How healthy is the planet? Let’s count the bison and beaver and see

A rule of thumb measure we can all be asking our governments to show progress towards. As we ask what planetary initiatives are really being attended to in our name.

Carly Vynne and co-authors have just published an open source research paper this week. It outlines work undertaken in mapping the world’s remaining intact large mammal landscapes (see also Osprey Insights projects here).

So what? You may ask

I see this as a potential measure we can all seek visibility of. Assessing both behaviours and trust in local, national, and international plans. A rule of thumb (heuristic) measure easy to see.

This Ecography published paper focuses on “intact large mammal assemblages“. Putting up a case for the health of an ecosystem being most easily assessed as a conservation success story by the presence of these specifically identified mammals. Relevant because:

Large mammal species are particularly sensitive to human activities through habitat alteration and direction exploitation.

Vynne et al (2022)

The worrying statistic offered is that only 15% of relevant terrestrial earth surface currently contains an intact large mammal assemblage. These tending to be areas of connected preserved status where “protected area networks” are actively retained. The largest examples being in Brazilian Amazon, southern Africa, Australia and the Himalayas. But every piece of land is measured in the 15%. The additional observation offered is evidence of concentric circle effect as one moves out from these large mammal assemblage areas – with an increasing lack of biodiversity as one moves out from these centres.

I am reminded of the 2021 Netflix movie presented by David Attenborough “Breaking Boundaries”. These are system of system level metrics. Ones that we can all see and understand. David Attenborough is presenting the long-term research of Professor Johan Rockström at research institutes in Sweden and Germany. Specifically the nine Planetary Boundaries model. It is presented these 9 key metrics of our planetary health. Of these nine, loss of biosphere integrity, is given the highest rating of uncertainty. Amounting to the highest immediate risk to the stability of our planetary home. The threshold we have past much more severe than that even of climate change.

With this most concerning of the 9 thresholds in mind, this latest paper is therefore presenting another simplification of measurement of our biggest immediate threat. We can all ask the same question. Can we preserve and restore enough habitat to retain our biodiversity? Measured by the presence of a few key mammals.

Here are the named mammals. Most of which we would not want to visit our gardens, but then neither do they necessarily want us visiting theirs. And therein sits the challenge we have to embrace.

…European bison Bison bonasus, Eurasian beaver Castor fiber, reindeer Rangifer tarandus, wolf Canis lupus and lynx Lynx lynx [35 ecoregions]….

wild horse Equus ferus and wolf in the Himalayan ecoregions [10 ecoregions could be improved by 89%].

In Africa, reintroductions of hippopotamus Hippotamus amphibius, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, common tsessebe Damaliscus lunatus, African wild dog Lycaon pictus and lion Panthera leo [50 ecoregions by 108%]

North American brown bear Ursus arctos, American bison Bison bison, wolverine Gulo gulo and American black bear Ursus americanus … [22 ecoregions, 17% of the continent, 117% increase in area with intact mammal assemblages) after]

Vynne et al (2022)

In the UK we are already beginning these debates. The beaver has been introduced in experimental settings (rewilding Britain). This trial has immediately produced positive results. But also immediately exposed the very real implications to human displacements and limitations it ultimately starts to impose.

Project implications

These are the real issues of today. We have governments and international institutions promoting more environmentally sustainable ways to be. We have CoP26 campaigns and pledges associated with carbon and materials use. These are pressing issues to which we can review targets and cynically sneer from a psychologically safe distance. But perhaps we should instead be asking how every project our governments and corporations embark upon, impacts wider ecological goals.

But that is still abstract. To most people those are just numbers to manipulate, or impacts felt at remote institutional levels we can just bemoan. At this level of abstraction, we can carry on and blame them when it fails. When however the concern is more tangible, it becomes our concern if we want it to be. And we really should.

We each instigate projects. We can therefore each claim ownership and control. Simply by asking better questions of ourselves in every project we each undertake. Everyday projects of improvement to our houses, our families, and ourselves. How do these changes we intend, ultimately require unsustainable change to these bigger habitat level systems? The systems of systems sitting at the other end? Suddenly, we are all able to make a better choice. By asking more of the impacts of our more simple choice. What we wear. What we replace. What we upgrade. And what we eat.

The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs.

Addressing biodiversity, Stockholm Resilience Centre

What habitat is changed to enable each choice we make? That’s a question we all know we should ask. With this simple explanation of intact large mammal assemblages, we perhaps already know the answers. We just do not want to know.

The complete paper by Carly Vynne of Osprey Insights et al can be found here. Dated 27th January 2022.