We’ve all seen the headlines: Climate change. Ocean acidification. Biodiversity loss. Mass species extinction. We know we are living through a massive environmental crisis. Stopping the worst effects of climate change and protecting the world’s wildlife are hugely important to the health of our planet, but it’s a big task. Fortunately, these two things reinforce each other. Protecting wildlife and their habitats actually offers one of the most substantial and underrated solutions to the climate crisis.
When we think about climate solutions, we often think of changing our consumption habits (driving less, turning off the lights) and shifting to renewable energy sources (wind & solar energy). These are recognizable and necessary solutions to battling the climate crisis. However, in addition to these efforts, research shows that natural climate solutions, the conservation of our planet’s forests, wetlands, and grasslands, can provide up to 37% of the mitigation needed by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below 2°C.
Global deforestation has massive repercussions and is a huge contributor to the climate crisis, delivering a twofold assault: at the present rate, deforestation results in more emissions than all the cars and trucks on Earth combined, while also accelerating species extinction rates. At the same time, having fewer forests means less carbon dioxide is absorbed and removed from the atmosphere. In this way, restoring and conserving forests, along with the wildlife that maintain proper ecosystem function, is an essential, untapped solution in the fight against the climate crisis.
In the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is an ancient, tropical rainforest and is home to its namesake (okapi) and a plethora of biodiversity. In 1992, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) played a crucial role in protecting the rainforest and establishing the Reserve. Their continued conservation efforts there have been indispensable for the Reserve and the climate.
As the most biologically diverse country in Africa, the DRC makes up 70% of tropical forests on the continent, and these forests offer an essential service for the atmosphere far beyond the DRC. These tropical forests function as an oxygen-source and as a climate change combatant for a sizable slice of the planet. Preserving these forests is vital.
In this way, wildlife conservation is a productive avenue for curtailing climate change. OCP’s efforts to conserve the unique okapi, also known as the “forest giraffe,” necessitates protecting its habitat. Preserving that habitat also saves a multitude of other species, including forest elephants and chimpanzees, and ensures a healthy ecosystem. Indeed, maintaining a flourishing and functioning habitat for wildlife also yields critical mitigation of a warming atmosphere. While climate change poses a threat to wildlife, in saving wildlife we may find a solution to climate change.
Just as the okapi has served to protect expanses of forests in the DRC, other species, like cotton-top tamarins and elephants, serve as ambassadors for the preservation of their respective habitats. Proyecto Tití has been instrumental in protecting Colombian dry tropical forests for cotton-tops and is leading reforestation projects for this critically endangered primate. In the savannah of northern Kenya, Save the Elephants has been working tirelessly to protect elephants who play a crucial role in the development of trees and foliage. Healthy elephant populations creates a healthy environment which can mitigate climate change.
African forest elephants increase the plant mass of the forest simply by eating. One elephant alone increases plant mass and foliage that absorbs 10 billion tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide. As we increasingly lose forest elephants, due to poaching and habitat fragmentation, forest function is weakening and, as a result, the forest is less able to combat climate change. Conversely, wildlife conservation efforts by groups like OCP and the Elephant Crisis Fund also protect the integrity of the forest which strengthens our ability to fight climate change.
This principle that protecting wildlife in turn protects habitat to combat climate change is not limited to land. Human activity is profoundly altering oceans and marine ecosystems. Amongst a breadth of pressures, from acidification and species depletion to coral bleaching and toxic plastic pollution, ocean environments are deteriorating and succumbing to a forcible imbalance.
Across the Latin America and the African Coast, MarAlliance is working to conserve sharks. These apex predators help to maintain a balance in marine ecosystems by ensuring species diversity. The interconnection of sharks in the ecosystem allows for a steady presence of algae, plankton, and kelp which produce the bulk of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb climate change-causing carbon dioxide.
Marine habitats cover nearly three-quarters of the planet, producing 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Safeguarding this essential life source and elevating its protection is indispensable for the health of the Earth’s climate.
The climate crisis bearing down on the natural landscape is fueled not only from our global culture of fossil fuel dependence, billowing global waste, and a rampant plastic pandemic, but also from counterproductive actions taken by leaders and policymakers. For example, undercutting legislation like the Endangered Species Act presents grave consequences for the conservation of threatened wildlife that serve as ambassadors for their habitats. Weakening such cornerstone conservation law will impede the tools necessary to conserve biodiversity and combat the environmental impacts of climate change.
Climate change threatens the entire planet, but to both preserve species and restore their environments, one solution is clear: protecting wildlife and their habitats across land and sea is vital for a functioning planet and is urgent to win the battle against the climate crisis.