Renowned Entomologist Edward O. Wilson Receives World Ecology Award

  Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist Edward O. Wilson answers questions from the audience after receiving the World Ecology Award from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis Friday night in the Anheuser-Busch Theatre at the Saint Louis Zoo. Original story posted in the  USML Daily.  

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist Edward O. Wilson answers questions from the audience after receiving the World Ecology Award from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis Friday night in the Anheuser-Busch Theatre at the Saint Louis Zoo. Original story posted in the USML Daily. 

Edward O. Wilson’s work has been lauded the world over with a list of awards – including two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Medal of Science and an International Prize for Biology – too numerous to mention in full.

But the noted biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author seemed humbled as ever to add one more honor Friday night.

On what Mayor Lyda Krewson by proclamation declared Edward O. Wilson Day in the City of St. Louis, Wilson became the 22nd recipient of the World Ecology Award from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Interim Director Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Zoological Studies, helped introduce Wilson at the award presentation along with Peter Raven, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

  Peter Raven (left) and Anna Harris (right) stand with Edward O. Wilson after presenting him with the World Ecology Award.

Peter Raven (left) and Anna Harris (right) stand with Edward O. Wilson after presenting him with the World Ecology Award.

“I absolutely believe I don’t deserve it, but I guess they have to pass it on to somebody,” Wilson told a packed Anheuser-Busch Theatre inside The Living World at the Saint Louis Zoo. “As far as my career-time friend Peter Raven is concerned – one of the great biologists of our country during his lifetime – and those generous statements he made, I can only characterize them as praise from Caesar.”

Raven, a driving force behind the creation of the Harris Center along with his many other career achievements, is one of the 21 other recipients of the World Ecology Award, first bestowed on John Denver in 1990.

Others include Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, Harrison Ford and Sylvia Earle.

What ties them together is they are all individuals who have raised public awareness of global ecological issues and made significant contributions to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, falls right in line with his predecessors.

The 88-year-old has been called the “father of biodiversity” and has earned acclaim for his work researching the behavior of ants. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for “On Human Nature” in 1979 and “The Ants” in 1991, and has been a pioneer at preserving and protecting the biodiversity of the planet.

He made it the central theme of his acceptance speech.

  Catherine Werner (at right), the sustainability director for the City of St. Louis, reads a proclamation held by Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center interim Director Patricia Parker. The proclamation from Mayor Lyda Krewson declared April 20, 2018, “Edward O. Wilson Day in the City of St. Louis”.

Catherine Werner (at right), the sustainability director for the City of St. Louis, reads a proclamation held by Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center interim Director Patricia Parker. The proclamation from Mayor Lyda Krewson declared April 20, 2018, “Edward O. Wilson Day in the City of St. Louis”.

“I think that we should recognize that there are two, not just one, environmental crises as commonly perceived,” Wilson said. “The first, of course, is climate change. … But the second crisis, and the one the subject of this talk and this meeting here tonight and substantially the focus of the Harris Center program – a big part of it – is the accelerating reduction of natural biodiversity worldwide, which is beginning to destroy natural support systems. If we don’t halt that, and even if the climate is stabilized, the mass extinction of species on Earth will turn Earth into a literal and not just a metaphorical spaceship with the vital environment that we inherited on it controlled no longer by nature but by people.”

He made a case for the Half Earth Project he first championed in his 2016 book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”

The awards presentation – and dinner gala that preceded it – came at the end of a packed day in St. Louis for Wilson. He toured UMSL’s Harris Center partners – the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Zoo – and had lunch with UMSL graduate students in biology whose training and research in ecology and conservation are supported by the center.

  A near-capacity crowd in the Anheuser-Busch Theatre listens as Edward O. Wilson delivers his acceptance speech.

A near-capacity crowd in the Anheuser-Busch Theatre listens as Edward O. Wilson delivers his acceptance speech.

Proceeds from the gala dinner go to aid those efforts. The Harris Center has helped support more than 275 master’s and Ph.D. graduates since it began as the International Center for Tropical Ecology in 1990. They’ve come from 38 countries and returned to work in more than 30 countries in academic, governmental and nongovernmental positions connected to ecology and biodiversity conservation.

“I think it’s an honor to our town,” community volunteer and Harris Center Leadership Council chair Liz de Laperouse said at the end of the evening. “It’s an honor to UMSL and an honor to the program, the Harris Center, that he would come. He doesn’t like to travel anymore. He came here for these students, so it’s a great tribute to all of us.”

Wild Dogs Return to Gorongosa National Park

Mozambique, Africa – With only around 6,600 Wild Dogs left in Africa, this iconic species is one of the Continent’s most at-risk carnivores, and is listed by the IUCN as ‘Endangered’. Urgent action is needed to save them. A key conservation strategy is to reintroduce Wild Dogs to viable ecosystems where they once ranged. The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a champion of wildlife conservation in Africa, and Gorongosa National Park are excited to announce the completion of a historic translocation of Wild Dogs from South Africa to Mozambique.

On April 16, 2018, in a bold and innovative move to reverse the fate of Wild Dogs in southern Africa, this new and exciting partnership between the EWT and Gorongosa National Park ensured the reintroduction of the Park’s first pack of Wild Dogs in decades. This is a landmark occasion, as Wild Dogs have not been reintroduced to any park, protected area, game reserve or other space in the history of Mozambique. This truly represents conservation in action – an ambitious venture to restore Wild Dogs to an incredible ecosystem.

Wild Dogs have disappeared from much of their former range in Mozambique, and Gorongosa lost their population during the 1977-1992 Civil War. Today, Gorongosa is Mozambique's flagship natural area - the heart of a region where the Government of Mozambique has teamed with the Carr Foundation on a long-term, 25-year restoration project to rehabilitate a vast and diverse natural ecosystem. In just over a decade, many species in the park have made a strong comeback, including tens of thousands of herbivores. The natural next step is the return of large carnivores.

Wild Dogs from South Africa’s EWT-managed metapopulation were used as founder individuals in this reintroduction. The metapopulation, a group of managed national parks and reserves, is the largest population of Wild Dogs in South Africa, numbering 250 individuals in 28 packs (more than that of the Kruger National Park). This population has increased dramatically over the last 20 years and has ensured the increase in Wild Dog range in South Africa by 25% and numbers by 100%.

Males from uMkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) that dispersed from their pack in late 2016 and free-roaming KZN females were earmarked for reintroduction. The EWT, along with local partners Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW), the KZN state veterinary department, WildlifeACT, Maremani Game Reserve, LEDET, and the Bateleurs, caught the two unrelated groups of Wild Dogs and brought them together to bond in a boma at Phongola Nature Reserve in KZN in South Africa. The pack was fitted with GPS collars and VHF collars to allow for close monitoring once released. All individuals were vaccinated against canine distemper and rabies, as infectious diseases are a big threat to Wild Dogs.

The new pack was moved from the Phongola boma to Gorongosa by air transfer. The trip from Phongola to Gorongosa is a two-day drive through long, hot and difficult roads, making air transport with the Bateleurs the safer option, thanks to a combination of safe drugs administered by a qualified veterinarian from EKZNW. The sedated pack was under the experienced guard of both the vet and the EWT’s Wild Dog Metapopulation Coordinator. Upon arrival, the sleeping males and females were bonded together in a novel way, called the olfactory acclimatisation technique. The bonded pack is being held in the newly constructed boma in Gorongosa for six to eight weeks before being released. This is to allow the males and females to become accustomed to one another and get habituated to the local area. During this time, Gorongosa’s Carnivore Conservation Team will monitor the health and status of the pack in the boma before release. The EWT will work closely with the Gorongosa team to train a new generation of Mozambican vets and ecologists in Wild Dog recovery and management.

Gorongosa National Park has been described as one of the most diverse parks on Earth, covering a vast expanse of 400,000 hectares. In recent years, the Gorongosa Project, with the support of Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC), has ensured the protection of a recovering population of Lions in this system, successfully reduced key threats, and seen the Park recognised as one of National Geographic's ‘Last Wild Places.’ It is therefore truly thrilling to take this first, big step on a momentous journey to restore Wild Dogs to this part of their native range.

This work is made possible by EWT funders, Richard Bosman and Land Rover Centurion, Gorongosa Project funders, Gorongosa National Park, Oak Foundation, and ZooBoise.

Gorongosa National Park is home to the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory. The center’s main goals are to document Gorongosa’s vast biological richness, manage its restoration, and train a new cadre of local conservationists, educators, and scientists. 

From Backyard Ant-Watching to World Ecology Award: A Conversation with E.O. Wilson

“From Backyard Ant-Watching to World Ecology Award: A Conversation with E.O. Wilson”
By Evie Hemphill
This article originally appeared on the website for St. Louis Public Radio, April 17, 2018

Edward O. Wilson’s long career has been marked by enormous contributions to the field of biology, with an impact on global conservation efforts that is difficult to overstate. All of it grew out of his close attention years ago to something relatively small: the behavior of ants.

Wilson recalled one of his earliest interactions with the insects, a memory from his boyhood in northern Alabama, on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air in conversation with host Don Marsh.

“In our backyard I saw this stream of ants,” said the now 88-year-old Harvard scholar, who is headed to the St. Louis Zoo this week to receive an award from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It turns out that there were tens of thousands of them in a single colony, marching five to ten across in perfect formation – or near perfect formation for an insect – across the yard, all in one direction.

“I followed them over a back fence into the next yard … the column continued on across that yard and out into a street, across the street,” Wilson went on, “and then into a patch of woodland where they disappeared and I couldn’t follow them. And I soon learned that what I was seeing was the march of the army ants. Army ants just get that far north. You can find big army ants – with millions of workers – in the tropics, and I was later to see those many times.”

With about 15,000 species of ants in existence on the planet, the creatures would soon capture Wilson’s interest for a lifetime. And they make up just a fraction of the roughly 10 million species, as Wilson estimated during the show, that currently call Earth home.

“We’ve just begun to explore life on this planet,” Wilson said, adding that such biodiversity is at great risk now with species going extinct “somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times faster than before the coming and the spread of humanity.”

“Probably closer to 100 times,” he noted, “but at the same time accelerating higher and higher. By the end of the century, it’s easy to predict that unless something is done, half of earth’s living diversity will be gone.”

Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, offers ideas for addressing that looming reality in his book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.” He is also beginning work on another volume to be titled “Tales from the Ant World.”

An only child who grew up in “the wilds of Alabama,” Wilson said, he developed an affection for nature at an early age, collecting butterflies and reading “every issue of National Geographic” that he could get his hands on.

He dreamt of “someday going on great trips into the jungles” and discovering new kinds of animals.

