"a stunning short presenting the previously little-known story of a unique and endangered ecosystem, and the incredible dedication of a man who has devoted his life to protect it.”
global science mag.
One of climate change’s most deadly properties is that it occurs at a speed and rate that is basically invisible to the majority of those living fast-paced, urban lifestyles - a geological time that is as imperceptible as the revolutions of the earth. The same is true of biodiversity loss, which often begins on a microscopic level, making it a difficult process to notice simply by glancing out of your window.
From Kurils With Love takes us on a journey to discover the delicate ecology of the Kurils islands and celebrates the incredible work of Vladimir Burkanov — who has dedicated his life to studying and protecting the islands' utterly unique biodiversity. So-called 'extreme scientists' like Vladimir are the unsung heroes of conservation — and this story will take you closer to their crucial work on the ground.
In some places, biodiversity loss has become not just a threat, but a dominant force structurally and ecologically, transforming previously vibrant hubs of plants and animals into barren lands — grave monuments to the era of accelerated biodiversity loss we’re living through. Luckily ecologists are working day in day out all over the world to preserve ecosystems and help biodiversity thrive. And it turns out that their work as communicators is becoming as crucial and inspiring as their conservation work.
The Kuril Islands are one of the most remote volcanic island chains in the world. With over 56 islands of various ages and degrees of isolation, the Kurils are home to unique flora and fauna. Detached as they are from the Russian and Chinese mainland, they have often been overlooked in dialogues about biodiversity loss.
With the Kurils being nearly 10,000 kilometres away from the mainland, how could the islands' biodiversity loss affect any other area? Well, the intricately woven ecosystems that allow for our planet to thrive also put huge swaths of the globe at risk when one element, no matter how geographically far, is out of balance. If one piece of the ecosystem, however small and distant, is taken away, the possibility of ecosystem breakdown becomes a real threat. If bird or fish migration patterns are significantly altered, it can cause damage to animal and plant species hundreds of thousands of miles away.
Losses on the islands are stark. Vladimir has documented an 80% decline in the seals and sea lions of this region over the last 30 years. While there are multiple factors attributable to this decline, such as climate change, overfishing and pollution, one thing is clear: the catastrophic ripple effects of an ecological collapse on this scale are already being felt all over the world.
But, even from the most remote island chain in the world, Vladimir's work is resonating far across the globe. Taylor Rees, the American director of From Kurils with Love, was amazed by the scale of his work. “Vladimir has seen the decades-long changes in the region firsthand and also the sad decline of some important top predators in the area, like Steller sea lions and sea otters. His (Vladimir’s) vision is to turn large parts of the region into marine protected areas and national parks to safeguard their beauty for future generations, protect biodiversity and improve overexploited coastal and oceanic ecosystems in the Kurils Islands.”
Places like the Kuril Islands are pillars of global biodiversity, singular foundational ecosystems that facilitate global migration patterns, sustain wildlife and provide valuable carbon sinks. Civil society, artists, creators, and campaigners around the world are called upon to engage in amplifying the research findings and activism of these scientists on the ground.
There are scientists like Vladimir all over the globe studying the specific nature and systems of biodiversity in a range of regions. Since 1979, Thomas E. Lovejoy has been conducting one of the largest ecological experiments in the world. His study, The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, explores how large a forest refuge has to be for its biodiversity to be preserved. Through living in the Amazon jungle, he is able to observe how flora and fauna develop over decades.
For his observation, he divided sections of the forests into squares: the smallest being one hectare and the largest being one thousand hectares. His project now covers over one thousand square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest. Lovejoy began to see a pattern; the biodiversity would decline in the smaller patches of forest and a domino effect was taking place. Large animals would die out in the small patches and entire food chains would go extinct. The amazon rainforest is home to 25% of all flora and fauna on earth, yet the biodiversity has declined by fifty percent in some areas as human developments fragment the forest.
Many ecologists suggest that the tipping point is around 20 to 25 percent. According to Lovejoy, the deforestation rate today is an alarming 18 percent.
To some, this may seem like an issue that only affects remote areas but a decline in biodiversity is global issue. One-fifth of the world’s countries are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to the destruction of wildlife and their habitats. Those who live in urban areas are not immune either - the decline in the bee population due to the use of harmful pesticides has already caused terrible damage to floral pollination cycles and taken away a food source for birds. The Swiss Re BES Index provides insight into where the risk of ecosystem collapse is most pressing.
