President Higgins: Timeframe to halt extinction crisis ‘perilously short’

Published by Niall Sargent on

February 21st, 2019

The voices of conservationists, environmental NGOs and biodiversity specialists must be prioritised in the face of the extinction crisis currently facing the world, the President has said.

Speaking at Ireland’s first ever biodiversity conference this morning, Michael D Higgins told the audience that the timeframe to transform our world to make space for nature is “perilously short”.

He said that the importance of this week’s conference in Dublin Castle was illustrated by the presence of both the Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Inger Andersen and Humberto Delgado Rosa from the European Commission.

Mr Higgins said that the question of biodiversity protection has interested him for several decades now having previously held ministerial responsibility for nature protection and introduced regulations to transpose the Habitats Directive into Irish law.

Mr Higgins was also involved with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro almost 30 years ago where policymakers committed to creating a more stable green economy that valued environmental sustainability.

He said that the 1992 event represented such a “hopeful juncture” when it seemed that the world was finally coming together to “address the existential challenges of our age”.

Hen Harrier Photo: Rob Zweers

Profound Challenges

Instead, Mr Higgins said, the challenges faced today remain “profound” with the world witnessing “relentless reductions in wildlife populations” since he first stood for election to Dáil Éireann in 1969.

“Around the world, the library of life that has evolved over billions of years – our biodiversity – is being destroyed, poisoned, polluted, invaded, fragmented, plundered, drained and burned at a rate not seen in human history,” he said.

The President landed the blame well and truly on the human race, with only a quarter of the world’s terrestrial surface left untouched by human activity that has “multiplied the normal rate of extinction at least one hundred-fold”.

Ireland is no different, he said, pointing to the steep decline in the population of the European Eel, once “vast enough to support an industry” and the “beautiful Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterfly” and symbol of the Burren, both of which are now endangered.

Over 90 per cent of 58 listed habitats in Ireland have an ‘inadequate’ or ‘bad’ status and just over half of the 61 European protected species in Ireland have a ‘favourable’ conservation status.

One-third of Ireland’s 98 wild bee species are threatened with extinction, while recent findings show that over 60 per cent of the 202 species of commonly occurring birds in Ireland is now on the red and amber conservation lists.

The President also decried the decline of the corncrake and curlew, formerly “integral sounds” of the Irish countryside that are now “pushed to the edge of extinction as breeding species”.

The hen harrier is also suffering habitat loss in its upland terrain, while hedgerow also under increasing pressure together with our raised and blanket bogs, Mr Higgins said.

“We are the first generation to truly comprehend the reality of what we’re doing to the natural world, and we may the last with the chance to avert much of the damage. With this knowledge comes an extraordinary burden of responsibility that we all share,” Mr Higgin said.

NGO Sector role

This burden all too often falls on the shoulders of environmental NGOs “at the forefront” in raising awareness of “continuing and emerging threats to our environment”, Mr Higgins said.

He reserved special praise for the Irish Environmental Network and its 32 members who have been a “welcome voice in our public discourse” on biodiversity loss.

While praising the increasing level of constructive dialogue between the Government and conservation groups, Mr Higgins said that the NGOs also “serve a crucial function by challenging public policy and public authorities when they fall short of what is needed to protect our wildlife”.

“I am struck by their sense of determination in the face of decades of difficulties. Too often, like Cassandra heralding the fall of Troy, they have struggled to be listened to and their warnings have gone unheeded,” Mr Higgins added.

All too often viewed as an “inconvenient voice, a crank or an obstacle”, NGOs, communities and individuals contributing to citizens science projects “are the voices that must be listened to”, Mr Higgins said.

Speaking earlier this morning, Ms Andersen of the IUCN said that “conservation works” can help to bring species “back from near the brink of extinction”.

“With good conservation measures, the rate of loss can be turned around. Invest in nature’s infrastructure and that same infrastructure… will not only protect us but will also become more species-rich and retain nature’s diversity,” she said.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London