  E.O. Wilson, pictured here in the Red Hills of Alabama in 2010, will be honored with the World Ecology Award this Friday in St. Louis. Credit: Beth Maynor Finch.

E.O. Wilson, pictured here in the Red Hills of Alabama in 2010, will be honored with the World Ecology Award this Friday in St. Louis. Credit: Beth Maynor Finch.

“A boyhood dream, except that I was able to live that dream,” Wilson said. “[By high school] I thought that maybe I could become a ranger in a park, maybe I could become an entomologist studying insects, the kind who advises farmers on how to control pests and so on. And somehow I thought I could make a living, when I grew up, in the outdoors. The big thing was to never, ever have to come in from the outdoors.”

By the time he headed to college at the University of Alabama, he had decided on ants as his research focus.

Wilson first joined Harvard’s faculty in 1956 and introduced the concept of sociobiology, the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in all kinds of organisms, nearly five decades ago. In 1995 he was named among the 25 most influential Americans by TIME.

The World Ecology Award that the Harris Center will bestow on Wilson this Friday, April 20, recognizes individuals who have raised public awareness of global ecological issues and made significant contributions to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

Previous recipients of the award include marine biologist Sylvia Earle (2016), Albert II, Prince of Monaco (2013), Harrison Ford (2002), Jane Goodall (1999) and John Denver (1990), among others.

Related Event

What: World Ecology Award Gala
When: 6 p.m. Friday, April 20, 2018
Where: St. Louis Zoo (1 Government Dr., St. Louis, MO 63110)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

For Endangered Florida Tree, How Far to Go to Save a Species?

The Florida torreya is North America’s most endangered conifer, with less than one percent of its population remaining. Now, scientists are mounting a last-ditch effort to save the torreya and are considering using new gene-editing technologies to protect it. 

By Janet Marinelli, March 27, 2018

Edward O. Wilson clambered partway down a slope in the Florida Panhandle, aided by a park ranger and trailed by a few dozen scientists, conservationists, and local landowners. The group had gathered in Torreya State Park, a landscape of dazzling botanical diversity along the upper Apalachicola River, as part of a whirlwind two-day meeting early this month to ponder the fate of its most storied tree. As the wind gusted through leafless branches, the lanky, white-haired Wilson, at 88 years of age still one of the most brilliant biologists of his generation, planted a seedling of the Florida torreya, North America’s most endangered conifer.

  A rare mature torreya on a street in Madison, Florida, which appears to be unaffected by a fungal blight that has wiped out nearly the entire species. Photograph by Jason Smith.

A rare mature torreya on a street in Madison, Florida, which appears to be unaffected by a fungal blight that has wiped out nearly the entire species. Photograph by Jason Smith.

Wilson first visited the Apalachicola bluffs in 1957, as a self-described “young guy” with a new position at Harvard University, on an ant-collecting trip in Florida. “I came here,” he recounted, “the way you would go to Paris to visit a cathedral. I just had to see the torreya.” The trees had already begun their steep decline.

More than 60 years later Wilson was back. This time he declared the site “is not only a cathedral, but also a battleground at which one of the greatest events in American history will take place” — a turning point, as he sees it, in the planetary struggle to slow biodiversity loss.

Last spring, another “young guy” was at Torreya State Park on a camping trip with his lab. University of Florida forest pathologist Jason Smith “couldn’t believe how much worse the torreyas were” than when he had seen them the year before. “The population was crashing.” Smith, who has reddish brown hair and a bundle of energy, decided to assemble a team to reflect on the meaning of the species’ imminent demise, to catalog the “torreya tree of life” — all living things with which it associates in the wild — and to plan a last-ditch effort to save it.

“This is a now or never moment for the species,” he says.

While the massive wildfires and tree die-offs out West have gotten most of the press in recent years, the Eastern forests are also in crisis. An increasing number of the region’s iconic native trees are plagued by pests and pathogens introduced from abroad. This has researchers scrambling to find genes that can help impart resistance, and to breed them into the ailing trees. Because classical crossbreeding takes decades — perhaps too long for a critically endangered species like the torreya — options once unimaginable as conservation measures are now being considered, including the new group of gene-editing technologies called CRISPR that has taken the biotech world by storm.

The growing forest health crisis is forcing scientists, conservationists, and the public to answer some of conservation biology’s thorniest questions. Will we be able to use biotechnologies on the frontier of plant science to rescue imperiled species? Should we? And when so many species are at risk, does it make sense to go to extraordinary lengths to save a tree like the Florida torreya that has a tiny historical range and no commercial value?

Not long ago, Torreya taxifolia, as the tree is technically known, cast an evergreen veil over its historical habitat, a short stretch of sharp-sloped ravines called steepheads, some of which plunge at inclines close to 45 degrees — enough to induce wooziness in Floridians accustomed to pancake-flat terrain. In a vast biotic convergence, the tree mingled with massive southern magnolias, fan-leafed palmettos and other subtropical plants as well as northern denizens such as beech, hickory, and maple driven to the Panhandle over the eons by glaciers. As many as 650,000 torreyas once lived here.

In the 1800s, local inhabitants used the conifer to make fence posts and shingles and to fuel the steamboats that plied the Apalachicola. Sometime around World War II, the remaining trees were attacked by a fungal blight and began their catastrophic dieback. The Florida torreya has been trapped in a purgatory-like adolescence ever since. Saplings sprout from old roots, only to succumb to the disease before they are mature enough to reproduce.

At the meeting earlier this month, Rob Nicholson, collections manager at Wellesley College Botanic Garden, told the assembled group about the torreya’s tangled history with humans. In the words of Nicholson, who journeyed to the Apalachicola bluffs from Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in 1989 to help survey the trees and collect cuttings, the torreya was once “a beautiful, shaggy pyramid, some fifty feet high and cloaked with glossy evergreen needles.” The species, he wrote at the time in Natural Historymagazine, “was going extinct before our eyes.”

Today, said Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, “only 0.22 percent of the population is left.” Since 1990, her organization has led the effort to create a life support system for the species by safeguarding it in cultivation. They have been so successful that the largest population of Florida torreyas, more than 800 specimens, now resides not in the steepheads, but rather a modern-day ark of pots, propagation beds, and experimental plantings at a handful of sites in northern Georgia. The Atlanta Botanical Garden and partner organizations have managed to preserve much of the species’ genetic diversity, protecting some 441 genetically distinct individuals in cultivation. The idea is to use the plants to restore the species in the wild.

Safeguarding the torreya has been staggeringly complex. Unlike most plants, the tree has so-called recalcitrant seeds, which cannot be preserved in conventional seed banks because they can’t survive drying. This necessitated the development of a tissue-culture system for the species called somatic embryogenesis. Embryos are surgically removed from fully developed seeds, then cultured in vitro to encourage the formation of multiple embryos. These can be safely preserved in a new cryogenic storage unit obtained by Atlanta Botanical Garden, in which the resulting plantlets are coaxed into a state of suspended animation at -321° Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen.

Ultimately, however, saving the torreya in its steephead home will require outsmarting the pathogen that is killing it. Although a number of fungal diseases were found to be afflicting the trees to some extent, the lethal pathogen remained elusive. But in 2010, Jason Smith discovered the culprit, Fusarium torreyae, a fungal pathogen new to science. Evidence suggests that it was introduced from China. If no action is taken, the tree will go extinct along the Apalachicola, “probably in 50 years,” Smith says.

For the past two decades, the Florida torreya has been not only a symbol of fungal pathogens run amok, but also a poster child for assisted migration, the deliberate movement of a species suffering from climate change to more favorable habitat outside its historical range. The tree is widely believed to be an Ice Age relict that once grew farther north but became trapped in the steepheads when the last glacier retreated. In fact, torreyas planted as far north as Ohio are producing seed. However, a study by one of Smith’s graduate students suggests that Fusarium torreyae may also be deadly to a number of trees that are native to the southern Appalachians. “It could be that climate change is stressing the torreyas,” says Smith, “making them even more susceptible to the disease.” But in order to prevent the spread of the pathogen, he says, “we have to deal with the disease first.” 

At the meeting early this month, Dana Nelson, a forest geneticist at the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station in Kentucky, reeled off a long list of Eastern trees suffering from exotic bugs and blights. One of them, the emerald ash borer, an iridescent green beetle from northeastern Asia, has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees, including virtually all the ashes in Michigan, where it was discovered in 2002. In the Appalachians, vast tracts of Eastern and Carolina hemlock have been decimated by the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny, fuzzy white insect native to East Asia.

One of the first trees to succumb to an introduced blight was the American chestnut, which once painted forests from Maine to Mississippi snowy white when it bloomed in spring. Around the turn of the 20th century, the species was struck by a fungal pathogen imported from Asia. Within 50 years, billions of trees were killed. A forest dominant that once grew up to ten feet wide and soared 100 feet to the top of the forest canopy, American chestnut now clings to life, like the Florida torreya, by sending up spindly stump sprouts.

Smith hopes to use the quest to save the American chestnut as a model for the imperiled torreya. When it was his turn to address the meeting, Jared Westbrook, a forest geneticist who became director of science at the American Chestnut Foundation in 2015, chronicled the group’s 90-year struggle to breed resistance into the species.

Efforts began with traditional crossbreeding of American chestnut with its close relative, the Chinese chestnut, which evolved with the pathogen and finds it a minor nuisance. The painfully slow process of back-crossing the resulting hybrids with pure American chestnut over six generations to remove as many foreign genes as possible has yielded trees that are 94 percent American chestnut. “Right now,” said Westbrook, “the trees have intermediate levels of resistance.”

To ramp up the resistance, the foundation hopes to breed these trees with a transgenic chestnut developed at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. To create the transgenic variety, one wheat gene was inserted into the species’ gene pool to disarm the fungus. In the words of lead researcher William Powell, the result is “a plant that is 99.9997 percent American chestnut.” Breeding must wait until the transgenic chestnut completes its lengthy federal regulatory review.

Although few scientists fear that the transgenic chestnut would result in a “super tree” capable of overrunning Eastern forests, the public is still jittery about genetic engineering. An impartial committee has been convened by the National Academy of Sciences to study “the potential of biotechnology to address forest health.” Its report is expected at the end of this year.

In part to sidestep the controversy, Smith is hoping to use CRISPR to, in his words, “toggle up” disease resistance in the Florida torreya’s own genes. Given the tree’s imminent extinction along the Apalachicola, he says, “regular breeding is too slow.” CRISPR exploits a natural ability of bacterial immune systems to identify and disable invading viruses. Scientists create short RNA sequences that attach to corresponding sequences in the receiving species’ DNA. This molecular guidance system is paired with an enzyme that originally was designed to snip the DNA, “knocking out” a targeted gene. Using modified versions of the enzyme, it is now possible to activate or increase gene expression.

