and development, climate change, pollution, and the spread of invasive species are all causes of biodiversity loss. If everyone on Earth consumed and lived like the average American, we would need 4.5 planets to support us. Our own well-being is hurt by biodiversity loss. We depend on nature, either directly or through the world’s globalized economic system. Humans are stressing our natural resources and wildlife pays the price.
Most of the future population around the world will be born into poverty. Today, poverty is a major barrier to implementing a successful structure of conservation. Communities need alternative solutions to exploiting endangered species when they depend on nature for their livelihoods and incentives must be provided for people to live with wildlife. One solution is community-based conservation that incorporates both goals of protecting endangered species, reducing poverty, and increasing education. Conservation can be achieved through public health and by improving the quality of human life. This is the human side of wildlife conservation.
Human population growth is the conservation challenge that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Few conservationists include population growth in their long-term conservation strategies. Whether we plan for it or not, the future will demand a new paradigm of managing wildlife on a planet with a lot more people.
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