Countries across the world are reliant on a range of services that are based around their natural ecosystems. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) include such necessities as food provision, water security and regulation of air quality that are vital to maintaining the health and stability of communities and economies
Dr. Lovejoy presented his shocking research findings only to realise that people were blissfully unaware of their importance. They couldn’t see evidence of it outside their windows and were unable to visualise a process like biodiversity loss which was happening on a vast scale at such a slow pace, miles and miles away from where they lived. He decided he needed to change tactics, give up pure biology and become a networker.
Dr. Lovejoy now spends his time bringing students, celebrities, world leaders, and others to the forest so they can experience his work first-hand. His hope is that allowing people the chance to live and breath in the diverse, verdant beauty of the Amazon, whilst watching these invaluable ecosystems being slowly untangled and destroyed by biodiversity loss, will help them recognise the urgency of this struggle and arouse a desire to protect the Amazon’s unique diversity.
Dr. Lovejoy is not alone in adapting the presentation of scientific studies to be more communication orientated. Ecologist Dr. Sandra Diaz is a co-chair on the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). She has moved away from conservation sciences and now influences governmental policy through her work with IPBES. Dr. Diaz and researchers from 50 countries prepared the first large-scale intergovernmental global biodiversity assessment report in 2019. Her work on this panel is being adopted by many social and environmental movements pushing for stronger and more urgent action on the environment.
In an interview with the WWF she gave her message to global citizens “The way we are doing business today is literally costing us the earth. We just cannot keep going like this.” She continues “You have the right to a fabric of life which is healthy and in working order. You have to fight for it”
Whether it is influencing policy, informing others first-hand, or dedicating their entire career to studying these diverse ecosystems, these scientists are playing a role in informing a global population on the importance of preserving the richness of biodiversity. Through the film, Vladimir has shown us the wonders of Kurils. Now it is our job to find ways to help save the islands and other unique ecosystems around the world.
As we have seen in the course of the course of communicating climate change to the masses, knowledge sharing without clear action points only leads to general anxiety amidst abstract ideas of what solutions might be. We know that the conservation of global biodiversity is dependent upon the adoption of a number of transformative, systemic measures. From restoring damaged ecosystems and replacing unsustainable farming and fishing practices with regenerative ones, to the adoption of circular economies and eco-design principles that eliminate plastic overproduction, there are a lot of things that need to be done to address the issue on a global scale.
Due to the fact that habitat loss, the single greatest cause of biodiversity decline, is largely fuelled by deforestation, the fight must start with an attack on the global structures that allow for this ongoing destruction.
In 2020, after a WWF survey found that 67% of British consumers want more to be done to stop the destruction of forests, the UK government put forward plans to curb deforestation in supply chains. However, their measures, “Companies would have to ensure that commodities such as palm and soy were produced in line with local laws protecting forests and other natural ecosystems”, failed to make full supply chain transparency mandatory and didn’t account for the corruption of environmental certification bodies and illegal logging that circumvents local laws.
Some bodies, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, give high level certifications of forest management with rigorous, multiple staged assessments of supply chains which are then checked by an independent adjudicator. But very few companies have this accreditation and many don’t disclose their environmental impact at all. Until we reach a point where transparency is the norm, companies must be publicly pressured to disclose their impact on the environment through organisations like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).
Grassroots organisations can have a huge impact on the legislative process in this area. After pressure from The Alliance for Corporate Transparency, the EU has 2021 announced proposals for a Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), a more detailed set or disclosure criteria for whole supply chains. Their previous Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) already required large companies with over 500 employees to disclose diversity and sustainability information. The new directive aims to bring sustainability reporting on a par with financial reporting. The Commission estimates that this would increase the number of entities required to make sustainability disclosures from around 11,600 to approximately 49,000.
Another key aspect of improving biodiversity is the recent rewilding movement. Rewilding Britain is a UK based charity whose campaigns work by restoring ecosystems and the species in them to help facilitate naturally led woodland expansion, adaptations to climate heating and flood risk management. They have helped support and inspire hundreds of landowners — whether big or small, private or state owned, NGO or community group — to start to put rewilding into practice over a range of scales. Through The Rewilding Network, they now link these people together, forming a community that share knowledge and seek out opportunities to expand rewilding across the country.
As we face the varied threats to biodiversity loss, we can feel safe in the knowledge that Vladimir and other scientists are out there - guardians of the natural world, inspiring movements to save our planet.
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