Just a few years ago, when CRISPR appeared on the biotech scene, it was a messy business. Scientists whacked DNA with all the finesse of a molecular machete, often triggering not just the desired snips, but a hodgepodge of unintended genetic changes, dubbed “off-target effects.” Yet as researchers around the world have continued to fine-tune the technology, fears of CRISPR gone out of control have begun to fade. The technology is already being used to confer crops with everything from drought resistance to longer shelf life.

Still, an easy techno-fix for Florida torreya is unlikely anytime soon. John Davis, associate dean for research at the University of Florida and a member of the steering committee of the Forest Health Initiative, points out that if by chance there is natural resistance in the Florida torreya, plant production for breeding via seed, cuttings, or tissue culture would need to vastly increase. What’s more, CRISPR has never before been used to restore a tree species’ fitness for life in the forest. “This would require more research,” he says.

As the meeting disbanded, Smith and other researchers resolved to begin the hunt for resistance genes. The horticulturists and scientists responsible for safeguarding the species in cultivation said their highest priority is continuing the search for additional genetic diversity in as-yet-unidentified torreyas on private property. Local community members declared they would work with their neighbors to facilitate the search for these remaining trees. Because unique species of fungi, which, in Smith’s words, “rule forest trees, both in life and in death,” are often associated with a particular tree, University of Minnesota forest pathologists left with vials of soil and dead and living wood. They will analyze the contents to determine whether “an extinction vortex” is underway within the torreya’s ecological community.

As Nicholson pointed out, the genus Torreya is one of the most ancient groups of plants still in existence, dating back 175 million years to the mid-Jurassic period. But four of the six remaining Torreya species, including the Florida native’s closest relative, California nutmeg, are on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species and may not survive modernity.   

“Every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle,” Wilson wrote in his 1992 book The Diversity of Life. At the meeting, he pledged to dedicate his remaining years to raising the global extinction crisis “to the same level of urgency as slowing climate change.”

“As biodiversity continues to hemorrhage all around us,” Wilson said, “we face a momentous moral decision that can be put in the form of a question: What kind of a species are we to treat the rest of life so cheaply?” This, he added, “is not only a moral issue but an issue of survival.” He then posed another question: “What will future generations think about how we have acted so carelessly?”

Read the story at e360.

A “Moon Shot” to Protect Earth’s Species

This article originally was published in The Harvard Gazette, March 29, 2018.
By Alvin Powell.

Biologist E.O. Wilson and former National Park Service director envision massive conservation effort to stem extinction

The extinction of our swimming, trotting, slithering, and flying companions on Earth is a building global disaster on a par with climate change, but one that has a solution, according to noted biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson, Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor emeritus, says that setting aside half of the Earth’s land and half of its oceans would be enough to save 85 percent of species, which are becoming extinct at a rate between 100 and 1,000 times the rate before humans.

Wilson, who spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Wednesday, acknowledged that setting aside that much land would be no easy feat. He also said it couldn’t just be any land, but would need to have key features, such as high biodiversity, and land corridors to protect ages-old migration routes and connect preserves, parks, and other places set aside for wildlife.

“People want a ‘moon shot,’ and this is a moon shot of conservation that we can achieve,” Wilson said. “We can do it, and we can begin doing it now.”

Wilson made his comments during a panel discussion, “Climate Change, Biodiversity, and the Future of Conservation in America,” that also included Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration. The event was moderated by HKS’s Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and a member of the National Park Service Advisory Board.

  Moderator Linda J. Bilmes (from left) discusses with Edward O. Wilson and Jonathan B. Jarvis about Wilson’s proposal to set aside half the Earth’s land and oceans for conservation. Courtesy of The Institute of Politics/Harvard Kennedy School

Moderator Linda J. Bilmes (from left) discusses with Edward O. Wilson and Jonathan B. Jarvis about Wilson’s proposal to set aside half the Earth’s land and oceans for conservation. Courtesy of The Institute of Politics/Harvard Kennedy School

Though Jarvis agreed such a massive task would be difficult, he also said that the current U.S. administration’s negative stance on the environment has created an opportunity to mobilize public support and make common cause among groups concerned about other policy areas, such as women’s rights, support for science, gun control, and immigration issues.

“There’s nothing like a crisis to galvanize public support,” Jarvis said. “We’re in this perfect moment in time, where there is clearly an assault on the environment … and the opportunity is to bridge what had been separation amongst the environmental justice, social justice, classic environmental, public health, municipalities, and the hunting and fishing crowds.”

Jarvis said that just 12 percent of U.S. land currently has some sort of conservation status, but he highlighted efforts underway to collaboratively manage lands, as in the Northern Rocky Mountains, to keep it and the creatures there healthy. Another example is the work to conserve a Wyoming wildlife corridor called the Path of the Pronghorn, a 200-mile migration route, parts of which are threatened by development, used by pronghorn antelope during their annual migrations.

Further, Jarvis said, conservation land doesn’t necessarily mean land entirely free of human impact. While he and Wilson agreed that some wildlands and ocean preserves should be maintained without human intrusion, many places can support some level of human activity. When considering the conservation status of an area, Jarvis said an effective initial step is to talk with the people using that land, particularly if they depend on it for their livelihoods. An eventual conservation plan should take their concerns into account, he said, and, though a vocal, anti-conservation core may remain opposed, most objections fade over time.

Both Jarvis and Wilson traced the fondness for wild places back to humanity’s deep roots and millennia spent living outdoors. That life instilled in people a deep appreciation for nature, which Wilson called “the love of the home that one forms in the natural world.” It has only been in recent generations that people have “come inside,” Jarvis said, and a core part of many people retains that appreciation for nature.

“I can take any individual … to the rim of the Grand Canyon or to the High Sierras to see the Milky Way or to stand beneath the giant sequoias and they are moved,” Jarvis said.

Aiding efforts, Jarvis said, is that the health benefits of nature are becoming recognized to the extent that doctors are prescribing that people walk outside. In response to a question from the audience about how to boost the acreage of wild places, Wilson said people can help even when selecting plants for landscaping by choosing native species instead of exotic ornamentals, which not only can be harmful when their seeds spread into the environment, but also sometimes offer no sustenance for native insects, on which birds and other animals depend.

And, though preservation of large, wild places is important in any conservation scheme, the increasingly urban population’s love of the outdoors can be fed by ensuring neighborhoods have parks and other green spaces. National parks, Jarvis said, should be managed for the whole population, not just for the middle and wealthy classes. That’s why, he said, a proposed hike in park entry fees is a bad idea.

When asked how the next generation can help, Jarvis suggested that young people vote for conservation-minded leaders and run for office themselves.

Wilson said an enormous amount of work remains to categorize and understand life on Earth, work that will inform which lands and ocean areas are most critical to preserve. Though 2 million species have been identified so far, scientists estimate another 8 million remain to be described, Wilson said, so there is plenty of work for the next generation of biologists.

Return of Leopard to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique

Mozambique, Africa – Gorongosa National Park is Mozambique’s flagship natural area. The Park is the heart of a region where the Government of Mozambique teamed with the Carr Foundation on a long-term plan to bring back-to-life a vast and diverse natural ecosystem. Park programs also benefit the surrounding human communities – a vision for a landscape where both wilderness and
people thrive.

Today, many species in the Park have made a strong comeback. Only a short drive from the main lodge in Chitengo Camp one becomes immersed in herds of impala, nyala, kudu, waterbuck, and elephant. These herbivores are the foundational species upon which a recovering ecosystem is built, and quick to follow-suit in such a finely-tuned ecosystem would be their natural predators. Return of large carnivores here – the lions and leopards, hyaena and painted dogs – would be a strong indicator of ecological balance and a healthy ecosystem.

Mysteriously, however, despite a recovering lion population, abundant prey and suitable habitat, for more than a decade, Africa’s most elusive cat – the leopard – has shown little sign of existing in the Park. Not a single leopard had been sighted by any ranger, safari guide, remote cameratrap, or scientific expedition since 2008.

But then the unexpected happened.

  Image captured by Zander Beetge to whom we are very grateful

Image captured by Zander Beetge to whom we are very grateful

On March 29th 2018, only 20 minutes from the Park’s main lodge, nature guide Leonardo Felix Mandevo of Gorongosa National Park was heading back to camp for the night when he flashed his spotlight through a break in palm thickets and the beam landed squarely on a male leopard. The leopard casually crossed the main road in front of a disbelieving group of tourists (Zander Beetge, Marlina Moreno and Tero Makinen) and guides (Leonardo Mandevo and Richard Lusinga). In that single flash of a light, history was made and a species not seen by anyone in the Park for over a decade was officially back on the map.

“Seeing is believing. Gorongosa is healthy. My joy doubled when I saw the happiness of our Mozambican guides who spotted the leopard. This ecosystem is their cultural and biological heritage.” said Greg Carr, who has co-managed the Gorongosa Project since 2008. Mandevo was the first to spot the leopard. He was born in Vila Gorongosa, a local community, and he co-leads safaris in to the Park daily for a growing market of adventure tourists who visit Gorongosa. “It’s an honor to have seen the leopard. I’ve been here for three years and we are always trying to spot one. When I finally did I almost didn’t believe my eyes. I’ve very happy!” said Mandevo.

Big cats survive today in Africa’s protected areas because of boots-on-the-ground work by local rangers to secure their habitats. Focused missions by the Park’s trained team of 230 rangers – all Mozambican – has, in no uncertain terms, yielded tangible results. Ranger teams patrol the Park diligently, 365 days per year, covering thousands of kilometers as they sweep over a rugged wilderness landscape that few people get to experience in its entirety. Their work has led to a 94% decline in snaring of the Park’s lions and 60% decline in poaching pressure, in just two years.

Dr. Rui Branco, the Park’s Mozambican Head of Law-Enforcement, who oversees the rangers said: “Knowing the high stakes for leopard recovery, we focused intensively on securing a key corridor along the eastern boundary of the Park that adjoins vast forestry concessions and the Marromeu Reserve. We know remnant populations still exist there. This corridor is critical for the leopard’s survival in this region. Today we have living proof of why this work is important.”

Over the coming weeks, rangers and the big cat monitoring team will continue tracking the leopard to try to understand more about where he is heading and if he is with leopard friends in the area. “When one arrives, more are likely to follow.” said Paola Bouley, Associate Director of a carnivore recovery unit supported by National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative. “This is a male in great condition. Young males like this are the explorers who range further afield as they seek out new territories and mates, pushing the boundaries. People always ask us if we have leopards in the Park, well finally we can say ‘yes we do’.

