Living Planet Report 2016 - Inspiring Stories

There is a clear challenge for humanity to alter our course so that we operate within the environmental limits of our planet and maintain or restore resilience of ecosystems. Our central role as driving force into the Anthropocene also gives reason for hope. Not only do we recognize the changes that are taking place and the risks they are generating for nature and society, we also understand their causes.

These are the first steps to identifying solutions for restoring the ecosystems we depend upon and creating resilient and hospitable places for wildlife and people. Acting upon this knowledge will enable us to navigate our way through the Anthropocene. Here we highlight several inspiring cases of successful transitions.

© CAT-Sorriso

Conversion and conservation in the Cerrado

Location: Mato Grosso, Brazil

A group of farmers in Mato Grosso, Brazil is demonstrating that it’s possible to produce soy and protect the environment together.

“It was completely different when my parents used to farm,” recalls Conceição Missio. “Once upon a time the land suffered from degradation and erosion, and people weren’t concerned. But today we have better guidance and an awareness that helps to preserve the environment. That consciousness didn’t exist before.” Conceição is a farmer in Sorriso, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, where the Amazon rainforest meets the Cerrado savannah. Like many, her most valuable crop is soy.

Brazil exports more soy than any other country, and around a third comes from Mato Grosso. The vast majority is used as animal feed, especially in Europe: pigs, poultry, cattle and farmed fish are all raised on soy. If you’ve eaten chicken or sausages, cheese or eggs recently, chances are that soy from Mato Grosso was involved at the far end of the supply chain. The problem is that the huge expansion of soy production in recent decades has come at the expense of natural ecosystems. And as demand for animal products, and hence for soy, continues to increase, more forests, savannahs and grasslands are at risk.

But Conceição is demonstrating that soy doesn’t have to be bad news for nature. Along with eight other farmers, she recently achieved certification from the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS). RTRS- certified soy cannot be grown on land recently converted from forest or other natural ecosystems, among other legal, environmental and social criteria. In total, the group farms 20,342 hectares of soy, while setting aside 15,125 hectares for conservation. Brazilian law requires farmers to leave a proportion of native vegetation on their land, including around watercourses, though this doesn’t always happen in practice. The certified farmers are conserving around a third more than required by law to protect areas of high environmental and/or social value.

Sources: WWF; CAT-Sorriso


Ecological restoration of the Loess plateau in China

Location: Loess Plateau, China

China’s Loess Plateau, the birthplace of the largest ethnic group on the planet, was once an abundant forest and grassland system. One of the central civilizations on Earth grew on the plateau while simultaneously reducing biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter; over time, the landscape lost its ability to absorb and retain moisture, causing an area the size of France to dry out. Without the constant nutrient recycling from decaying organic matter, the soil lost its fertility and was eroded away by the wind and water, leaving a vast barren landscape. By 1,000 years ago the site of the magnificent early dynasties in China had been abandoned by the wealthy and powerful. By the mid-1990s the plateau was mainly famous for the recurrent cycle of flooding, drought and famine known as “China’s Sorrow”.

Today, large areas of the Loess Plateau have been restored. The changes have been brought about by differentiating and designating ecological and economic land, terracing, sediment traps, check dams and other methods of infiltrating rainfall. At the same time, efforts have been made to increase biomass and organic material through massive planting of trees in the ecological land and using sustainable, climate-smart agricultural methods in the economic lands.

The crucial step toward restoration was the understanding that, in the long run, safeguarding ecosystem functions is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services. It therefore made sense to designate as much of the land as possible as ecological land. This also led to a counter-intuitive outcome: concentrating investment and production in smaller areas was found to increase productivity. It’s a clear illustration of how functional ecosystems are more productive than dysfunctional ones.

The work on China Loess Plateau shows that it is possible to restore large-scale degraded ecosystems. This helps us adapt to climate impacts, makes the land more resilient and increases productivity. The Loess Plateau also shows that valuing ecosystem function higher than production and consumption provides humanity with the logical framework to choose to make long-term investments and see the positive results of trans-generational thinking.

Sources: Liu, J.D. 2012. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.

