Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (3 of 36): Cape Floristic Region of South Africa

South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth. Admittedly, I am biased but when you combine the natural beauty … and the fact the region is a haven for Africa’s most splendid wildlife … then I think that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land.

— Nelson Mandela

After exploring South Africa’s Cape Province for two weeks in 1996, I have to agree with Nelson Mandela’s quote. South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries that I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It’s also home to a biodiversity hotspot known as the Cape Floristic Region. While the region represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa, the Cape Floristic Region is home to about 20% of the continent’s plant species. It has the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world.

Map of the Cape Floristic Region Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The Cape Floristic Region covers 12,600 square miles entirely within the country of South Africa. It includes a variety of ecosystems but is famous for its fynbos shrubland. Fynbos are “fine-leaved plants” that may not look like much from a distance, but these plants of the Cape region are celebrated among botanists as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms (Holarctic, Paleotropical, Neotropical, South African, Australian, and Antarctic).

Fynbos vegetation at Hermanus, South Africa

Of the estimated 9,000 plant species in the Cape Floristic region, 6,200 (69%) are found nowhere else on earth. Some of the better-known plant species include the king protea (Protea cynaroides), red disa (Disa uniflora), and Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis). The king protea also happens to be South Africa’s national flower.

King Protea (Protea cynaroides), the national flower of South Africa

While it’s often the plants that steal the show in this biodiversity hotspot, the area does support many endemic animal species, although the diversity is relatively low compared with other hotspots. The Cape Floristic Region supports 320 species of birds (6 endemic), 90 species of mammals (4 endemic), 100 species of reptiles (25 endemic), 40 species of amphibians (16 endemic), 35 species of freshwater fish (12 endemic), and 230 species of butterflies (30% endemic). Other than butterflies, there is much work to do to document the diversity of invertebrate species. Initial studies suggest there are large number of endemic invertebrate species in the region.

Some well-known animal species include the Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer), Cape Siskin (Serinus totta), orange-breasted sunbird (Nectarinia violacea), the bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas), Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis), and five species of tortoises, including the Critically Endangered geometric tortoise (Psammaboates geometricus). The region is also home to the Critically Endangered Table Mountain ghost frog (Heleophryne rosei), found only on the slopes of Table Mountain – the famous mountain you see in photos of Cape Town.

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer) in a field of bright yellow pincushion proteas.

Critically Endangered geometric tortoise (Psammaboates geometricus)

Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas)

Conservation Status

The Cape Floristic Region is under intense pressure from agricultural and urban expansion. An estimated 26% of the hotspot has been converted for agricultural land use. This includes 49% of the fynbos habitats of the Cape Floristic Region. The land is often converted to support the cultivation and harvesting of grapes for wine (viticulture), olives, rooibos tea, honeybush tea, and ornamental flowers such as proteas. To add to the pressure, there are 5 million people in the region, including 3 million in Cape Town, and uncontrolled development is expected to continue to degrade the Cape Floristic Region.

Another major threat to the region is the presence of many invasive species. Dense stands of alien plant species cover 2% of the Cape Floristic Region, medium density stands cover 1% of the region, and low density or scattered patches of alien plants cover another 70% of the region.

One of the challenges with protecting the Cape Floristic region is that 80% of the land is privately owned. Thus, it is critical to encourage private landowners to protect the rich biodiversity of the area. Unfortunately, the financial incentives are often stacked in favor of development, rather than conservation.

Travel and Tourism

The easiest way for international travelers to access the Cape Floristic Region is to fly into the international airport of Cape Town. When I visited Cape Town in 1996, it felt more like Europe than Africa. But the fact that I had been living in a tent in rural Kenya for several months before my arrival may have had something to do with that! Cape Town is a modern, cosmopolitan city that stands out as one of my favorite cities in the world.

Once arriving in Cape Town, a good place to start is the city’s spectacular backdrop, Table Mountain (3,558 ft. elevation). Depending on your fitness, you can hike to the top, take an Aerial Cableway to the top of the mountain, or explore some of the trails on the lower slopes. I also highly recommend a visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden for a nice introduction to the local flora.

Table Mountain Aerial Cableway in Cape Town

There is so much to explore in the Cape Floristic Region. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes areas such as Table MountainDe Hoop Nature Reservethe Boland (aka Cape Winelands)Kogelberg Nature ReserveThe Groot Winterhoek wilderness area, the Swartberg Mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness areaCederberg, and Baviaanskloof.

If you want to time your visit to experience the spectacular flower blooming season, then it’s best to visit in August or September (spring in South Africa).