More background: Ecosystems across the planet have evolved to accommodate both robust prey populations as well as the top carnivore species that depend on them for survival. Unfortunately, many populations of large carnivores have suffered large-scale declines: habitat loss and loss of prey; a growing illegal trade in their body parts fueled by traditional use and Eastern markets; and, conflict with humans and their livestock are all contributors. In recognition of their fragile futures, in 2016 the US listed the African lion on the Endangered Species Act. Shortly thereafter scientists demonstrated that leopards may soon follow suit if protections aren’t strengthened. Even a species as tenacious, secretive and adaptable to human-dominated environments as the leopard is simply no longer secure.

In remote corners of wild Africa—such as Central Mozambique–some of these species persist. They have a strong chance of survival if they are the focus of intensive recovery efforts such as the program in Gorongosa. The Gorongosa Project has recently signed strategic partnerships with landowners adjacent to the Park to secure and protect key wildlife corridors and to ensure that large, connected landscapes are part of this region’s future.

The Gorongosa Project integrates conservation and human development with the understanding that a healthy ecosystem will benefit human beings, who in turn will be motivated to support Gorongosa Park objectives. For more general information, visit Gorongosa National Park – Overview

Watch E.O. Wilson Speak about the Half-Earth Project at the Harvard Kennedy School


E.O. Wilson spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School JFK Forum on March 28. The panel on “Climate Change, Biodiversity and the Future of Conservation in America,” also included Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the National Park Service, and was moderated by Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes.

During the presentation, Wilson outlined the Half-Earth Project, and explained the critical nature of the current species extinction crisis: “There’s nothing like a crisis to galvanize public support.”

View the entire conversation at

Letter to the President of Ghana


His Excellency President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo
The President of the Republic of Ghana
c/o The Chief of Staff
Office of the President
Flagstaff House

Re: Ghana’s responsibility to protect the globally important Atewa Forest

Your Excellency,

I am writing to draw your attention to global concerns for the future of the Atewa Forest in Ghana, prompted by news that the hills on which the forest is located are to be mined for bauxite.

As I am sure you are well aware, the Atewa Forest is of exceptional biological importance being the finest example of Upland Evergreen Forest in the Upper Guinean Forest region (from Ghana west to Sierra Leone). Only about 5% of the Upper Guinean forest now remains, so sites like Atewa Forest are of global importance. Atewa Forest is so exceptional that it is listed amongst 38 places around the world that I highlight in my book Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life as the most important places on earth that humanity should set aside for nature. It therefore worries me greatly that such a special site should be considered for mineral exploitation.

The reason for Atewa’s great biological importance lies in the high diversity of species and the high level of rarity of many species that are found in the forest. Atewa is home to many thousands of species of which over 100 are at either threatened or near-threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These include 11 mammal species, 13 birds, 12 amphibians, 1 reptile, 4 fish, 3 butterflies and no less than 59 species of plant. Three of these species are Critically Endangered with extinction, the highest level of threat that can be assigned by IUCN. The White-naped Mangabey Cercocebus lunulatus is a Critically Endangered primate whose global range is almost entirely within Ghana and which is already the subject of intensive conservation breeding programs at zoos in Ghana and around the world. It would be a great setback to global efforts to save this species from extinction if a site that currently protects this species is lost. The Togo Slippery Frog Conraua derooi which is also Critically Endangered is found only in Atewa Forest and in the Togo-Volta hills. The population in Atewa is about to be described by scientists as a new species distinct from the population in Togo-Volta hills. Two species of butterfly—Mylothis atewa and Anthene helpsi—are found in Atewa Forest and nowhere else in the world.

The relatively high altitude of Atewa Forest causes a distinctive type of vegetation to grow that is extremely rare in Ghana but very rich in species. Over 1,000 species of plants, 230 species of birds and at least 50 species of mammals have been recorded in Atewa Forest. The forest has over 570 species of butterflies recorded and another 138 are expected to occur which would make it the richest forest for butterflies in West Africa.

In recent months, careful work led by A Rocha with support from IUCN Netherlands, has demonstrated the forest’s enormous importance to the water supply of five million people in Accra. In their report to the government of Ghana The Economics of the Atewa Forest Range, Ghana (, they provide a compelling economic case for protecting the forest which when combined with its biological importance makes a strong argument to designate Atewa Forest as a National Park.

The extraction of bauxite will undoubtedly require the forest to be removed since the deposits are only within the top few meters of the horizon and spread over a wide area. There is no low impact technology that can access these sorts of deposits without stripping away the surface. The resulting landscape will be impossible to restore to its former condition because the organic layer will be removed during the mining and it would probably take centuries for the lost flora and fauna to be re-established if they are not entirely extinct. I am also very concerned about the presence of an alumina processing plant in such a sensitive landscape. The highly caustic “red mud” that is a by-product of the Bayer refinement process is notoriously hard to store and lethal if it escapes. This poses a dreadful risk to the Atewa landscape and its critical water supplies.

The alternative vision for Atewa Forest to declare it a National Park would be a progressive, commendable and enduringly positive legacy for your Government in stark contrast to the loss that would be experienced should the hills be mined. Protecting Atewa Forest in this way would deliver on Ghana’s commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, I would like to remind you of CBD Aichi Biodiversity Target 12 to which Ghana, along with all other Parties to the CBD, is formally committed: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained. Ghana, along will all member states of the United Nations, is also committed to Sustainable Development Goal 15, target 5, which states: Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species. I believe that mining of bauxite in Atewa Forest is inconsistent with Ghana’s existing international commitments.

On the other hand, establishing a new National Park is an option with great public support amongst the forest-edge communities who are so dependent on the forest. A new National Park at Atewa Forest can deliver sustainable jobs and livelihoods for many people and as part of a living landscape can provide new economic opportunities. Your Government’s decisive action to bring an end to the menace of galamsey has already demonstrated your commitment to the environment and has had a direct benefit for Atewa Forest. I urge you then to choose a sustainable and positive future for Atewa Forest and set it aside from mining plans. I believe that this is not only the right thing to do, but would also be a tremendous example to other countries that might be tempted to compromise on long-term biodiversity commitments to obtain short term economic benefits.

Sincerely yours,

Edward O. Wilson

Letter to the President of the Republic of Ghana - PDF

Atewa Petition

A Silent Reminder: the Interwoven Effects of Climate Change


From the windswept bow of the R/V Laurence M. Gould, I watch as a dozen chinstrap penguins porpoise across the surface of the icy sea. The small black-and-white penguins torpedo along, moving rhythmically back and forth between air and water. Travel made easier. What a remarkable twist of evolution to take advantage of air’s lesser density.

As I watch, I’m reminded I’ll soon see the Adélie penguin colonies near Palmer Station, the tiny research station that is home away from home for me along the western Antarctic Peninsula. Adélie colonies on the islands near Palmer Station have become iconic symbols of how human-induced climate change is now threatening the biodiversity of Antarctic seas. Once numbering 15,000 mating pairs, over the past 45 years the populations on these islands have plummeted ninety percent, now a paltry 1,500 pairs.

In my book Lost Antarctica, I titled my chapter on these Adélies “Ghost Rookeries,” a heart-wrenching reminder of their ongoing fate. Without addressing global climate change, Adélies will continue to suffer the unseasonable snow storms that bury their eggs, and the loss of krill that provide a key source of their nourishment. (Actor Harrison Ford, with help from the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, helped bring wider attention to this chapter’s prose by narrating a short video outlining the Adélie’s plight.)

And so it is that even in this remote area of the globe, in seemingly pristine areas so far from human populations, there are clear signs of our impact on the natural world.


Though seemingly isolated, Antarctica and the surrounding seas that are home to the Adélie and the krill that feed them are intricately connected to other ecosystems around the world. The salty, cold waters that flow clockwise around Antarctica sink deep in to the ocean, creating a conveyor belt of currents that carry oceanic heat to the ocean basins of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific, and collectively influencing the global climate system. As Antarctica is increasingly influenced by climate change so, in turn, are climates elsewhere. Changing ecosystems follow suit, disrupting linkages between predator and prey: Adélies and krill, caribou and grasses; sea lions and anchovies, the list is extensive.

We are now in the midst of an extinction crisis, where species are going extinct at rates 1,000 times higher than any time in human history. So what can we do?

When it comes to championing global biodiversity, nobody has a deeper commitment to the cause than my friend and colleague, E.O. Wilson.

In his recent book Half-Earth, Wilson says that we must understand species populations to understand where we need to protect and manage land and sea for conservation. Every species has a role in the broader ecosystem. Every ecosystem has a place in the natural world.

As species increasingly go extinct, ecosystems falter, and the health of our natural world is threatened. Therefore, species are the fundamental level of study that must drive conservation priorities.

The Half-Earth Project, led by his Foundation, is doing this work, mapping global biodiversity, helping identify conservation priorities and leading efforts to fill in gaps in information.

Last year, my field studies to build our understanding of the Adélie and the Antarctic ecosystem didn’t permit me to attend Half Earth Day held at National the Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. From all reports, the conference was a stunning success. Scientists and conservationists from around the globe agreed that Ed’s vision for the preservation of half the Earth to ensure sufficient habitat to sustain biodiversity and a heathy planet was both necessary and achievable. Half-Earth has now become a unifying call to action.

Lifting my gaze from the departing chinstrap penguins, I make a pact with myself that this year nothing is going to keep me from participating in the upcoming Half-Earth Day in October 2018, where innovative and forward-thinking people will share a common path to a sustainable future.


Listen to a recent interview about the effect of climate change on Antarctica with James McClintock on NPR.


—James B. McClintock
Endowed Professor of Polar and Marine Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Board of Advisors, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation
(You can follow his current adventures in Antarctica at

Mapping Earth’s Species to Identify Conservation Priorities

The Half-Earth Project is ‘unlocking a new era in data-driven conservation.’

The Half-Earth Project has launched online the first phase of their cutting-edge global biodiversity map. This unique, interactive asset uses the latest science and technology to map thousands of species around the world and illuminate where future conservation efforts should be located to best care for our planet and ourselves. 

“The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century,” said E.O. Wilson in the New York Times Sunday Review on March 3. “We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it. The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible.”

Born from Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, the Half-Earth Project is providing the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet’s surface. The new map sits at the center of this effort.

 By  mapping  the biodiversity of our planet, we can identify the best places to conserve to safeguard the maximum number of species.

By mapping the biodiversity of our planet, we can identify the best places to conserve to safeguard the maximum number of species.

