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Treaty talks to save more migratory species

Delegates from 111 nations at a U.N. conference in India met to protect migratory species and their habitats at a time when nature is nearing a breaking point.

Delegates from 111 nations gathered in western India on Monday for a U.N. conference to protect migratory species and their habitats at a time when human actions are forcing Earth’s natural life support systems to a breaking point.

How best to protect and conserve animals that migrate along set routes in search of food or breeding grounds is the focus of a week-long Conference of Parties, or COP, to the United Nations-brokered Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, also known as the Convention on Migratory Species, or CMS, and the Bonn Convention.

Treaty proponents expect to add 10 new species to the list of those that require the strictest protections. These include the Asian elephant and jaguar, the great Indian bustard — an ostrich-like bird that is the mascot for the week-long conference — and the oceanic whitetip shark, once considered the most numerous pelagic sharks on Earth but whose ranks have been decimated by commercial fishing and the shark fin trade.

Another 14 species, including the urial, a medium-sized wild sheep, and the smooth hammerhead and tope sharks, have been proposed for less strict protections and targeted conservation plans. Delegates also will consider new tools to lessen impacts of roads and railways on migratory species, and how to integrate species considerations into national energy and climate policies to promote "wildlife-friendly renewable energy."

Other areas for discussion range from stronger initiatives to combat the illegal killing, taking and trade of migratory birds and targeted action on aquatic wild meat — including shark and ray species — which has been a fast-emerging threat on a scale similar to that facing terrestrial animals, according to the treaty secretariat.

The treaty was negotiated under the auspices of U.N. Environment, or UNEP, and was signed in 1979 in Bonn, Germany. It entered into force in 1983, and now includes 130 nations.

More than 1,200 delegates were gathering at the treaty's 13th COP in Gandhinagar, India for talks on how best to protect and restore geographical areas with "ecological connectivity." Such areas collectively support migratory species during the different phases of their natural lifecycles, such as breeding and feeding.

Migratory species also bring multiple benefits to people, such as seed dispersal, pollination, pest control and other ecosystem services and functions, said the treaty's secretariat, which emphasized that there also are major economic advantages, such as the creation of jobs through tourism.

“As we face the unprecedented crisis of species loss, 2020 is an important year to step up action to conserve species, protect ecosystems and make meaningful progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals," Joyce Msuya, UNEP's deputy executive director, said in a statement from the treaty secretariat.

"We must seize every opportunity we have," she said, "and the CMS COP is a critical milestone in enabling biodiversity to flourish on this planet."

Multilateralism for biodiversity

The conference in India comes at a critical time for wildlife conservation. India's environment minister, Prakash Keshav Javadekar, said migratory birds, mammals and aquatic species are "increasingly in danger on their migration routes and countries need to work together to protect them."

Amy Fraenkel, executive secretary of the treaty, said there have been "continued downward trends of habitat loss and species decline." She said the treaty, which is uniquely dedicated to addressing the needs of migratory species and their habitats on a global scale, would be used by conference delegates to "set in motion actions needed to better protect migratory species that rely on multilateral cooperation for their survival.”

The challenges of saving the planet's biodiversity were made clear last May when scientists reported that human actions are causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a breaking point, threatening 1 million plant and animal species with extinction in a challenge as colossal as the climate crisis.

The 123-nation Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, reported that devastating human negligence has caused a dire nature emergency for plants and animals large and small. Its report was based on the work of 145 wildlife experts from 50 countries over three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors.

It is the worst time for nature in human history, the report said, with more than a half million species on land threatened by extinction due to “insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and marine life in similar shape. The new IPBES global synthesis was the first such report since 2005.

IPBES, based in Bonn, Germany, is an independent, inter-governmental body set up in 2012 by 94 governments, hoped to galvanize global agreement for emergency action, similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on the climate crisis. It works in parallel to four United Nations agencies: U.N. Environment, UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. Development Program.