Aerial view of the Franschhoek valley in the Western Cape of South Africa

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot. For our next post (in two weeks), we’re off to the Caribbean Islands.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (2 of 36): California Floristic Province

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks

— John Muir

The Scottish-American naturalist and author John Muir was so inspired by the beauty of the forests of the western United States that he became a passionate advocate for the protection of these iconic landscapes. His advocacy work led to the formal protection of areas that we now know as the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Today, over a hundred years after Muir’s death in 1914, this land is part of a biodiversity hotspot known as the California Floristic Province.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and have visited California on a regular basis even after moving to New Mexico in 2000. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit many of the state parks and National Wildlife Refuges of California. I’ve long known that this landscape was special. Yet, I had never heard of the term “California Floristic Province” until a few years ago.

Map of the California Floristic Province Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot runs along the California coast, extending into Oregon and Mexico. It also extends inland to Carson City, Nevada, encompassing the Sierra Nevada mountains, Transverse Ranges of southern California, the Coast Ranges, and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon.

This biodiversity hotspot boasts a wide range of habitat types. These include sagebrush steppe, prickly pear shrubland, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, juniper-pine woodland, upper montane-subalpine forest, alpine forest, riparian forest, cypress forests, mixed evergreen forests, Douglas fir forests, sequoia forests, redwood forests, coastal dunes, and salt marshes. The region has a Mediterranean climate with summers that are hot and dry, and winters that are cool and wet.

What makes this area a biodiversity hotspot are its plants. The California Floristic Province features over 8,000 species of plants. Over 3,400 of these plant species are found nowhere else on Earth. This includes two famous, endangered tree species: the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Giant sequoias are the most massive tree species ever to live on Earth. In Sequoia National Park, you can find the world’s largest tree measured by volume. Known as the General Sherman tree, it is roughly 2,200 years old, stands 275 feet tall, has a circumference of 102 feet, and weighs 2.7 million lbs. Not to be outdone, the coast redwoods are slimmer but reach greater heights of up to 350 feet. These are awe-inspiring trees.

Giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in California can reach up to 275 feet in height.

With such a large variety of habitat types, it’s no surprise to learn that many species of animals call the California Floristic Province home. But, compared to the plants, the animals have much lower rates of endemism, with the notable exception of amphibians. Scientists have recorded 340 bird species (10 endemic), 150 mammal species (20 endemic), 70 reptile species (4 endemic), 50 amphibian species (25 endemic) in the hotspot. Insects are also prolific in the California Floristic Province. There are an estimated 28,000 species of insects and 32% of these are endemic. This represents roughly one-third of all known insects in the United States and Canada.

Some of more well-known animal residents in the region include the Critically Endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Endangered giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens), desert slender salamander (Batrachoseps major aridus), kit fox (Vulpes macrotis), island fox (Urocyon littoralis), Roosevelt’s elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), and tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes).

In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors. Today there are around 230 free-flying California condors in California, Arizona, and Baja California, with another 160 in captivity.

Conservation Status

If California was a country, it would rank as the 5th largest economy in the world. Despite it wealth, the State of California is one of the four most ecologically degraded states in the United States. This is due to habitat loss, expansion of large-scale agriculture, strip mining, oil extraction, invasive species, road construction, livestock grazing, logging, suppression of natural fires, urbanization, and other human population pressures in the nation’s most populous state.

Today, only about 25% of the original vegetation remains in pristine condition. Two of the hardest hit ecosystems include native grasslands and vernal pools, which have been reduced to 1% of their original area. Logging operations have reduced the distribution of redwood forests by 85%. Only 10% of the original wetlands, riparian woodlands, and southern maritime sage scrub remain. And while the grizzly bear is the state symbol featured on the California state flag, the last grizzly bear in California was shot in 1920. Similarly, the grey wolf, jaguar, and bison are no longer found in California. These massive declines, combined with the high levels of endemic species, are the reasons why the California Floristic Province is one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world.

California state flag featuring the California grizzly bear. The last grizzly bear in California was shot by a hunter in 1920.

Unfortunately, these declines aren’t limited to the state of California. Guadalupe Island, a volcanic island in the Mexico portion of the California Floristic Province, has also experienced significant conservation challenges. Nearly 16% of the plant species on the island are endemic. Unfortunately, the release of feral goats in the early 19th century decimated many plant species. At least 26 native plant species have eradicated from the island. To make matters worse, over 60 exotic plant species, such as aggressive weeds, are now on the island.