“The Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we can protect the highest number of species,” Wilson said. “By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home.”

The Half-Earth Project is targeting completion of the fine-scale species distribution map for most known terrestrial, marine, and freshwater plant and animal species within 5 years.

“This mapping tool is unlocking a new era in data-driven conservation,” said Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and head of the Half-Earth Project. “It will provide the scientific foundation upon which communities, scientists, conservationists and decision-makers can achieve the goal of Half-Earth.”

A $5 million leadership gift from E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation board member Jeff Ubben and his wife Laurie will seed the second phase of the Half-Earth Project’s mapping effort. 

“Half-Earth can’t wait. We have to work quickly and we need to be smart about how we do the work,” said Jeff Ubben. “This map will give us the information we need to make strong conservation investments.” 

“Ed Wilson framed Half-Earth as a moonshot necessary to preserve the future health of our planet,” Ehrlich said. “The investment in our work from Jeff and Laurie Ubben attaches rocket boosters to this moonshot.” 

Join the effort to protect half the Earth for all of life. 

The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know

 Jillian Tamaki

Jillian Tamaki

In this March 4, 2018 New York Times Sunday Review opinion piece, E.O. Wilson explains why species are the fundamental level of study that must be used to identify conservation priorities, and how the Half-Earth Project map is leading the way.

“The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know”
Edward O. Wilson, New York Times Sunday Review, March 4, 2018

The history of conservation is a story of many victories in a losing war. Having served on the boards of global conservation organizations for more than 30 years, I know very well the sweat, tears and even blood shed by those who dedicate their lives to saving species. Their efforts have led to major achievements, but they have been only partly successful.

The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century. Unless humanity is suicidal (which, granted, is a possibility), we will solve the problem of climate change. Yes, the problem is enormous, but we have both the knowledge and the resources to do this and require only the will.

The worldwide extinction of species and natural ecosystems, however, is not reversible. Once species are gone, they’re gone forever. Even if the climate is stabilized, the extinction of species will remove Earth’s foundational, billion-year-old environmental support system. A growing number of researchers, myself included, believe that the only way to reverse the extinction crisis is through a conservation moonshot: We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it.

The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible. This conservation goal did not come out of the blue. Its conception, called the Half-Earth Project, is an initiative led by a group of biodiversity and conservation experts (I serve as one of the project’s lead scientists). It builds on the theory of island biogeography, which I developed with the mathematician Robert MacArthur in the 1960s.

Island biogeography takes into account the size of an island and its distance from the nearest island or mainland ecosystem to predict the number of species living there; the more isolated an ecosystem, the fewer species it supports. After much experimentation and a growing understanding of how this theory works, it is being applied to the planning of conservation areas.

So how do we know which places require protection under the definition of Half-Earth? In general, three overlapping criteria have been suggested by scientists. They are, first, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, “hot spots,” localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called ecoregions.

A Long Way to Go to ‘Half-Earth’
Land and marine areas that now have a protected status.

 By The New York Times | Sources: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2017);  The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA , Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN).

By The New York Times | Sources: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2017); The World Database on Protected Areas(WDPA , Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN).

All three approaches are valuable, but applying them in too much haste can lead to fatal error. They need an important underlying component to work — a more thorough record of all of Earth’s existing species. Making decisions about land protection without this fundamental knowledge would lead to irreversible mistakes.

The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet.

Paleontologists estimate that before the global spread of humankind the average rate of species extinction was one species per million in each one- to 10-million-year interval. Human activity has driven up the average global rate of extinction to 100 to 1,000 times that baseline rate. What ensues is a tragedy upon a tragedy: Most species still alive will disappear without ever having been recorded. To minimize this catastrophe, we must focus on which areas on land and in the sea collectively harbor the most species.

Building on new technologies, and on the insight and expertise of organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives the environment, the Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we can protect the highest number of species. By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home. With the biodiversity of our planet mapped carefully and soon, the bulk of Earth’s species, including humans, can be saved.

By necessity, global conservation areas will be chosen for what species they contain, but in a way that will be supported, and not just tolerated, by the people living within and around them. Property rights should not be abrogated. The cultures and economies of indigenous peoples, who are de facto the original conservationists, should be protected and supported. Community-based conservation areas and management systems such as the National Natural Landmarks Program, administered by the National Park Service, could serve as a model.

To effectively manage protected habitats, we must also learn more about all the species of our planet and their interactions within ecosystems. By accelerating the effort to discover, describe and conduct natural history studies for every one of the eight million species estimated to exist but still unknown to science, we can continue to add to and refine the Half-Earth Project map, providing effective guidance for conservation to achieve our goal.

Much Left to Protect
Portions of South Africa, shown below in color, have been mapped to show density of several kinds of plants and animals. The project aims to map the planet in the same way, as well as for species rarity, to identify the areas most in need of protection.

 By The New York Times | Sources: for interactive maps explore the  Half-Earth Project ; for species maps and data sources see  Map of Life

By The New York Times | Sources: for interactive maps explore the Half-Earth Project; for species maps and data sources see Map of Life

The best-explored groups of organisms are the vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes), along with plants, especially trees and shrubs. Being conspicuous, they are what we familiarly call “wildlife.” A great majority of other species, however, are by far also the most abundant. I like to call them “the little things that run the world.” They teem everywhere, in great number and variety in and on all plants, throughout the soil at our feet and in the air around us. They are the protists, fungi, insects, crustaceans, spiders, pauropods, centipedes, mites, nematodes and legions of others whose scientific names are seldom heard by the bulk of humanity. In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of the other living world — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, priapulids, coral, loriciferans and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life.

Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They too are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.

With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet. But there is another crucial aspect to this effort: It must be supported by more “boots on the ground,” a renaissance of species discovery and taxonomy led by field biologists.

Within one to three decades, candidate conservation areas can be selected with confidence by construction of biodiversity inventories that list all of the species within a given area. The expansion of this scientific activity will enable global conservation while adding immense amounts of knowledge in biology not achievable by any other means. By understanding our planet, we have the opportunity to save it.

As we focus on climate change, we must also act decisively to protect the living world while we still have time. It would be humanity’s ultimate achievement.

Edward O. Wilson is a university research professor emeritus and an honorary curator of entomology at Harvard, and a scientist on the Half-Earth Project.

Solving Wicked Problems

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.
— John F. Kennedy

We have a new moonshot today: to manage half of the surface of the Earth to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity. Just as President Kennedy laid the first moonshot at the feet of the graduating students of Rice University, E.O. Wilson has called on our young generation of scientists from around the world to achieve the grand goal of Half-Earth.

The Half-Earth Project is bringing momentum to E.O. Wilson’s vision of Half-Earth, but we will face challenges ahead. One of the most significant challenges will be how to balance the growing human demand for resources with requirements to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The issues are big: establishing sustainable development practices in emerging economies; mitigating human-wildlife conflict; building public support for environmental protection; and many others. Each challenge will require unique and innovative solutions, and that is what the Duke University BluePrint Conference asked students to create.

Earlier this month, I participated as a mentor in the BluePrint “hack-a-thon.” For 24-hours, students and mentors from a variety of backgrounds competed in teams to develop solutions to environmental problems. The goal was for each team to create new approaches to old problems, turning the issue over and over through the lenses of engineering, business, computer science, and other disciplines.

  Photo credit: Duke Conservation Tech

Photo credit: Duke Conservation Tech

“The ideation competition included 97 students from 11 schools creating and presenting 15 blueprints for the sustainable future of our planet!” said Joshua Furth, BluePrint’s organizer. “These students were mentored throughout the weekend by 36 experts from 15 organizations, while the support of our 21 institutional sponsors underscores belief in Blueprint’s mission and ensured the success of the event.”

At the start of the conference, the organizer, Duke Conservation Tech, introduced the theme “Nature + Progress: focusing on reconciling the natural world with the inevitability of human progress.” After inspirational keynotes from organizations like Conservation X Labs, National Geographic and the World Resources Institute, the teams were off to brainstorm and problem-solve.

Through mentoring 5 teams, I learned as much from the students as they learned from me. Tag-teaming with other mentors, we shared our experiences and insights with the students as they honed their designs. The enthusiasm was catching, and I found myself longing to stay with each team a few minutes more to flush out ideas.

After just 24 hours, their innovations were astounding: new wildlife monitoring systems to reduce animal-transportation collisions; apps to involve the public in scientific data collection; new architecture plans for building complexes that create electrical energy from compost; and business models that reduced space needed for agriculture in addition to reducing methane output of livestock. The list goes on. Each innovation tackled an essential dilemma and spoke to the challenges we’ll need to address to reach Half-Earth.

“Blueprint is about solving wicked problems,” Joshua said. “We are excited to see many of the blueprints from this year’s event continue to prototyping. While the top teams received grants to continue working on their projects, we were surprised and thrilled to see that many more of the teams are eager to work on making their projects a reality.”

The Half-Earth Project is eager to see these ideas come to life. We’re inspired by the ingenuity we saw this weekend and the potential that collaboration across sectors brought to solving environmental challenges. With just 150 students, 30 mentors, and 24 hours, new doors were opened for the future of our planet.

Kellie Laity, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Communications and Development Coordinator, has worked on a variety of wildlife management projects, ranging from human-wildlife conflict to behavioral research. She endeavors to inspire conservation action through education, storytelling, and hands-on involvement.

The Half-Earth Project has science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart. In collaboration with our partners, we are working to power one of the grandest conservation efforts of our time, and provide the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet for all of life.

Human Benefits of Protected Areas

“Research from around the globe suggests that parks can successfully balance conservation and development and are one of the most important mechanisms for permanent protection of natural resources,” said Katharine Sims, an economics and environmental professor at Amherst College. Her comments appeared in a recent article titled “Chile Establishes 10 Million Acres of National Parks in ‘Gigantic’ Move for Conservation,” which appeared in the Huffington Post.

The article goes on to say that not only can protected areas be good for national economies, they can also boost local economies and mitigate poverty – if managed well.

Each acre conserved provides valuable natural resources and community development opportunities, the article states. Communities surrounding national parks typically benefit from economic perks of tourism, increased infrastructure, and ecosystem services when compared to similar communities further away.


The benefits of protected areas planned and developed in this way can be seen around the globe. From Thailand to Costa Rica, and from the Czech Republic to Chile where Half-Earth Project partner Tompkins Conservation is doing incredible work, nations that have invested in their natural biological heritage have been rewarded with many tangible economic gains.