© Joel W. Rogers

Dam removal for river restoration: The Elwha river

Location: Elwha River, USA

Free-flowing rivers are the freshwater equivalent of wilderness areas. The natural flow variations of these rivers shape and form diverse riverine habitats, within and next to the river. In many places, connected, free-flowing rivers are crucial for carrying sediment downstream, bringing nutrients to floodplain soils, maintaining floodplains and deltas that protect against extreme weather events, and providing recreational opportunities or spiritual fulfilment. Almost everywhere that free-flowing rivers remain, they are home to vulnerable freshwater biodiversity. Dams and other infrastructure threaten these free-flowing rivers as they create barriers, causing fragmentation and alteration to flow regimes. Dams also affect long-distance migratory fishes by obstructing their migratory pathways, making it difficult or impossible to complete their life cycles.

The Elwha River in the Pacific Northwest of the United States provides a striking example. Two hydroelectric dams – the Elwha Dam constructed in 1914 and the Glines Canyon Dam completed in 1927 – blocked passage for migratory salmon. Local people reported a huge decline in adult salmon returning to the river after the Elwha Dam was constructed. This heavily affected the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who relied on the river’s salmon and other associated species in the watershed for physical, spiritual and cultural reasons. Salmon are a keystone species in that they bring nutrients from the coast inland, nourishing both terrestrial and aquatic species that benefit from this supply of nutrients.

In the mid-1980s the Elwha Klallam Tribe and environmental groups started to push for the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. Eventually the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992 was put in place, mandating the “full restoration of the fisheries and ecosystem”. After 20 years of planning, work to remove the Elwha Dam began in 2011, the largest dam removal in US history. The removal of the Glines Canyon Dam was completed in August 2014. Fish populations are expected to make a return to the river. Some chinook salmon already did in 2012, just after the Elwha dam came down.

Sources: WWF

© Staffan Widstrand

Comeback of large carnivores in Europe

Location: Europe

Over the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe’s large carnivore populations saw their numbers and distribution decline dramatically, mainly due to human intervention, such as hunting pressure and habitat loss. This trend, however, was reversed in the last few decades, primarily thanks to the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives, forming the backbone of nature conservation in Europe. The Nature Directives protect a range of species and habitats across the 28 member states of the European Union, including bears, lynx, wolverines and wolves.

As a result of improved legal protection, large carnivores have returned to many European regions from which they had been absent for decades, and reinforced their presence where they already occurred. Currently, many populations of large carnivores are further increasing or at least stable. For example, the Eurasian lynx experienced a contraction in range during the 19th and first half of the 20th century due to hunting pressure and deforestation. Due to legal protection, reintroductions, translocations and natural recolonization, populations have more than quadrupled in abundance over the past 50 years. The European population (excluding Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) was recently estimated at 9,000-10,000 individuals, 18 per cent of the global population (Deinet et al., 2013). The comeback of large carnivores shows that with political will supported by a forward-looking legal framework and a wide range of committed stakeholders, nature can recover.

In some places where large carnivores such as lynx previously disappeared, loss of knowledge can create challenges, especially for certain land-user groups like hunters or farmers. However, there are also numerous positive examples of successful coexistence between humans and large carnivores across Europe. Translating the positive examples and subsequent management approaches into the specific contexts of each region will pave the way further for these charismatic animals. Furthermore, cooperation across Europe will be vital as large carnivores do not respect national borders.

Sources: Deinet, S., Ieronymidou, C., McRae, L., Burfield, I.J., Foppen, R.P., Collen, B. and M. Böhm. 2013. Wildlife comeback in Europe: The recovery of selected mammal and bird species. Final report to Rewilding Europe by ZSL, BirdLife International and the European Bird Census Council. London, UK: ZSL.

© WWF - Madagascar

Community mangrove restoration madagascar

Location: Melaky region, Madagascar

Mangroves protect and stabilize coastlines – particularly important as climate change brings more extreme storms and increased wave action. They also act as sinks, sequestering 3–5 per cent more carbon per unit area than any other forest system. But mangroves are disappearing, cleared for urban and tourism development or felled for fuel and building materials. Wise use of mangroves, such as creating coastal reserves and helping local communities develop livelihoods built on keeping them intact, is crucial for nature and people.

The most extensive mangrove cover, about a million hectares bordering the Western Indian Ocean, is found in the river deltas of Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Tanzania. As an ecozone between land and sea, mangroves are home to a huge variety of creatures, from birds and land mammals to dugongs, five marine turtle species and many kinds of fish. And much of the economically important prawn harvest along this coast depends on mangroves for safe spawning and nursery grounds.

