One of the most tangible aspects of environmental destruction and climate change is the disappearance of individual species. Slowly increasing temperature and rising sea levels is just not as immediate as witnessing the world’s last male white rhino dying. The extinction of a species is much more concrete, relatable and final.
Climate change and habitat destruction are often what drives eradication of large groups of species, especially those that are highly specialized and unable to adapt to changes. However, there are other cases where individual species are singled out, e.g. being a top predator and relying on large supply of prey or possessing features that are deemed valuable to human activities (horns, tusks, fins etc.). To combat the latter, on 3 March 1973, the United Nations signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2013, this date was proclaimed World Wildlife Day, a day to celebrate wild plants and animals and put the spotlight on the threats to their survival.
Does it matter?
Do we just keep plants and animals around to not have to live with the guilt of exterminating whole species? Sadly, humans have a long history of being responsible for the rapid extinction of many species. Words like “anthropocene” and “Holocene extinction” are used to describe our way of life and its effect on flora and fauna. But thinking that animals have little reason to be kept around is far from reality. There are plenty of benefits of preserving wildlife diversity.
There are both genetic and economic value in keeping plants and animals around. Wild species act as a large genetic bank where we can discover new genetic material to help us improve our plants and livestock with desirable traits through traditional cross breeding, our modern genetic modification. Wild habitats also act as a reservoir from where we can domesticate new plant species. One example of this is how the Cavendish type of banana, replaced its predecessor, Gros Michel, after it was all but wiped out by a fungus known as Panama disease. Since we to a large extent rely on monoculture, we are vulnerable to similar incidents in the future. The preservation of wild species can act as a safety feature, a reservoir from where we can introduce new food sources.
Another reason to maintain biodiversity is that a large number of our currently used drugs originally stem from the plant and animal kingdoms. Classic examples include the extraction of aspirin from willow bark and morphine from poppy. When hunting for new drugs to treat patients, screening biologically active compounds from nature is a common strategy and hence, keeping a variety of plants and animals alive for this purpose is a sound strategy.
Biodiversity and the trophic cascade
A single species may have a huge impact on its ecosystem through a chain reaction known as a trophic cascade. For example, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park had a huge, unpredictable impact on the local ecosystem, from increased populations of beavers, ravens and bears to changing the flow of rivers. Another example is how the attempted extermination of sparrows in China during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward lead to an increase in other pest populations, which greatly worsened an ongoing famine, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Wildlife in the city
A species can be endangered on a local scale despite having a large, healthy global population. Historically, a large contributor to local destruction of habitats has been agriculture. More recently, rapid urbanization has become a threat to the survival of local wildlife. This threat takes the form of removed habitat areas, segmentation of habitats by roads and railway, pollution, competition over resources such as water, noise and light pollution disturbing behaviour, accidental killings and active extermination of pests.
The fact that cities interrupt wildlife is indisputable but it doesn’t have to be this way. Many plants and animal species co-exist with us within the city limits and with a bit of planning and adaptation, many more can do so. But is there any reason we should adapt the cities to accommodate wildlife? What is the value in integrating nature into the city?
There are several benefits to integrating nature into our cities. Doing so will help bring nature into our daily lives and in turn improve our mental well-being. A stroll through a highly curated park is not the same as moving through a real, thriving natural ecosystem; the greater the biodiversity of the greenspace, the greater the psychological benefits such as relaxation and sense of identity. Other benefits to increased green space access include social interaction and reduced isolation, physical well being and opportunities to reflect and meditate.
What is going on in Toronto?
Protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitat is a key part of conserving Ontario’s biodiversity. One of the biggest landowners in Toronto is the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). TRCA is one of 36 conservation authorities in Ontario and as landowners, they can create or improve multiple ecosystems. To maximize cover for the wildlife in a given habitat, TRCA plants different plant species in patches or clumps. They also make sure to main a natural landscape with boulders, fallen trees and bushes used by many wild animals.
Another player is Ontario Nature (ON), a non for profit organization focusing on protecting wild species and spaces in Ontario through conservation, education and public engagement. ON is involved in several projects from research to conservation offsetting in order to compensate for the negative impacts of land development on biodiversity. They manage and protect 25 nature reserves totaling 2 939 hectares (7 262 acres).
What can you do?
To help wildlife coexist with our city there are plenty of things you can do as an individual. If you have a garden, you can start with ecosystem gardening developed in such a way that it is sustainable, allowing natural resources to be conserved and result in welcoming habitats for wildlife including birds, butterflies, bees and bats. Imagine if we could encourage our neighbors to do the same. Even small patches can then have a great impact.
You can also visit the many different green areas available in the city. High Park spans 161 hectares (400 acres), and is a mixed recreational and natural park. They have many programs designed to preserve native plant species and the park is full of wildlife including coyotes, beavers, turtles and foxes. The Don Valley River in the East and the Humber River in the west are other great areas of wilderness within the city.
Outside Toronto you can find the Ontario Green Belt, a continuous area of curated wilderness which covers more than 800 000 hectares (more than 2 million acres) of protected land. The foundation protects environmentally sensitive areas and productive farmlands from urban development. During the summer you can hike or bike the greenbelt along the signed 475 km Greenbelt Route. By enjoying green spaces and parks like these, you will not only feel more relaxed and refreshed, you will also send signals to decision makers that you support and enjoy these initiatives.
So whether you enjoy for a stroll or prefer to immerse yourself in the aquatic world, we invite you to support these local initiatives or join other global activities to celebrate this important day.