Travel and Tourism

With nine national parks (Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, and Yosemite), 280 state parks39 National Wildlife Refuges, four National Marine Sanctuaries, and the Point Reyes National Seashore, it will take you awhile to run out of places to view wildlife in California. You can also explore the Lake Tahoe area and cross into the Nevada portion of the California Floristic Province around Reno and Carson City.

In southwestern Oregon a northwestern California, a great place to visit is the Klamath-Siskiyou region, the wildest place left on the west coast of the United States. It has a larger concentration of roadless wildlands and intact watersheds than anywhere else on the west coast. The Klamath-Siskiyou region has been proposed as both a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The Baja California, Mexico portion of the California Floristic Province extends south from the California border to an area north of El Rosario. This includes the pine-oak forests of Sierra Juarez and the Sierra San Pedro Martir. Much of this habitat is intact as the mountains are difficult to access. These conifer forests are the only multi-species Mediterranean-climate forests in Mexico.

Guadalupe Island, Mexico is one of the best places in the world to view a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).

Guadalupe Island, Mexico is home to about 150 permanent residents. They are mostly lobster and abalone fisherman, goat farmers, and military personnel. The island is one of the best places in the world to view the great white shark. But it’s not the easiest place to get to. Guadalupe island is considered a biosphere reserve so you’ll need to get a permit from the Mexican government if you would like to visit. But, if you’re not concerned with staying on the island and only want to experience a cage dive in one of the world’s top shark diving destinations, then you have some options. Catch a boat from San Diego, CA or Ensenada, Mexico as your launching point for an adrenaline-filled experience. The boat journey takes about 18 – 22 hours and you’ll be living on the boat for a total of 3-5 days. The boats only run from August to October, when the water temperatures hit the sweet spot to attract great white sharks. About 170-180 individual great White sharks visit the water around Guadalupe Island each year.

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot! Next stop, the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Biodiversity Hotspots of the World (1 of 36): The Atlantic Forest of South America

Home to 35% of the South American population, the Atlantic Forest is one of the most fragmented tropical/subtropical forests in the world, which may well represent the present or future of other tropical forests worldwide.”

— Renato A. F. de LimaDepartamento de Ecologia, Universidade de São Paulo

When we hear the word “forest” in South America, the first place that usually comes to mind is the Amazon. Many people have never heard of the biodiversity hotspot that is the topic of today’s post: the Atlantic Forest. This is surprising, given that the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest is on par with the Amazon.

Map of the Atlantic Forest Biodiversity Hotspot, from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The Atlantic Forest extends 656,374 square miles along the eastern coast of Brazil and inland through parts of Argentina and Paraguay. With elevations that range from sea level to over 5,900 feet, the Atlantic Forest boasts a wide variety of habitat types, including mangrove forests, restinga (a type of moist broadleaf forest found in sandy soils), deciduous and semi-deciduous forests, Araucaria forest (a type of evergreen subtropical moist forest), and high-altitude grasslands.

With such a diverse landscape, it’s not surprising to learn that the Atlantic Forest supports a wide variety of wildlife and plants. An estimated 7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of the world’s vertebrate species are found in the Atlantic Forest, which includes many species that are not found anywhere else. It is home to over 250 mammal species (55 endemic), 340 amphibian species (90 endemic), over 1000 species of birds (188 endemic), and approximately 20,000 species of plants (half are endemic). In the past 30 years, scientists have discovered 9 new species of birds, 30 new species of mammals, and ~100 new species of frogs.

The Atlantic Forest is home to a famous tree called the pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata) or Brazilwood. Portuguese traders valued the pau brasil as a source of reddish colored dye. These traders called the area the “Land of Brasil”, which was the origin of the country name of Brazil. The forest is also home to many charismatic animals such as jaguars, sloths, toucans, and tamarins.

Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)

Conservation Status

The Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened forests in the world. The region is home to over 148 million people, including the cities of Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio de Janeiro. The region generates an estimated 70% of Brazil’s gross domestic product. Infrastructure development, agriculture, and tree plantations have taken a major toll on the area. Less than 12% of the original forest remains, much of it in small and unconnected fragments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Given the amazing diversity of wildlife and plants, the Atlantic Forest receives a lot of attention from non-government organizations, governments, and the private sector. Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay have increased the total protected forest area by more than 20%, thanks to efforts to protect the existing forest and recover lost areas of the forest.

With elevations ranging from sea level to over 5,900 feet, the Atlantic Forest supports a spectacular variety of plant and animal species.

Travel and Tourism

Given its proximity to large cities, ecotourism opportunities abound in the Atlantic Forest.

