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UN Experts Just Dropped a Huge Report on Protecting Wild Species. Here's Why It Matters

Reversing the biodiversity crisis is paramount for the billions who rely on wild species for health, income and food.

Black-and-white image of 6 sharks on a beach in Ecuador. The sharks are dead and their fins lie at unusual angles.
Shark overfishing and by-catch threatens populations of vulnerable species across the world.
Jan Sochor

The world's sixth mass extinction event is, according to some scientists, already underway. Humans have altered and exploited nature in such a way that, in 2019, the most comprehensive assessment of life on Earth revealed 1 million species were threatened with extinction within decades.

That number was the headline from the last major report, delivered by the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The IPBES, founded in 2012, is to biodiversity what the UN's climate panel, the IPCC, is to climate change. It brings together hundreds of experts from across the world to provide the best understanding of the biodiversity crisis and synthesize solutions to mitigate its worst effects. 

On Friday, the IPBES released a summary of its latest major assessment report, focusing on the sustainable use of wild species across the globe. That may seem somewhat esoteric, but it has implications for all human life on Earth. The summary brings together almost 300 experts, including those with indigenous and local knowledge of wild species, and draws on more than 6,200 sources.

"This is the first major global attempt to provide a blueprint for biological use if we are going to successfully, or even attempt to, arrest and counter biodiversity loss," said Phill Cassey, a biologist and ecologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.   

The take-home message? Billions of people rely on wild species every day. About 50,000 wild species are inextricably linked to human welfare and used for everything from energy production to cosmetics, medicines and trade. Of those, more than 10,000 are directly harvested for food. And then there are the indirect uses of wild species. For instance, tourism provides a way for millions of people to make money from observing species and, the report notes, this type of use was growing until the pandemic hit. 

The report isn't just an accounting of human activities in relation to wild species, however. It's a warning that follows the 2019 report in its urgency: Unsustainable exploitation threatens to collapse populations of wild species, which in turn will harm food security, health and wellbeing, and livelihoods. 

For most of the practices examined, such as fishing, logging, harvesting animals for recreation and food and gathering wild species for medicine and hygiene, our use is increasing -- but unfortunately, this is not occurring in a sustainable way. Though the report shows many of the trends in sustainable use are established, these datasets are incomplete. We need to better understand where and how wild species are being used if we're to arrest the coming declines.

The summary provides some concerning, concrete examples of how unsustainable practices could harm wild species. For instance, by-catch -- when marine species are unintentionally captured during fishing -- is a major problem for rays and sharks. These species aren't fished, but when they're hauled up with other fish, they're almost always retained for food. This has resulted, the report notes, in population collapses where effective regulations do not exist across the supply chain. 

Of course, there's another crisis looming behind all this. Climate change will challenge how we sustainably use wild species in the future, as well increased demand and technological advances that make it easier to harvest and extract wildlife. The summary states that addressing these challenges will require "transformative changes" but also notes there are many unknown unknowns -- our knowledge of how climate change patterns will affect sustainable use is a fledgling field, and adaptation and flexibility will be key in combating these issues.

So what can we do? That's where the final chapters of the report are focused. They point to "concerted interventions," including using indigenous and local knowledge to establish more sustainable practices, better monitoring and more robust government policies to protect the natural world.

"Our future wellbeing relies on a healthy relationship with nature and this report is a global call to arms — but is highly susceptible to corruption and ineffective legislation," said Cassey.