Half-Earth Project partner Gorongosa Restoration Project in Mozambique is a living example of the multitude of benefits provided by well planned and managed protected areas. Sustainable development—the principle of meeting human needs while also ensuring the sustainability of the environment for future generations—sits at the heart of Gorongosa National Park’s mission. The park is a 21st century model for protected areas, showing how protecting biodiversity inside the park can economically benefit the surrounding communities with increased employment, education, and healthcare.

The Half-Earth Project has science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart. In collaboration with our partners like the Gorongosa Restoration Project and Tompkins Conservation, we are working to power one of the grandest conservation efforts of our time, and provide the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet for all of life.

Species at the Core

I will argue that every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle.
— E.O. Wilson

This week, our Half-Earth Project partner Tompkins Conservation completed the last of their historic 10 million acre national park expansion in Chile, creating Pumalín National Park and Patagonia National Park Chile. These parks will protect countless huemuls, guanacos, condors and other species, establishing a major contribution to the goal of Half-Earth.

Tompkins Conservation’s phenomenal achievement joins other conservation successes over the past year, including the protection of 2 million acres of rainforest in Yagua National Park in Peru, the creation of the largest marine protected area in North America at Revillagigedo Islands Marine Protected Area in Mexico, and the establishment of wetland Lufira Basin Protected Area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area that is roughly the size of Switzerland.


The expansiveness of these areas gets headlines, but conservation areas derive their true greatness from the biodiversity they contain and the species that call these places home. By conserving habitat we protect the delicate interaction of species that are fundamental to ecosystem stability and strengthen the resilience of our planet.

“Each species is a wonder to behold, a long, brilliant history in itself to read, a champion emerged in our time after a long struggle of thousands or millions of years, best of the best, an expert specialist in the niche of the natural environment in which it lives,” says E.O. Wilson.

Yagua is the size of Yellowstone, yet contains 10 times the biodiversity, including birds, monkeys, and fish. Revillegigedo is a “super highway” for rays, sharks, whale sharks, and humpback whales, and supports a coral reef ecosystem with 36 species of endemic fish. Lufira supports numerous endemic species of fish, amphibians and reptiles, and is important to much of Africa’s water supply.

“Species aren’t just names, or points on an evolutionary tree, or abstract sequences of DNA,” Wilson says. “They encode countless millennia of complex interactions between plant and animal, soil and air.” 

Around the world, the places that have magnificent species diversity are threatened by human pressures. These places are losing their sharks and rays, their endemic fish, their amphibians and reptiles, and more. As those species disappear, ecosystems decline, and the health of our planet as a whole is impacted. Each species lost threatens the collapse of the whole.

That’s why getting to Half-Earth starts with protecting the lands and seas that contain the most biodiversity. The Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species around the world to identify the places where we have the opportunity to protect the highest number of species. Protecting identified species-rich areas will safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, and ensure the long-term health of our planet.

A Change of Perspective

The impact of climate change — the scars that it’s leaving on our planet — is visible from above, too.
— Captain Mark Kelly

We can learn a lot about Earth from an astronaut’s perspective. Captain Mark Kelly has gone to space many times, and he’s looked at Earth first-hand in a way few of us have. What does he see? The rapid changes humans are imposing on the planet in just the short timespan of his career, leaving huge marks all over the world that are visible from space.

“When I first looked down upon the Amazon rainforest in 2001, I saw vast areas of jungle and a wide and winding copper colored river that went on and on and on. A river that was impossible to miss and like no other on the planet,” Kelly wrote in an article for CNN on January 10, 2018. “By 2011, however, the part that was most noticeable wasn’t the river or the jungle but the large swaths of empty land.”

  Deforestation in the Amazon, 2001 and 2011. Images courtesy NASA.

Deforestation in the Amazon, 2001 and 2011. Images courtesy NASA.

Kelly notes that the destruction he sees from space indicates a parallel story of devastation on the ground to the species and ecosystems in those areas.

“We see the loss of an incredibly diverse ecosystem that once held endless possibilities for new medicines and other discoveries,” Kelly writes. “We see the loss of a home for so many species that will now have to learn to adapt and survive somewhere else — or not.”

Whether viewed from outer space or through a microscope, the loss of great swaths of forests and individual species are significant to the entire planet. Even if a landscape or seascape can be restored, some species will be gone forever. “Look closely at nature,” E.O. Wilson says in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. “Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?”

The Half-Earth Project, in collaboration with our partners, is working to save half the Earth for all of life, including ourselves.

  The Giant Otter is one of a long list of endangered species in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by

The Giant Otter is one of a long list of endangered species in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by

“As an astronaut,” Kelly writes, “I’m often asked about the climate, our environment, and how we are destroying the Earth. My response often surprises people. ‘Don’t worry about the planet, the Earth will be just fine,’ I tell them. ‘What you need to worry about is us — all of us.’ ”

Wilson says it this way: “It is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself.”

As we expand deeply our scientific understanding and respond to our moral obligation to all living things, the work to protect global biodiversity and secure a healthy planet for future generations continues to gain momentum. From astronauts to field scientists to people everywhere, we all have a role in reaching Half-Earth.

Half-Earth on EcoJustice Radio

Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, shares the Half-Earth Project vision and goals with the listeners and followers of EcoJustice Radio. The program is a product of SoCal 350 Climate Action, an organization that envisions a healthy climate through the joining of environmental, social, and economic justice.

Carry Kim: Aloha, you’re listening to EcoJustice radio on 90.7 KPFK. My name is Carry Kim and today we’re grateful to be joined by Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which helps foster stewardship of the Earth’s biodiversity, research and education initiatives and protection of biodiversity worldwide. Dr. Ehrlich leads the Half-Earth Project, a project which proposes the goal of conserving half the Earth in order to protect 85 percent or more of species, including human beings.

Welcome, Paula.

Paula Ehrlich: Hello. Very nice to be with you.

CK: Thank you for joining us today on the show. For listeners, first of all I want to introduce for listeners unfamiliar with E.O. Wilson himself. He is an American biologist, researcher, naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, is one of his most recent books. He was named one of the centuries leading environmentalists by both Time and Audubon magazines. He’s one of the preeminent scientists living today, and is recognized for his pioneering efforts to preserve and protect biodiversity on Earth.

So, Paula, I wanted to first ask you—well, I’ll quote something from E.O. Wilson. He has said, “Humanity is currently faced with a momentous moral decision regarding the worldwide extinction of species and natural ecosystems. If we fail to act now, half of all known species will be gone by the end of the century.” So, could you explain to us what is the Half-Earth Project?


PE: Oh, absolutely. Well the Half-Earth Project is trying to bring E.O. Wilson’s grand vision for Half-Earth to life. You spoke about Half-Earth as a call to protect half our land and our seas in order to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity. We know that if we protect sufficient habitat, we can provide sufficient home for most of the species on our planet and currently they’re really threatened by an extinction crisis. The rate of extinction is about a thousand times higher now than it was before people came on the scene. That extinction rate, as you quoted, it is going to—if it continues at its current rate—we will lose, as you quoted, half the species of our planet by the end of the century.  Now that’s bad for a lot of reasons. Species have evolved exquisitely over the last three-and-a-half billion years in balance with ourselves, and support our lives and our resilience as much of each others. As species go extinct they can have profound effects not only on the environments in which they live and those ecosystems, but also our own. And so it’s with great humility that we need to work to protect what we have until we learn a lot more about it and know how to best care for the species of our planet.

As species go extinct they can have profound effects not only on the environments in which they live and those ecosystems, but also our own. And so it’s with great humility that we need to work to protect what we have until we learn a lot more about it and know how to best care for the species of our planet.

The reason that Ed Wilson calls this a moral dilemma is really because—of the 10 million species that inhabit our planet—we’re the one really that has the capacity to understand this and also the power to take care of it. We uniquely can decide the fate of the other species that share this planet with us and have the responsibility of course to care really for the only planet that we’ll ever have. Our home for ourselves and our children.

CK: He had an interesting quote where he was speaking about human beings that are choosing to be master rather than steward. Maybe that’s not applying to everybody, but we largely see that. And he also said that we do still have time to set aside half the earth. I don’t know how much time you believe that we really have but what are some of the actual spots where Earth’s biodiversity can still be reclaimed?

PE: There are extraordinary places. If you do a biogeographic scan of the globe, there are still some extraordinary places that are rich with biodiversity and unique endemism—species that don’t exist anywhere in the world—that we still have the opportunity to protect. Really it’s just that simple, right? We do have the ability to do that if we understand where those species are and can highlight them as places that need to be managed for conservation. That’s a big project right now. That’s a big effort now of the Half-Earth Project as we work to try to provide that scientific information that can help guide what places we need to protect. And that inevitably is driven by our understanding of where species are all living, what their distribution is at a fine scale, that allows us to guide conservation efforts.

That’s a big effort now of the Half-Earth Project as we work to try to provide that scientific information that can help guide what places we need to protect. And that inevitably is driven by our understanding of where species are all living, what their distribution is at a fine scale, that allows us to guide those conservation efforts.

CK: Are there any places in the U.S that that applies?

PE: There’s an amazing place in the southeastern United States, in and around the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. It may be one of the places that has the richest biodiversity in the United States. And yet right now it’s not protected under any sort national park unit or comprehensive conservation plan. It happens to be Ed’s boyhood home. He has a very personal interest in it, but as a nation, as part of our national natural heritage, it would be an extraordinary place for us to prioritize for conservation.

CK: Well do you find it disheartening you know with the recent news of the Trump administration and what’s happened with Bears Ears or what’s going on currently with Bears Ears and Escalante and sort of this encroachment back into public lands and our monuments to scale them back and changing land use management practices or that potentiality existing? What do you have to say about that? At a time when we should be doing more conservation in the US, we are moving in the wrong direction?

PE: Well possibly.

CK: Maybe not everywhere.

PE: It’s interesting that you asked if it was disheartening. I think that as we all become more fully aware of the risks or the potential risks for environments, I think it’s also activating a lot of people to more fully understand the importance of these places. Certainly the Trump administration may be looking at these places as national natural resources that we should be managing in various ways that drive value to a local area, but those kinds of places also are part of our national natural heritage and they have values that we inherently cherish above and beyond potential economic value. Pride-of-place and biophilia are sort of essential parts of our sense of the special places in our country. And in some cases as we highlight these places that are at risk, we can also begin then to have a conversation about maybe the values of those places that we don’t yet fully understand. But more broadly I think that overall the message needs to be that we need to have great humility about the potential loss of places that we don’t really fully understand yet and that we need to protect until we do.

CK: Would you say that there’s greater threat to living species on land or in marine environments or is it sort of equally at threat? Is there some differential between the two?