In Brazil, the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves located in the Brazilian states of Paraná and São Paulo offer some of the best examples of Atlantic Forest habitat. The Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes over 1.1 million acres spread across 25 protected areas.

In Paraguay, two of the most important areas of remaining Atlantic Forest can be found in Mbaracayú Forest Nature Reserve and San Rafael Lagoon (a proposed National Park).

In Argentina, the northern province of Misiones has the has the world’s largest continuous area of Atlantic Forest, and most of it is formally protected as national and provincial parks such as Iguazu National Park, Urugua-í Provincial Park, and Cruce Caballero Provincial Park.

The amazing Iguazu falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil

Coming Attractions

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the Atlantic Forest biodiversity hotspot! For our next post, we’ll be heading to the western United States for an overview of the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

What is a “biodiversity hotspot” and how is it different from other conservation and protected areas?

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

— Aldo Leopold

In earlier posts, we defined the term “biodiversity”, reviewed the major threats to biodiversity, and identified a variety of protection strategies. Today, we’ll continue our definitions discussion by reviewing terms that are frequently used to classify species and the land they depend upon. While this topic may sound as exciting as a colonoscopy, it will help us speak the same language as we explore the world’s most amazing places for biodiversity and wildlife. These biodiversity hotspots are our top priority for conservation.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Let’s start with the term “biodiversity hotspot.” A biodiversity hotspot has a very specific meaning. British ecologist Norman Myers first used the term “hotspot” in a paper that he wrote in 1988. In his paper, Myers identified ten tropical forest “hotspots” that contained large numbers of endemic plants and high levels of habitat loss. By “endemic”, we mean a species that is native to a single defined geographic region. The non-governmental organization Conservation International then took this hotspot idea and ran with it. Today, the “biodiversity hotspot” is the key concept underlying the organization’s conservation priorities. As Conservation International points out on its website, to qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria:

  1. The region must have at least 1,500 endemic vascular plant species. These places contain a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on earth and are irreplaceable.
  2. The region must have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation. In other words, these are highly threatened areas.

Today, Conservation International has identified 36 biodiversity hotspots on the planet. These biodiversity hotspots represent only 2.4% of the Earth’s land surface but support more than half of the world’s endemic plant species and ~43% of endemic bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species.

Biodiversity hotspots also account for 35% of the “ecosystem services” that human populations depend upon. Ecosystem services are the processes through which natural ecosystems and their constituent species sustain and fulfill human life. We all enjoy ecosystem services that are often taken for granted, such as the pollination of crops and natural vegetation, the purification of water and air, climate regulation, flood and pest control, soil retention, and detoxification and decomposition of waste. Studies calculate that the Earth’s biosphere provides anywhere from US$ 16 to US$ 125 trillion worth of services per year, free of charge, for the good of people, businesses, and the planet.

Where are these “biodiversity hotspots?” Glad you asked! Here is a Conservation International map that gives you a rough idea of their locations.

Don’t worry about the lack of detail provided in the map. We’ll be exploring each of these biodiversity hotspots in future posts. After all, today we’re focused only on definitions!

IUCN Protected Areas

Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you’ve heard of terms like “National Park” or “Wilderness Area”. These terms are part of a classification system created by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN defines a “protected area” as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” If an area meets the criteria of this wordy definition of a protected area, then it is placed into one of six management categories:

  • Ia Strict nature reserve: Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values.
  • Ib Wilderness area: Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.
  • II National park: Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.
  • III Natural monument or feature: Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove.
  • IV Habitat/species management area: Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.
  • V Protected landscape or seascape: Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources: Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims.

Not exactly an easy read, I know. In practice, the lines between these six categories can get blurry. To address this, the IUCN adds a caveat that “the category should be based around the primary management objective(s), which should apply to at least three-quarters of the protected area – the 75 per cent rule.”

On a side note, you may have noticed that the definition of a national park doesn’t say anything about biodiversity. In fact, many U.S. national parks are facetiously referred to as “rock and ice” by some conservationists because of their location in deserts and high mountains and their emphasis on conserving landscape views and unique geological features.

IUCN Red List Categories

The IUCN also creates the “Red List” which places species of animals, plants, and fungi into specific categories that serve as a health indicator of the world’s biodiversity. You’ve heard terms such as “endangered species” and “extinct species”? Well, those are two categories of the IUCN Red List. Below is a graphic from Bird Life International that shows the different IUCN categories. Of course, each category has specific criteria that I won’t go into in this blog post.

