Can saving wild species save humankind?

Posted on May, 15 2024

Conservation actions are having results: after decades of decline, the population of the Iberian Lynx increased from less than 100 individuals in 2002 to more than 1600 in 2022.
By Wendy Elliot, Biodiversity Practice Deputy Lead, WWF

What first comes to mind when you think of wild species? An elephant, a fly, an octopus?

The staggering diversity of wild animals and plants never ceases to blow my mind, from the awe inspiring blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on earth (a fully grown human could crawl through a blue whale’s arteries) to a species of water beetle that has evolved to avoid predation by frogs by simply walking out of the frog’s rear end (its sturdy exoskeleton shields the insect from digestive juices). Or the bristlecone pine, which has living trees that are 2,000 years older than the pyramids of Egypt. 

Wild species are intriguing and inspiring in their own right. They are a rich source of cultural, religious and traditional folklore of every culture on Earth.

But what perhaps comes less immediately to mind is the role of wild species in our own survival.


The humble honey bee is probably the best known case. Did you know that bees ‘talk’ to each other through dance?

When a bee returns to the hive after finding a particularly good flower or site for a new hive, they will give other bees precise directions to it with a ‘waggle dance’ (Google it, you won’t be disappointed).

In addition to just being awesome, honey bees pollinate 80 percent of all flowering plants, including more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables, meaning they are essential for our own food security.

And the role of the bee in supporting us is ever increasing, with beehive fences now regularly used to protect farmers' crops from encroaching elephants, whilst providing important livelihood diversification through honey production. 

But the bee is not the only example of species that benefit us.

We recently attended the first ever World Species Congress, run by the Reverse the Red coalition, a virtual 24-hour event, intended to amplify our collective efforts to accelerate impact for species.

Against the backdrop of the somewhat depressing statistics on the species extinction crisis, this Congress celebrated the victories, those times when we have turned things around, preventing extinction and ensuring wild species flourish.

During the Congress WWF celebrated five very different species recovery successes, all of which bring benefits for ourselves.

The smallest of these examples may be the mightiest. The bettong, also known as a kangaroo rat, is one of Australia’s rarest marsupials, threatened by loss of habitat and predation by alien invasive predators like foxes and cats (one conservationist was quoted as saying the poor bettong is essentially a ‘furry Mars bar’ to these alien predators.) 

And yet, dedicated efforts to recover the Bettong have been successful, with new populations now established and doing well.

This is not just good for these tiny jumpers, but for us too.

The bettong’s digging plays an important role in decomposition of leaf litter, which reduces fuel loads and fire risk in dry grassy forests and woodlands – a role of no small importance in a country where wildfires have so recently been catastrophic. 

WWF-Pakistan and Sindh Wildlife Department jointly rescue a female Indus River dolphin

The other species successes WWF and our partners celebrated at the World Species Congress are probably better known, although the benefits of their recovery to humans may be less so.

The Indus dolphin has experienced a 1.5-fold population increase since 2001, allowing it to act as a crucial indicator of the health of its river home, upon which tens of millions of people depend.

The Iberian Lynx, once the most endangered cat species in the world, has experienced a 10-fold population increase since 2002 thanks to decades of dedicated efforts to conserve habitats, restore native prey populations, ex-situ breeding and reintroduction into the wild.

The restored lynx is now able to fulfill its crucial role as a top predator, which can have a range of benefits, from controlling smaller predators to protecting river banks from erosion and providing nutrient hotspots.

The snow leopard is also increasing in countries like Bhutan, including through conservation of its high mountain habitat, the source of rivers on which over 330 million people directly depend. 

And last but not least, the mighty mountain gorilla, which has remarkably increased 1.7-fold since 1989, and which supports a flourishing gorilla viewing tourism industry, directly supporting hundreds of thousands of local community members. 

These are just a few snapshots of the important role wild species play in our lives.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently concluded that one in every five people on the planet rely on wild species for income and food, with 50,000 wild species meeting the needs of billions of people worldwide.

And it’s not just mammals either – a teaspoon of topsoil can contain around 10,000 different microbe species, which are central to crop fertility, purifying the environment from pollutants, and regulating carbon storage.

Birds disperse seeds, pollinate plants, and act as scavengers, speeding decomposition rates of carrion and thus reducing disease risks.

Insects decompose waste, control pests, pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and act as soil engineers.

Fungi have a crucial role in transforming nutrients in a way that makes them available for plants (the basis of all life including our own), and as contributing to the soil carbon stock.

All wild species have their role in complex ecological systems, and removing any one of these species can have cascading effects we may not even be aware of yet.

So if we understand that saving wild species is saving ourselves, shouldn’t this be the wake up call we need to prevent catastrophic wild species loss?

This wake up call is long overdue. We know that the world’s wild vertebrate species have declined by more than two-thirds since 1970, just around the time I’ve been alive – a blink of the eye in the timeframe of our planet.

We know that over a million species may now face extinction. 

But, we also know that conservation works.

The species recovery successes outlined above and many more like them make it clear what is possible. Just last month Science published a major meta-analysis that concluded in over two-thirds of cases of conservation action, biodiversity status was improved, or at least declines were slowed. 

We also now have two global frameworks that commit the world’s governments to unprecedented action to conserve and restore nature and our climate (limiting global warming to 1.5°C) – the CBD’s Global Biodiversity Framework and the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement.

What we need now is action, at scale.

We need to shift these examples of wild species recovery successes from being the exception to the rule. This is exactly what the World Species Congress aims to advance.

But we won’t get there without a massive scale up in the finance needed to bridge the biodiversity funding gap. We won’t get there without innovation, to ensure we can achieve impact faster, more efficiently, and with longer lasting impact. And we won’t get there without all of us, working together, recognizing we all have a role in saving wild species to save ourselves.