“The ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking, but it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and of the natural world will depend. It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home, not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”
Tanganyika Jewel by Clare Shenstone
Around the world, wildlife populations are declining, while the number of species threatened with extinction is rising faster than at any time in human history. The planet’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’, those stunning ecosystems that feature in so many nature documentaries, are on the frontline of the extinction crisis. But as we ‘reshape the surface of our planet’, our impact on species populations and biodiversity can be seen no matter where we are.
The final part of David Attenborough’s BBC series, Planet Earth 2, looking at urban wildlife, was a reminder of how connected we are to the natural world. Astonishing footage was backed up by remarkable facts: who knew there were so many leopards in Mumbai? So many Peregrine falcons in New York City? Yet despite the presence of nature in unexpected places, with the growth of urban populations and megacities, and lifestyles that are increasingly dominated by ‘smart’ technology, the natural world can sometimes seem distant and irrelevant. Whether charismatic and critically endangered, or little known, unremarkable and merely Near Threatened, why should people care about species if they do not feel that they have any connection to them?
“A home, not just for us, but for all life on Earth”.
The Tanganyika Jewel dragonfly (above – painted by Clare Shenstone), like the Blue ground beetle, is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species*. This beautiful insect lives around the Northern shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is just one small, colourful piece of the gigantic biodiversity puzzle that constitutes ‘all life on Earth’. But what is surprising is how many pieces of this puzzle we have not yet found. A research team, led by Klaas-Douwe B. Dijkstra of the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in the Netherlands, recently discovered 60 new species of dragonfly across 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. How many unknown species remain to be discovered? Many species are disappearing before we even have a chance to get to know them. If our connection to the natural world continues to erode, what chance is there for the species that remain undiscovered?
Wherever a species lives, whether on our doorstep, or on the other side of the world, many of the threats it faces are the same: habitat loss, pollution, over-exploitation and climate change present challenges for most species, regardless of location. Coming back to our dragonfly, recent research has highlighted the extent to which freshwater habitats around the world are suffering. The Living Planet Report, 2016, described an 81 per cent decline in the abundance of populations of freshwater species monitored between 1970 and 2012. Loss of habitat and pollution can lead to sharp declines in numbers of these sensitive insects, and even extinction. The UK, for example, has somewhere in the region of 34 species of dragonfly (anisoptera), around one third of which are thought to be at risk of extinction. It is already too late for the Orange spotted emerald dragonfly, which has not been seen for over 50 years in the UK. In fact, dragonflies can tell us a lot about the health of freshwater ecosystems. Many species are extremely sensitive to the slightest changes in the environment and so can be very useful sentinels or bioindicators of ecosystem health – ecosystems on which we ultimately depend. All species have their roles in these ecosystems, and when they disappear, the entire ecosystem is put at risk. If we become separated from and unaware of the natural world around us, species abundance will continue to decline and more and more species will slip into extinction.
Orange spotted emerald by Louis Masai
Rekindling our connection to the natural world
So how can we ensure that we do not lose our connection to the natural world? Or rekindle that connection where it has been lost? How can we better understand the value of all species and their critical role in the healthy ecosystems on which we all depend?
A good start is to (re)discover the wildlife that lives in your neighbourhood, whether you are in the heart of a city or deep in the countryside. Wildlife can be found in all sorts of unexpected places. By getting to know the species on our doorsteps, in our cities, parks, wild places, we can perhaps start to appreciate the value of all species, whatever they look like and wherever they live. Get out into your garden or nearby green spaces, become a Dragonfly Detective with the London Wildlife Trust, volunteer – there are countless ways to nurture our connections to the wildlife around us.
(Re)engaging the senses
Using art to depict nature is nothing new, but perhaps it is more urgent now than ever to use all the tools at our disposal to engage our senses and reawaken us to the intrinsic value of nature, and what we stand to lose if we do not act. Artists like Louis Masai and Clare Shenstone can help us to see nature in unexpected places, reminding us of the beauty and fragility of lesser-known species. (see Exploring relationships between people and nature and Art of Beeing). Bernie Krause, a ‘soundscape ecologist’, has been recording ecosystems all around the world for over half a century. Listening to his recordings provides a new perspective and can help wake us up to what has already been lost. (Listen to some of his recordings: the Great Animal Orchestra)
With his new series, David Attenborough again gives us a front row seat to see some of the wonders of the natural world. And he reminds us not just of our connections to the environment around us, but also of our responsibility towards all life on Earth. For this he surely deserves to have a dragonfly named after him! (Acisoma attenboroughi)
* ® The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a registered trade mark of IUCN.