PE: It’s hard to say because in every place and every locality there’s going to be different kinds of threats to different species that we know about and a lot of species that we don’t know about yet. We know probably about two million of the ten million species out there and that’s why the message really has to be one of humility. That until we understand more about all the species that are there we should we should act with with great caution. On the flip side of that, we know in a hopeful sense that if we do protect at least half the habitat of terrestrial and marine species, that we’ll have a pretty good chance of safeguarding the bulk of the biodiversity that lives on land and sea.

CK: And you had said, I think it has been stated, that this would be preserved in perpetuity, forever basically. I mean as long as human beings on this planet, that once that it is set aside, that is the goal: it remains such.

With species, once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

PE: Well imagine how wonderful that would be that instead of just incremental progress and addressing individual endangered species that we all kind of elevated or aspired to a goal that we could work towards together. That having reached that solution, that having reached that goal, we would have solved the problem and can relax. And you know also recognize that as we think about what places that we need to protect, in many cases that these are just solutions to how we best manage places to best protect the biodiversity there. It could include places where indigenous people are living sustainably on the land and we need to focus on supporting that. Or where ranchers are ranching land in such a way that it can support the traditional biodiversity that’s always existed on those lands. And so the solutions, not necessarily one solution—a pristine reserve for example—in many cases we’re talking about places that we can—that are human landscapes as well, that just need to be managed with sensitivity to the biodiversity that’s there.

CK: You’re listening to Dr. Paula Ehrlich of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation on 90.7 KPFK EcoJustice radio. So Paula in response to what you said, E.O. Wilson had suggested that people need a victory and not just to have this incremental progress of saving species by species. “To strive against odds on behalf of all life would be humanity at its most noble.” So how much time do you think we realistically have to establish Half-Earth before experiencing a global collapse in our ecosystems?

PE: Well we can predict that about half of species will be gone by the end of the century. That’s soon, right? That’s like 75-80 years. And yet we know what we need to do and we just have to have the will to do so, and the scientific information to guide us there. The difference a little bit between climate change, which we understand what to do. If we determined to do so we can fix that problem, right? But with species, once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. And so we don’t have the opportunity to bring them back. And in that sense there’s a different sort of urgency that needs to be applied to this situation in order to address the problem.

CK: Can you speak a little bit about how the research programs are implemented? I know that there’s the research programs to help educate us and also provide the leadership about what places to target for conservation. Could you share a little bit more about how that is actually being undertaken and who are your partners in that?

Our partners in getting to Half-Earth are everyone.

PE: Sure. So really our partners in getting to Half-Earth are everyone working in the the conservation community, the general public, and decision-makers and leaders around the world. What the Half-Earth Project is working to do is to honor the deep expertise of everyone’s efforts as we work to convene them towards this goal, which is like a moonshot right? It’s something that we can work together to achieve and in that sense it’s an inspiring new level of participation towards a goal rather than a process.

CK: Absolutely.

PE: Within the Half-Earth Project, we’re working to provide scientific leadership as a priority right now by working to map the fine distribution of species across the globe. That’s a unique and differentiating effort which hasn’t been done in quite this way to guide conservation efforts before. That scientific mapping effort is being led by Map of Life at Yale, as well as our graphic design partner, Vizzuality, which is in Cambridge, UK and Madrid. By bringing these very talented and deep scientists together with all of the data partners, who have amazing data they’ve collected over the years, and then integrating that in a visually engaging way with information about conservation opportunities and priorities, as well as human impacts, such as populations and mining rights and fishing lanes, we can identify and sort of gerrymander the places where we have opportunity to protect the highest number of species.

CK: How did then…

PE: And then help to guide decision-makers, stakeholders at many different levels on what places we need to target for protection.

CK: So would all the results of that research and scientific evidence be publicly available?

PE: Absolutely. Our intention is to have that online in interactive maps that that people can engage with. Obviously to publish this information in peer-reviewed journals as well, so that it can be a deep scientific endeavor. But we’re also coming together with all kinds of people who through our Half-Earth Council can provide additional expertise to support our success. So where questions arise around the scientific core - around population or the effects on economics, or effects on indigenous people – we’re trying to bring some of the most profound voices and most sensitive voices to those sorts of issues into the Half-Earth Project and our Half-Earth Council as well, to help inform our success.

CK: Could you speak a little bit more about how the Half-Earth Project might address indigenous populations that are losing their habitats and what might we do to also protect their livelihoods and their traditional way of life?

PE: Well I think that we need to advocate on their behalf as part of the Half-Earth Project. The scientifically grounded information that we have about the extraordinary biodiversity that they may be shepherding needs to be honored and protected. I think that it’s a tricky one to answer as a whole because of course the situation is going to be unique in each individual place and it’s going to have its own important human element that will need to be addressed locally. But in general where we’ve seen conservation efforts the most successful—and there are many, many good examples of this—the associated economic needs of people who are living in these extraordinary places are taken into account first and the conservation priorities that are unique to that place can be integrated into the promotion and support of a thriving community. A very good example of that is what has happened in Mozambique with the Gorongosa Restoration Project. There’s been tremendous socio-economic support for the people of Gorongosa as they’ve also restored this extraordinary "lost Eden.” And we know in the U.S. as well, that National Park units and other places tend to bring a lot of sustainable economic growth to areas where parks are created. So in general, as we nurture and protect biodiversity, most often we can also point to some tremendous socio-economic stability and economic growth that occurs with that.

CK: Well yeah, and I also wonder in situations say for example in Africa with poaching, if the socio-economics were different, would poaching still be an activity that people would want to engage in, if they didn’t need to or if they didn’t feel that that was simple?

PE: Well, in Gorongosa, the folks that come in and poach, they’re given a job as rangers. They are the people that know the most about that place and really where they can use that knowledge to sustainably support their families and the park. It’s a win-win for both sides.

CK: Absolutely. How would the designated Half-Earth areas be monitored and protections enforced so that there’s not violations or that the protections really remain enforced?

PE: That’s a huge challenge of course. And through the Half-Earth Project, we’re trying to provide leadership about what places need to be managed to best protect biodiversity. And in each place how that’s best accomplished, of course, is a very local and regional consideration. But I think that the conversation we’re trying to have is about that management. It’s not just about coming in and protecting or designating a place as protected, but that we really need to think about how that place is also managed to support biodiversity and sustain it.

CK: Could you say beyond the obvious threats of climate change and habitat loss, why is extinction accelerating?

PE: Beyond the habitat loss…

CK: and climate change.

PE: The threats of climate change…Well we simply don’t know the effects of all different kinds of human intervention on the species around us. So in many cases it’s simply, I think, from lack of information to better understand our planet. Certainly with development and habitat loss, we’re removing the critical habitat that species need for their own livelihoods, but we may not be aware of all the species that we’re affecting with those changes. So even where we try to plan for protection with development, it’s inevitably not comprehensive because we don’t know enough about the species that are there. So a big renaissance in our understanding of species needs to occur in order for us to address those human impacts or understand our human impacts better. We can work to reverse climate change and we can certainly be sensitive to the needs to plan carefully around development, but until we have that information, we won’t really fully know why our actions are accelerating the extinction crisis so dramatically.

CK: What is the most dangerous worldview according to E.O. Wilson? We’ve got just like another minute.

PE: I’m not sure I understand what you…

CK: What is the most dangerous worldview? It’s a chapter in the Half-Earth book. Maybe it is that man is master? Or man considers himself to be master?

PE: There is a change in the conservation community as we consider how to best drive value to our conservation efforts. There’s a traditional conservation perspective that we should value nature for itself and a new conservation model that is looking at really just valuing nature as it provides value to people. And where the latter is something that we can understand and sometimes fundraise very successfully about, unfortunately to carry that viewpoint to its farthest extent, we may just end up with a perfectly well-tended garden that no longer has biodiversity in it. We may have created a beautiful dammed river where we can have recreational activities and boats, but we may then have lost three species that needed that river for it’s own livelihood and resilience. So that’s the tricky thing. That we remember to honor species and the value of nature for its own sake.

CK: Paula can you explain to our listeners how they can actively support and promote the Half-Earth Project—just giving us a website or places where they can engage?

PE: Absolutely. Listeners can take the Half-Earth Pledge, which is at And by signing up for the Half-Earth Pledge, they can personally participate in helping us bring Half-Earth to life and also give us a mechanism for communicating with them about ways that they can participate locally and regionally in conservation in their own communities.

CK: So, is that correct?

PE: Yes,

CK: Listeners, please engage the website, spread the news, help it go viral. You’ve been listening to Dr. Paula Ehrlich of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation on 90.7 EcoJustice radio KPFK
Thank You Paula.

PE: You’re welcome.

A Different Dimension of Loss

Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity, and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth.
— E.O. Wilson, "Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life"

Remember when your family went on a long automobile ride and your car’s windshield would become coated with bugs? Stopping at the gas station was not just about getting fuel, it was also about scraping off the window so that you could see. That doesn’t happen much anymore. That doesn’t happen because those insects are going extinct.

In fact, as author Jacob Mikanowski notes in “‘A different dimension of loss’: inside the great insect die-off,” published in The Guardian on Dec. 14, 2017, species are being “swept away in an ecological catastrophe that has come to be known as the sixth extinction.” It is invertebrates in general and insects in particular—what E.O. Wilson calls, “little things that run the world”—that are facing the worst of this crisis. “Everywhere, invertebrates are threatened by climate change, competition from invasive species and habitat loss.”

“If this trend were to continue indefinitely, the consequences would be devastating. Insects have been on Earth 1,000 times longer than humans have. In many ways, they created the world we live in. They helped call the universe of flowering plants into being. They are to terrestrial food chains what plankton is to oceanic ones,” Mikanowski writes, adding, “Without insects and other land-based arthropods, E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard entomologist, and inventor of sociobiology, estimates that humanity would last all of a few months.”

Why is this? As E.O. Wilson said in the book, The Diversity of Life, “As extinction spreads, some of the lost forms prove to be keystone species, whose disappearance brings down other species and triggers a ripple effect. The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a power line. It causes lights to go out all over.”

There are signs of hope amidst this crisis. The continued discovery of new species. A coral reef recovering. The resilience of an individual species surrounded by human encroachment. Mikanowski highlights the fluctuating plight of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly as one example. The tiny brown and orange butterfly with white spots feeds on a single plant that is being choked out by weeds, threatening the metalmark with extinction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is taking bold steps to suffocate these weeds and allow native plants to return, and with it the health of the metalmark. “If we can bring back the environment, we can bring back the butterfly,” says wildlife refuge manager Don Brubaker.

