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10 startling images of nature in crisis — and the struggle to save it

Global statistics on declining biodiversity can give the impression that every population of every species is in a downward spiral. In fact, many populations are stable or growing, while a small number of species faces truly existential challenges. These photos capture some specific crises. They are images of threats unfolding, of desperate attempts at species defence and of the beautiful living world that is at stake.

The 15th United Nations Biodiversity Conference, COP15, opens in Montreal, Canada, on 7 December. At the meeting, delegates will attempt to agree on goals for stabilizing species’ declines by 2030 and reverse them by mid-century. The current draft framework agreement promises nothing less than a “transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity”.

untitled-01Help for the kelp. Tasmania’s forests of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) are dying as climate change shifts ocean currents, bringing warm water to the east coast of the temperate Australian island. The kelp forests host an entire ecosystem, including abalone and crayfish — both economically important species and part of local food culture. Now, researchers at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart are breeding kelp plants that can tolerate warmer conditions, and replanting them along the coast — a trial for what they hope will become a landscape-scale restoration.


Credit: Valeriy Maleev/Nature Picture Library

Elusive leopard. The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is a subspecies that pads through the temperate forests of northeastern China and far eastern Russia. Once, they were hunted; now, the main threats to these cats are habitat loss, inbreeding and canine distemper virus. Around 100 remain.

Proposed strategies for bolstering the population include vaccinating the leopards against canine distemper virus; controlling local dogs, which can carry the pathogen; and even reintroducing Amur leopards to additional habitats in their former range, which stretched as far as the Korean Peninsula.


Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images for WWF-Canon

Caught in the crossfire. Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is Africa’s most biodiverse protected area, home to one-third of the world’s mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei).

Conservationists remark that you can destroy an ecosystem overnight, whereas protecting it takes constant effort. Virunga has been threatened by war, refugee crises and oil companies that want what’s underneath its verdure. Currently, the park is occupied by fighters from the M23 rebel group. And the DRC government is considering opening parts of the park to oil and gas exploration.


Credit: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Tangled turtle. This baby green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) has become tangled in plastic during its journey across Samandağ Beach, Turkey. Luckily, volunteers patrol this beach each year during nesting season, helping to usher hatchlings to the ocean. Conservation efforts such as this — along with bans on collecting eggs and hunting adults — have led to remarkable increases in some turtle populations. In fact, conservationists are now concerned about the problem of turtles ‘overgrazing’ beds of seagrass, which are valuable habitat for other species. It is a reminder that the complex interwoven relationships that make ecosystems so precious also make conserving them profoundly challenging.


Credit: Maxime Aliaga/Nature Picture Library

Expensive rhinos. A black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) stands out against the golden grasslands of Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Rhinos are threatened in part because of the popularity of their horns, which sell for exorbitant prices as medical and luxury items. But black-rhino populations grew at an annual rate of 2.5% between 2012 and 2018, thanks to conservation efforts including costly anti-poaching measures that will be tough to maintain indefinitely. Ultimately, reducing consumer demand for rhino horn will be the best way to safeguard the species.

Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty

Corroboree frog. The two species of corroboree frog (Pseudophryne pengilleyi and Pseudophryne corroboree) are among the many amphibians around the world that have been hit hard by chytrid fungus, which causes an infectious disease that can be fatal. To make matters worse, big chunks of the frogs’ habitat in eastern Australia were torched in the 2019–20 bush fires. This northern corroboree frog (P. pengilleyi), bred at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, is part of captive-breeding efforts — some frogs are already back in their habitats, albeit in enclosures with sprinkler systems in case of fire. Frog conservation plans are being designed for a world in which chytrid fungi are everywhere; the pathogens are not going to be eradicated any time soon.

Credit: Matt York/AP/Shutterstock

Cactus fires. A helicopter drops fire retardant in the Sonoran Desert during the 2020 Bighorn Fire in Arizona. This desert was once considered fireproof. But the spread of introduced grasses since the 1970s has changed everything. In dry summers, dead grasses create blankets of dry tinder. Fires then kill native species such as the iconic saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), continuing the cycle of ‘grassification’.

The best solution is intuitive and low-tech: rip out introduced grasses by the roots or kill them with herbicide. Strategically placed fire breaks might also help to contain future blazes.

Credit: Shen Lei/VCG/Getty

Fishing fleet. These fishing boats are based in Zhoushan, China, but they might travel to Africa, South America or even Antarctica before they drop their nets. When rich nations overfish their own waters, they often simply go further out. In 2018, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the Chinese mainland and Taiwan collectively spent $1.5 billion subsidizing their fishing fleets to harvest the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Talks are under way on an international treaty that might ban such subsidies. Such an agreement would end a significant proportion of ‘distant-water fishing’ virtually overnight, according to the US-based non-profit organization, Pew Charitable Trusts — and would have significant benefits for marine biodiversity.

Credit: Maxime Aliaga/Nature Picture Library
Orangutan on the edge. A Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) feasts on termites in Indonesia. All three orangutan species are critically endangered. They face the biggest threat to terrestrial species around the world: habitat loss. Their tropical-forest home is being cleared for agriculture.

Between 2000 and 2019, at least US$1 billion was spent on protecting orangutans. A 2022 analysis1 found that habitat protection gave the highest return on investment, in terms of number of animals saved per dollar. If the ape is to be saved, the forests must remain.

Credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters
Amazon under attack. The Amazon rainforest is known for its overflowing biodiversity — it is home to up to 16,000 species of tree alone. But deforestation is shrinking it. One leading edge of the onslaught is shown here, from the air over Manaus, Brazil.

However, there is hope: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president-elect of Brazil, has promised “zero deforestation” by 2030. And in Ecuador and Peru, the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, a collective representing 30 Indigenous groups, is calling for a total halt on industrial-scale resource extraction across 30 million hectares of rainforest, along with stronger Indigenous governance and the development of a regenerative economy that leaves the forest in place.

Извор: Springer Nature