In the Melaky region on Madagascar’s west coast, local people are taking action to remedy the loss of mangroves, which are crucial to their livelihoods. Since September 2015, men, women and children from the village of Manombo have become key players in mangrove conservation and restoration. Mangrove restoration benefits local communities by improving access to fish and crab stock, which provide a regular income, and builds resilience against climate change. The village community participated in a reforestation campaign, planting around 9,000 mangrove seedlings to restore degraded forests around their village. Next to Manombo, other communities have together planted 49,000 seedlings. For the local communities and the future of their forests, that equals a real success.

Sources: WWF-Madagascar; WWF 2016. For a living Africa. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

© ICLEI e.V. 2015

Seoul Climate Leadership

Location: Seoul, South Korea

To date, 328 cities from 26 countries on five continents have demonstrated climate leadership in WWF’s Earth Hour City Challenge by publicly reporting their commitments and actions toward a sustainable future based on 100 per cent renewable energy. Seoul was elected the winner of this global challenge in 2015. The South Korean capital has taken a comprehensive approach to tackling climate change by moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy through massive investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and by engaging the public to participate in this transition.

The first phase of the city’s One Less Nuclear Power Plant programme set and achieved the goal of reducing the city’s energy consumption from external sources by 2 million tonnes of oil equivalent, roughly comparable to the energy production of a nuclear plant with 2-3 reactors. It did this in less than three years through heavy investments in energy efficiency and local renewables. Actions included investments in hydrogen cells, waste heat, geothermal energy, energy caps for new buildings, building retrofit programmes, replacing 8 million light bulbs with high efficient LEDs, eco-friendly transportation and solar PV – including the Sunlight City project, which involved installing rooftop solar panels on about 10,000 buildings, for a total capacity of 320 MW. The city also built solar power stations with a combined capacity of 30 MW in spaces such as sewage facilities and parking lots.

These actions replaced oil imports worth US$1.5 billion, and created 34,000 green jobs. The programme has also pioneered active citizen participation in energy savings, which accounted for 40 per cent of total reductions. Most of this saving came through the Eco-Mileage programme, which rewards people for saving energy with points that they can use to purchase eco-friendly products or to receive financial support for retrofitting buildings. Since 2009 this programme has more than tripled in size to over 1.7 million participants – almost half of the city’s households. Much of Seoul’s success can be attributed to the visionary leadership of Mayor Park Won-Soon, a former human rights lawyer, civic activist and social designer, who has made collaborative governance and innovation the two main principles of the city administration.

Sources: WWF 2015. Seoul succeeds in WWFs Earth Hour City Challenge.

© WWF China / Yong Yange

Giant panda no longer ‘endangered’

Location: China

The 2016 update of the Red List of Threatened species reports that the giant panda is no longer ‘Endangered’ and has been downlisted to ‘Vulnerable’, demonstrating how an integrated approach can help save our planet’s vanishing biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the positive change to the giant panda’s official status, pointing to the 17 per cent rise in the population in the decade up to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild in China.

“For over fifty years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF. Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife and their habitats,” said Marco Lambertini, WWF Director General. “The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity,” added Lambertini.

WWF has been working with the Chinese government on initiatives to save giant pandas and their habitat, including helping to establish an integrated network of giant panda reserves and wildlife corridors to connect isolated panda populations as well as working with local communities to develop sustainable livelihoods and minimise their impact on forests.

These efforts have seen the number of panda reserves jump to 67, which now protect nearly two-thirds of all wild pandas. They have also helped to safeguard large swathes of mountainous bamboo forests, which shelter countless other species and provide natural services to vast numbers of people, including tens of millions who live alongside rivers downstream of panda habitat.

After decades of work, it is clear that only a broad approach will be able to secure the long term survival of China’s giant pandas and their unique habitat, made even harder by climate change impacts. It will require even greater government investment, stronger partnerships with local communities and a wider understanding of the importance for people of conserving wildlife and the landscapes in which they live.

Sources: WWF; IUCN 2016. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

© National Geographic Stock / Michael Nichols / WWF

Tiger numbers on the rise

Location: Entire range of wild tigers

In April 2016, the estimated population of tigers in the wild was updated by WWF and the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) to around 3,900, based on the best available data from IUCN and the latest national tiger surveys. This updated figure indicates a greater number of individuals than the 2010 estimate of ‘as few as 3,200’ and is the first time in tiger conservation history that global numbers have increased.

