A golden opportunity to restore species and ecosystems

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On World Environment Day last June, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021-2030 to be the “decade of ecosystem restoration”. Although this call for concerted action to protect and restore our ecosystems came as countries were still grappling with Covid-19, the pandemic had already reminded us of the value of biodiversity to our health and well-being. .

Led by the United Nations Environment Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the declaration recognized that sufficient progress had not been made on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and that we collectively failed to tackle climate change. More importantly, however, it was a clarion call to put nature on the path to healing.

There was a good reason for that.

It is estimated that 75% of the terrestrial environment and over 60% of the marine environment have been degraded globally. Land degradation alone is estimated to affect the well-being of more than 3.2 billion people – or 40% of the total world population – according to a report published by the German intergovernmental agency IPBES. These numbers are frightening, as we head towards what has been described as the sixth mass extinction.

But while we all need to understand the seriousness of the problem, all is not bleak. Because good work is being done all over the world to deal with it. Take the example of Abu Dhabi itself, which has been at the forefront of efforts to restore the Arabian oryx, Asian houbara and scimitar-horned oryx. These are examples of conservation success stories locally and globally.

Scientific knowledge and understanding must underpin any restoration and recovery project

These initiatives date back to the early 1970s when the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, started forest and mangrove plantations and captive breeding programs for endangered species. Since its inception in 1996, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has done good work in these areas, continuing the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed.

Nothing symbolizes our restoration efforts better than the Arabian oryx, a flagship species of our desert landscape that has been brought back from the brink. Our collections, the largest in the world, have helped us restore this species not only in the country but also elsewhere. As part of our regional restoration efforts, we have over the past few years relocated 60 Arabian Oryx to Wadi Rum National Park and Shumari Reserve in Jordan.

We’ve also reintroduced the Scimitar-horned Oryx to Chad – a remarkable feat, considering it went extinct in the wild nearly two decades ago. With a healthy population of 400 individuals today, the initiative is considered one of the most ambitious and successful large mammal restoration programs in the world. The return of the species to the reserve, nearly equal in size to the United Arab Emirates, helps restore the habitat and rejuvenate the entire ecosystem. It also leads to the recovery of other species, in addition to providing employment and engagement opportunities for local communities – the very essence of the “restoration decade”.

All of the aforementioned species, from Arabia to Africa, are beacons of hope and among the finest examples of persistence and perseverance, which are fundamental to any restoration effort.

The resumption of our fisheries is another achievement, though it will be hard to emulate. We have seen a dramatic recovery over a two-year period, with over 57% of fish caught sustainably in 2020, compared to less than 6% in 2018.

There is clearly a desire to rebuild. Over the past two decades, we have planted over 12 million mangroves in our marine areas, and sown over four million seeds and planted over 17,000 native Samar trees in our land areas.

Restoring and protecting mangroves is essential to efforts to adapt to climate change.  Etihad

However, we cannot afford to stop. And to keep moving forward, you need a vision. The recently announced Abu Dhabi Mangrove Initiative is an example of such planning. The project will include the creation of a tree nursery, the planting of half a million mangroves and the transformation of the emirate into a hub for research and innovation. This is important, because restoring and protecting mangroves and other blue carbon ecosystems, such as seagrass beds and salt marshes, are critical to climate change adaptation efforts.

We are also working in other landscapes in the emirate to reclaim degraded areas and restore them to functioning ecosystems with species resistant to high temperatures and periodic droughts. To do this, we use advanced plant genomics to develop new varieties of more tolerant species.

Restoration efforts must be directed and planned to protect our biodiversity, ensure ecological connectivity and ecosystem functioning. Restoring degraded areas and scaling them up will also bring food security and societal benefits. We will not only identify critical ecosystems to restore, but we will also invest resources to make it happen. The recovery, in our opinion, must be based on three components: ecology, economy and society.

I am confident that over the next decade we will have restored our mangroves to acceptable levels, improved sustainable fisheries exploitation by 70-80%, and restored our degraded coral reefs. The biggest challenge, however, will be to maintain current initiatives and launch new ones. Restoring ecosystems is a slow process and could take longer than the nine years we have left for current initiatives to bear fruit.

Plant conservation specialist and restoration ecologist Suprabha Seshan looks at the replanting of an epiphytic plant on a tree in Wayanad district of Kerala last year.  AFP

More from Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri

The Restoration Decade Initiative has identified a 10-point plan, three of which I believe are essential.

The first is long-term funding, without which such projects cannot last. Developing models and scaling them will be key to the success of initiatives around the world. According to a UN assessment report, investments in nature must increase from the current figure of 130 billion dollars to around 330 billion dollars. Restoration efforts in Abu Dhabi will also need long-term financial support. We will provide funding through public-private partnerships to attract investment in addition to appealing to individual philanthropy. One such example is the recently launched Etihad Airways Mangroves program in partnership with EAD, Jubail Island and the Storey Group.

Second, resources must be allocated to innovation in research. Scientific knowledge and understanding should underpin these projects, given that they involve enormous financial and human resources, in addition to leadership commitments.

Finally, it is important to share and celebrate restoration efforts. We need to tell success stories compellingly and appreciate the driving forces behind them. We will take our examples of Scimitar-horned Oryx and fishing around the world. Because we believe these stories need to be told. This is crucial to ensure that world leaders elsewhere also understand this. The best way to do this is to use demonstration projects to show the benefits and the return on investment, both for nature and for people.

We also need to listen and learn from other successful practices around the world.

Ecosystem restoration is a global imperative for biodiversity and climate change that must be implemented with greater urgency than ever. And I’m truly honored to be on the advisory board of this global effort. It is both a huge responsibility and a wonderful opportunity. Indeed, this is our chance to work together to quit and heal, and to protect and thrive – for our planet and for our species.

Published: 07 Mar 2022, 05:00

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