  Lange’s metalmark butterfly. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lange’s metalmark butterfly. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As E.O. Wilson says in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, “The crucial factor in the life and death of species is that amount of suitable habitat left to them.” If we can protect sufficient habitat – the habitat that butterflies and other species call home – we can protect the bulk of biodiversity. This is the premise for E.O. Wilson’s call to protect Half-Earth. If we protect half our lands and seas we have the opportunity to reverse the extinction crisis.

Asked why they make such an effort, Brubaker replied: “Why protect the species? Why not? Because it’s what we do – we’re enabling the planet to keep functioning.”

“The amount of work that goes into saving even a single species can sometimes feel overwhelming,” Mikanowski writes. “It isn’t enough to save one in a lab. You have to rescue whole environments – the products of complex interactions between plants, animals, soil and climate that have built up over millennia. If entomologists’ most dire predictions come true, the number of species that will go extinct in the coming century will be in the millions, if not the tens of millions. Saving them one at a time is like trying to stop a tsunami with a couple of sandbags.”

We must do more. As E.O. Wilson says, “The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.” Half-Earth offers that inspiring solution, raising our ambition to a new level, and the Half-Earth Project is engaging the public and convening the conservation community to achieve this important goal. To learn more about the Half-Earth Project visit

Read the full article by Jacob Mikanowski.

Celebrating the Inaugural Half-Earth Day

The Half-Earth Project powers one of the grandest conservation efforts of our time, and provides the urgently needed research, leadership and knowledge necessary to conserve half the planet. If we conserve half of our land and seas, the bulk of biodiversity will be safeguarded from extinction, and life on Earth enters the safe zone.

The Half-Earth Project made great progress in 2017, highlighted by the inaugural Half-Earth Day held on October 23 in Washington, D.C. The event brought leading scientists, conservationists, and Half-Earth supporters from around the world and across disciplines to share their ideas and inspire innovative and impactful conservation efforts with this audacious goal in mind. 

Afternoon Session
Moderated by National Geographic Magazine Contributing Writer Jamie Shreeve, the afternoon presentations by Half-Earth Project partners highlighted model conservation efforts from the Gorongosa Restoration Project, Tompkins Conservation, African Parks, American Prairie Reserve, and Pristine Seas.

Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa Restoration Project

Years ago, Mozambique’s president decreed, “Gorongosa National Park should be a human development engine that should serve and help the local people even as the park replenishes its wildlife.” Today, the park is an example of how land and people can successfully coexist.

Tom Butler, Tompkins Conservation

Vast landscapes in Chile are being protected in their natural state, areas “where the land is not yoked to human will, human desire to manage, manipulate and exploit, where the land is home to self-willed creatures free to flourish in their own ways.”

Alison Fox, American Prairie Reserve

Fox and her team are creating a uniquely American park for wildlife and people, the largest wildlife complex ever assembled in the continental United States. “We’re pursuing three parallel tracks: acquiring habitat, remodeling that habitat to focus on biodiversity, and ensuring public benefit. Because of this integrated approach, we believe we are well on our way toward success.”

Andrea Heydlauff, African Parks

Managing protected areas on behalf of governments across Africa, Heydlauff notes: “What’s fantastic is that wildlife can rebound. Nature knows what to do. They just need to be given the space and security in order to thrive. And where wildlife thrives, people thrive.”

Enric Sala, Pristine Seas

Protecting the last pristine marine ecosystems worldwide is a huge goal. “I hear ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. You helped to protect all these areas. Then what happens? Climate change is going to destroy everything.’ Well, science shows us that areas that are fully protected are more likely to bounce back after a warming event.”

Panel discussion with Gonçalves, Butler, Fox, Heydlauff and Sala, moderated by Shreeve.

“Let’s jump ahead… Let’s say it’s 2067 and half the Earth is protected…what are the steps that you took, how did we get there?” - Jamie Shreeve

Evening Session - "Celebrating Half-Earth: Steps to a Solution"
Introduced by National Geographic Society President and CEO, Gary E. Knell, and with comments and acknowledgements by E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation President and CEO, Dr. Paula J. Ehrlich, the evening session featured the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation Distinguished Lectureship in Biodiversity with naturalist Edward O. Wilson, biologist and author Sean B. Carroll, and legendary recording artist Paul Simon.

Gary E. Knell (remarks begin at 1:58)

“What we’ve found over the years is that major scientific advances are made not just in the field or the laboratory, but also in rooms like this, when leaders and experts and advocates and people who just care come together like yourselves to brainstorm new approaches.”

Paula Ehrlich (remarks begin at 12:42)

“The Half-Earth Project is informed by years of groundbreaking research, and the unique insight and expertise of many organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives to understanding and caring for our environment.”

E.O. Wilson (talk begins at 25:50)

“When I attended last year the quadrennial meeting of the IUCN, I found that those who had read Half-Earth — and these are the experts, the professionals — they all seemed to like it. I thought I’d just be booed out of the place when I showed up because, you know ‘half the earth, are you kidding?’ But everybody who thought about this said, ‘yeah we can do that.’


Sean B. Carroll (talk begins at 25:50)

“Something wild has happened in the last year and a half. I saw all sorts of scientists today rooting, paddling in the same direction, rooting for Half-Earth as a unifying, galvanizing movement.”

Paul Simon (remarks begin at 1:23:05)

“People ask what they can do and I say begin. We don’t need a ripple effect, we need a tsunami.”

Support the Half-Earth Project

  Photo by Tony Powell/National Geographic    Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson presents at the evening session of the planet’s first-ever Half-Earth Day. The inaugural event was co-convened by National Geographic and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on October 23, 2017.

Photo by Tony Powell/National Geographic

Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson presents at the evening session of the planet’s first-ever Half-Earth Day. The inaugural event was co-convened by National Geographic and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on October 23, 2017.

‘A Second Notice’ for All of Us

E.O. Wilson was one of more than 1,700 original signators to the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” a document from the Union of Concerned Scientists sent to leaders all over the world in 1992.

On this, the 25th Anniversary of that document’s release, more than 15,000 scientists from around the world have now signed on to the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” Dr. Wilson is again a signator.

 Photo copyright: Peter Hershey, 2017

Photo copyright: Peter Hershey, 2017

“Since 1992,” the updated notice states, “with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”

Among the stated threats in the original article was this: “Our massive tampering with the world’s interdependent web of life—coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change—could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.”

Half-Earth is addressing this challenge directly. During the inaugural Half-Earth Day held October 23, 2017, in Washington, D.C., scientists led by Dr. Wilson agreed that saving half the Earth was not only necessary, but well within our powers to achieve. Leading with detailed species richness and rarity mapping, the Half-Earth Project is providing the foundation for reaching this global goal, and the scientific leadership needed to address the threat stated in the “Second Notice.” Progress is being made, but much remains to be done.

“To those who are steering the growth of nature reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request:” Dr. Wilson implores. “Don’t stop. Just aim a lot higher.”

Watch Video and View Photos: Foundation Co-hosts Conversation With Rep. Don Beyer, Sen. Tom Udall, and E.O. Wilson On Protecting Wildlife Corridors

Originally published by on October 24, 2017

Beyer, Udall, Environmental Groups Host Conversation With E.O. Wilson On Protecting Wildlife Corridors


In recognition of the planet’s first Half-Earth Day, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) joined Wildlands Network and partners for “Wildlife Corridors and Saving America’s Biodiversity with E.O. Wilson” on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 24, at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.

World-renowned Harvard biologist Dr. E.O. Wilson was joined by several conservation leaders and members of Congress for a solutions-oriented conversation about wildlife corridors and other policies that can protect America’s wild creatures and places for generations to come.

Known as the “Father of Biodiversity”, Wilson recently authored the book Half-Earth – Our Planet’s Fight for Life in which he laid out a vision to save biodiversity. Today, Dr. Wilson stated, “on this auspicious inaugural Half-Earth Day, a key issue addressed is the role of wildlife corridors, which would enlarge the nations protected areas and help achieve the goal of Half-Earth. Corridors would protect large swaths of America’s wildlife and other fauna and flora, especially in this critical time of climate change and shifting locations of the original environments in which a large part of biodiversity has existed.”

Rep. Don Beyer met with Dr. Wilson in 2016, and shortly afterwards introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, which would establish a National Wildlife Corridors System.

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“I introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act in 2016 to help protect the nearly one in five animal and plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction,” said Rep. Don Beyer. “Much of the danger to our most endangered species comes from habitat loss, and scientists like Dr. E.O. Wilson have told us that connecting habitats to ensure safe travel between them is key to the genetic strength of threatened populations, and to biodiversity as a whole.”

Recent studies show we are losing our native species at an alarming rate: currently one in five U.S. species are threatened with extinction. However, strategies – like protecting wildlife corridors – exist to protect our America’s wildlife.

“Our planet’s ‎wildlife is facing ever-increasing threats – from climate change to habitat destruction‎ — and we must take action at every level, from the U.S. Congress to the grass roots,” said Sen. Udall. “E.O. Wilson has dedicated his life to understanding the importance of species diversity, and eloquently sharing his studies and enthusiasm with a broad audience. His voice is essential, and I’m honored to join him for this Half-Earth Day conversation to raise awareness about the need to protect habitat and rally Americans to action.”‎

From monarchs to mule deer, from Florida panther to pronghorn, wildlife corridors and other policies can safeguard these species from the threats of climate change and habitat loss, increasing wildlife movement between habitat areas by approximately 50 percent compared to areas not connected by corridors.

“To preserve our wild heritage, we need to connect key habitat across the American landscape,” said Greg Costello, Wildlands Network Executive Director. “From the grizzly to the monarch butterfly, wildlife corridors allow us to steward some of our most treasured species. We’re excited to have the opportunity to discuss this critical topic with Dr. E.O. Wilson, Congressman Beyer and Senator Udall who are such great champions of protecting our natural heritage.”

“There is no doubt that protecting wildlife corridors is one of the most important proactive steps that we have to safeguard our country’s wildlife and majestic public lands,” stated Robert Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service and Endangered Species Coalition board member. “We are thrilled to help bring exciting ideas about saving biodiversity to Washington, DC.”

Presentations and discussions will follow Dr. Wilson’s conversation with members of Congress. Presenters included Dr. Bruce Stein of National Wildlife Federation; Dr. Stuart L. Pimm of the Nicholas School at Duke University; Dr. Healy Hamilton of NatureServe; Dr. Jon Beckmann of Wildlife Conservation Society; Dr. Gary Tabor of Center for Large Landscape Conservation; and Dr. Ron Sutherland of Wildlands Network.

See more at A Conversation on Protecting Global Biodiversity with E.O. Wilson.

For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.

Photos copyright: Peter Hershey, 2017