News and Notes

Can we conserve half the planet for the survival of all species?

Scientists and conservationists at the world’s first Half-Earth Day think we can.

This article was originally published on National Geographic’s website on October 30, 2017.

Scientists and conservationists from around the world were joined by special guests, including eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson and legendary recording artist Paul Simon, to celebrate the planet’s first-ever Half-Earth Day on Oct. 23.

The all-day inaugural event, co-convened by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and National Geographic, highlighted efforts to halt rising extinction rates and help conserve half the planet. Half-Earth Day featured two large-scale public events, and a morning scientific session, that brought together scientists to discuss their research regarding how we can achieve the Half-Earthgoal.

Half-Earth Day was inspired by E.​ ​O.​ ​Wilson’s best-selling book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (read more about the book here).​ As Paula Ehrlich, president and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation explained at the evening session, “Half-Earth is E.O. Wilson’s call to conserve half our planet’s lands and seas in order to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity. Half-Earth was conceived as a moonshot; an inspiring goal that would drive conservation efforts to a new level.”

But is it still possible to set aside as much as half of the planet for conservation? Several dozen leading conservationists and scientists who convened in the closed morning session agreed almost unanimously that there is still an opportunity to provide scientific leadership on how to best manage 50 percent of the planet to protect life on Earth.

“The topline, really exciting element, is that the world’s leading experts in this field say that, ‘yes we believe this (Half-Earth) is possible.’ We have to effectively protect our key wilderness areas, and we have to think about restoration, but this is an idea that is very plausible and possible, and we should aim for it.” – Jonathan Baillie

Some of these experts went onto participate in the Half-Earth Day afternoon session titled, “Conservation in Action.” The speakers included: ​Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa Elephant Project scientist at the Gorongosa Restoration Project; Tom Butler, vice president for conservation advocacy for the Tompkins Conservation family of foundations; Andrea Heydlauff, chief marketing and communications officer at African Parks; Alison Fox, president of the American Prairie Reserve; and Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and founder of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.​

The panel, which highlighted model large-landscape and ocean conservation efforts, was moderated by Jamie Shreeve, contributing writer for National Geographic magazine. “Can we alter our behavior? We already are. Is it enough? Not nearly. But things are changing,” said Shreeve.

Half-Earth Day continued with an evening session, which included remarks by National Geographic Society president and CEO, Gary E. Knell, as well as Ehrlich. The event culminated with a discussion between Wilson and scientist, author and educator Sean B. Carroll about practical steps that can be taken to protect species on a massive scale.

“If we set aside half the Earth for nature, we can save most all species.” – Edward O. Wilson

Following Wilson and Carroll’s inspiring conversation, legendary recording artist Paul Simon took the stage to emphasize the importance of supporting biodiversity conservation.

After a special musical performance by Simon, Wilson and Ehrlich returned to the stage to honor Simon for his commitment to supporting conservation efforts with a framed image of a tree cricket named for Wilson from his personal collection.

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

In an op-ed published by National Geographic regarding Half-Earth, Wilson wrote: “The challenge —all-in, full global conservation — is formidable, but worth the effort, given the magnitude of the reward for humanity and for all generations to come. We can do it, and why not? Scientists and the general public already think it appropriate to map and collect some 100 million nerve cells in the human brain. At much less cost, we ought to be able to find and map the 10 million species believed to exist, for no less a goal than to save Earth’s living environment. Half-Earth Day will be the first step in showing the way.”

Read more about Half-Earth Day in this National Geographic story. To view recordings of the sessions, visit

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