World Wildlife Day

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.

David Attenborough

World Wildlife Day is a celebration of the incredible diversity evident in our world’s plant and animal life and the theme for this year is – Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet. There are approximately 200 to 350 million people who not only live near or within forested areas, but who depend on forests for their livelihood. However, the consequences of climate change and a loss in biodiversity, as well as the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, are proving to be significant challenges for the long-term viability and sustainability of these indigenous communities. 

Over the last 60 years humanity has been responsible for the deforestation of large swathes of the earth’s wilderness. In 1937 around 66% of the earth’s land mass was wilderness. By 1960 it was still around 62%, but by 2020 it had dramatically dropped to 35%. I shudder to think what it might be by 2050 if we continue with our current practices. 

In a recent article published in the Diggers magazine, Clive Blazey, the co-founder of the Diggers Club, writes about David Attenborough’s latest book, A Life on Our Planet, and his 5 step plan to address climate change. The five steps include the obvious ones of switching to renewable energy, protecting our oceans from over fishing and planting trees. He calls not just for ending deforestation, but for actively re-wilding the planet. 

How do we turn around the loss of wilderness? According to Blazey, if we were to plant 1.2 trillion trees over the next 10 years it would be possible to halt climate warming and enable economies to be renewable by 2050. 1.2 trillion trees works out at about 160 trees for every person living on the planet. Often one of the most vocal arguments against climate change policy centres on the issue of cost, however Blazey suggests planting 1.2 trillion trees would cost a lot less than people might think- less than 1% of GDP. This is less than the amount of money that is wasted on gambling. 

For a great review of Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, do check out the one written by Glenys from Caravan Correspondent which you can read here.    

Blazey describes Attenborough as “the man best able to connect us to nature.” How many of us have grown up watching his documentaries on television as he revealed to us “the splendour and fecundity of the natural world.” A short time ago I came across an old edition of his book Life on Earth. Published about 40 years ago, it is showing its age, particularly in relation to some comments about Indigenous people, however it still draws attention to the wonderful array of diversity in our world and the ways in which species have adapted to survive and thrive in their environments. There is a lot of information packed in the book so here is just some of the highlights that I found interesting.  

 I wonder how many times we collected feathers during our childhood but have we ever stopped to think about them as an incredible achievement in design. Feathers are one of the best insulators, which is why they are used in quilts. They are even better than fur which explains why penguins are the only animals that can survive an Antarctic Winter – the coldest place on earth. Even though it looks like penguins are covered in fur, it is actually lots and lots of tiny feathers. 

When we think of feathers we usually think of birds in flight, although our chickens have recently moulted plenty of feathers and they don’t do much flying at all. While most species of birds do fly, there are some that don’t, such as penguins, ostriches and our own Australian emu. And then there is the strange case of the cormorants on the Galapagos Islands. Cormorants, apparently, are not the greatest of flyers, although they are excellent divers, but the wings of the Galapagos cormorants have feathers that are so short and stunted, that they wouldn’t be able to fly even if they wanted. It was suggested this was due to a lack of predators. They had no reason to fly away from danger. Is this a classic case of use it or lose it? 

One species with a surprising lack of predators is the sloth. For a slow moving creature that just hangs around in trees, sleeping up to 18 hours a day, you would think they would be a prime target for a carnivorous predator. But no, apparently they are hanging so high up in the trees no predator can reach them. It could also be the mouldy fur that puts predators off. Yes, they are so busy sleeping they have little time or interest in maintaining personal hygiene which leads not just to mouldy fur but a whole community of parasites taking up residence. At the time of publication, little was known about the sloth’s sex life and Attenborough suggests this is because no researchers are brave enough to put up with hours and hours of stupefying boredom waiting for a sloth to become amorous. 

Attenborough also gives a possible answer to one of the questions that has plagued us for generations – what happened to the dinosaurs? Like many people, I have a soft spot for dinosaurs, although I am relieved that the most terrifying predator of all time, the T-Rex, is no longer prowling the earth. First of all, Attenborough explains why so many of the dinosaurs were so huge. It’s the herbivores. As they say, you are what you eat, and the herbivores diet apparently required a very long process of digestion. This meant a large stomach and a large stomach needs a large body to carry it around. As for T-Rex, if he wasn’t large himself, he would have no hope of catching a large herbivore for his dinner. But what lead to their demise? Climate change. Yes, the climate became cooler, and the large herbivores, who required a lot of energy to keep moving, died out and there went the carnivores food supply. 

Another creature that can grow to an enormous size is the squid. When we lived in Ceduna, we would often go fishing for squid off the jetty. We learned to stand back to avoid the ink spurt, as well as the best ways of preparing them for the pan. But the squid we caught were nothing compared to those that have been caught off the coasts of Norway and New Zealand. Ours were just itty bitty things, probably no more than 30cm – not 21 metres long with eyes 40cm in diameter! No wonder the legends tell about sea monsters. The things that lurk in the depths of the oceans…it’s another world down there.

These are just a few of the fascinating things that Attenborough tells us about life on earth and the incredible diversity that is to be found across a range of different environments. It is this diversity, though, that is threatened by climate change and the unrepentant sheer greed of those whose only desire is to exploit the earth and enrich themselves. But if we take up the challenge, we can, as Attenborough advocates, provide a sustainable home for all of us on this planet, working together with nature. 

Life on Earth has been another read for the 2021 Gaia Reading Challenge and despite its age, it was still a fascinating and enjoyable read. In 2018 a 40th anniversary edition of Life on Earth was released that included new scientific discoveries, stunning new photography and a much needed update. Perhaps there is a reader somewhere who would like to provide a review of that edition for the Gaia Reading Challenge. 

Let’s go plant some trees!    

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