WWF and the GTF compiled the tiger population figure based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species account for tigers completed in 2015, updated with the more recent population estimates taken from national tiger surveys conducted in India, Russia, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Where a range was stated by the IUCN assessment, the lower end of the range was used for the updated tiger population figure, to minimize the possibility of inflating the global figure. This brought the total estimate to 3,890. It is important to note that systematic national scale surveys have not yet been undertaken or published in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand and therefore their contribution to the global figure is based on very coarse estimations as published in the IUCN Red List account for tigers. When more accurate data is obtained from those countries, the global figure may be increase or decrease.

This progress can be attributed to multiple factors including increases in wild tiger populations in India, Russia and Nepal, due to improved and broadened surveys and improved protection through conservation efforts. For example, in India, from the national survey in 2014, the tiger population was estimated at around 2,200, up from the estimate in 2010 of around 1,700. In Nepal, the population estimate increased from around 120 in 2009 to around 200 in 2013. This is important progress towards the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022 from the estimate in the year 2010, but there is still a long way to go.

Whilst the extreme threats of poaching and habitat loss remain, the goal has provided a very powerful, motivating focus for investment, collaboration, innovation and determination. WWF’s conservation efforts, focused in 13 priority landscapes, have helped to improve protected areas in terms of the area designated and how they are protected and managed, as well as engaging communities in conservation and in efforts to reduce habitat pressures and improve their livelihoods. WWF have also helped to garner political and institutional support and commitment towards zero poaching and the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild, and in tackling the illegal trade in tiger parts and products.

Sources: WWF; Global Tiger Forum; Goodrich, J., Lynam, A., Miquelle, D., Wibisono, H., Kawanishi, K., Pattanavibool, A., Htun, S., Tempa, T., Karki, J., Jhala, Y. & Karanth, U. 2015. Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015

© WWF / Simon Rawles

Resilient landscapes for nature and people: the case of Lake Naivasha

Location: Lake Naivasha, Kenya

An integrated landscape approach can help to reconcile the sometimes-competing objectives of economic development and environmental sustainability. This is illustrated by the story of Lake Naivasha. The lake is Kenya’s second largest freshwater body and supports a large horticulture industry, representing about 70 per cent of Kenya’s cut-flower exports and 2-3 per cent of the country’s GDP. The lake supports a fishing industry, a growing tourism and holiday homes sector, as well as dairy and beef industries. Geothermal energy production has grown rapidly and contributes 280 MW to the country’s energy grid. The lake’s catchment area is predominantly devoted to smallholder agriculture that collectively produces large quantities of fresh produce for local Kenyan markets. The human population of the basin has grown rapidly, with 650,000 people in 2009, and a current estimated growth rate of 13 per cent throughout the current decade. The basin is recognized for its rich biodiversity evidenced by a Ramsar site, an International Bird Area, a key water tower and a national park.

The diversity of stakeholders, ecological zones and economic activities and the interconnectivity of the upper and lower catchment areas make this relatively small basin (3,400km2) prone to conflicts over natural resource access and quality. A severe drought in 2009 was a wake-up call to develop an integrated approach to natural resource management. Formerly antagonistic stakeholders came together to develop a common vision for the Lake Naivasha basin, and this process was supported by political commitment. This led to the formation of the Imarisha Lake Naivasha Management Board, a public-private partnership, in 2011.

Together the stakeholders have implemented a number of critical measures under the multi-partner Integrated Water Resources Action Plan. They piloted a payment for environmental services scheme in which stakeholders in the lower reaches of the catchments offer small incentive payments to upstream smallholders for carrying out good land-use practices. In 2012, 785 farmers were involved in this scheme. The stakeholders also developed and agreed to a water allocation plan for the basin that will take effect during times of increased water stress.

Sources: Denier, L., Scherr, S., Shames, S., Chatterton, P., Hovani, L. and N. Stam. 2015. The Little Sustainable Landscapes Book. Global Canopy Programme, Oxford, UK.

Pegram, G. 2011. Shared risk and opportunity in water resources: Seeking a sustainable future for Lake Naivasha. WWF report. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

Kissinger, G. 2014. Financing Strategies for Integrated Landscape Investment. Integrated Landscape Initiative Analysis. EcoAgriculture Partners, on behalf of the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative. p. 11, 15-16.

Bymolt, R. and Delnoye, R. 2012. Green Economic Development in Lake Naivasha Basin, Assessing potential economic opportunities for small-scale farmers. Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, Holland.