Today, more than 128,500 species have been assessed to determine which Red List category they fall in. While that might sound like a lot, it’s not. When you consider that there are millions of species on Earth, you can see that we have a long way to go. Of the 128,500 species that have been assessed so far, more than 35,500 species are threatened with extinction. The graphic below shows the breakdown. To learn more about the IUCN Red List, I encourage you to visit their website at https://www.iucnredlist.org/.

The Red List category for an assessed species can have major downstream ramifications. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations, environmental planners, and businesses use these categories to guide important conservation decisions. From a business perspective, a lot of money can be at stake. The presence of an endangered species can be a showstopper for a proposed development project. That’s why you’ll see some “lively debate” around species classifications.

National, State, and NGO Designations

To add to the list of acronyms for areas that have special significance for biodiversity and wildlife, there are also a wide variety of National, State and non-governmental organization (NGO) designations that you may come across, depending on the country you are in.

A well-known national example in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Refuge designation that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuges are protected areas that are managed with the goal to conserve native species of fish, wildlife, and plants. Today, there are 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the U.S.

For a state-level example in the U.S., California has identified 34 Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS), which are ocean areas that support an unusual variety of aquatic life and often host unique species.

Finally, non-governmental organizations are also in on the act. For example, BirdLife International (a global partnership of NGOs) created the “Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA)” designation to identify sites that are important for the conservation of bird populations. BirdLife International has identified over 13,000 IBAs worldwide. In case you aren’t feeling overwhelmed yet, I will add that IBAs are actually a type of KBA, or Key Biodiversity Area. KBAs are the most important places in the world for species and their habitats. Over 15,000 Key Biodiversity Areas are acknowledged worldwide.

Coming Attractions

Whew! You made it through the alphabet soup of biodiversity-related acronyms. If your eyes glazed over with all the terminology, no worries. Just know that there is a lot of effort being put into identifying, categorizing, and mapping the most important areas in the world from a biodiversity perspective.

In my next series of posts, I’ll be highlighting the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world that have been identified by Conservation International. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Disney and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 2 of 2): Nature-Based Climate Solutions

May 11, 2020 by MARK ASPELIN

“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?”

—Walt Disney (1901-1966)

To continue our look at Disney’s wildlife and biodiversity conservation efforts, today we’ll focus on the company’s “Natural Climate Solutions” strategy. Natural climate solutions refers to the protection of natural areas, such as forests, that provide food, shelter, and income for local communities, provide habitat for wildlife, and reduce the impact of climate change.

These natural climate solutions are part of a three-pronged strategy that the company is using to achieve its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. This year (2020), Disney’s emission reduction goal is to reduce its net emissions by 50% compared to a 2012 baseline. The first two strategies that Disney pursues include efforts to reduce the use of fuels and to look for lower carbon alternatives. Disney then uses carbon offsets to go the rest of the way to accomplish its goals. These carbon offsets come in the form of forest offsets, with the reasoning that if we can slow the rate of deforestation then we reduce the amount of carbon emissions into the air.

To execute this strategy, Disney invests in scalable, science-based projects that use peer-reviewed protocols and result in verified reductions of emissions. Over the past decade, Disney has invested in 25 projects around the world that meet these criteria. Let’s take a look a one of these projects to better illustrate Disney’s natural climate solutions approach.

Alto Mayo Protected Forest

Disney has provided funding to Conservation International to implement a REDD+ project in nothern Peru. REDD+ is an acronym that stands for a mouthful of words that I can never seem to remember: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation ‘plus’ conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. The project in the San Martin region of northern Peru is called the Alto Mayo Protected Forest (AMPF) project, which has been up and running for nearly a decade.

Alto Mayo Protected Forest is located in the San Martin region of northern Peru

The Alto Mayo Protected Forest project includes 450,000 acres of the Peruvian Amazon, and was designed up front with the goal of supporting both wildlife conservation and the local community.

There are significant deforestation pressures in the AMPF from illegal logging and unsustainable agricultural practices. As a result, the funds from Disney are used to support conservation agreements where the local residents agree not to destroy the forest in exchange for benefits such as technical assistance to improve crop yields, access to medicine, and support to improve school attendance. This approach reduces the community’s reliance on the forest as an economic resource while building local capacity for improved management of the AMPF.

Deforestation in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest

Since 2008, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest project has resulted in conservation agreements and benefits for 235 families, while reducing carbon emissions by over 6.2 million tons, which is equivalent to taking more than 150,000 cars off the road each year. Other benefits from the project include habitat conservation for wildlife as well as improved management of freshwater resources. The forest regulates freshwater sources in the region by acting as a natural filter for more than 240,000 people and the runoff from the forest replenishes local streams and provides irrigation to crops and water to the community.

Farmers have received training on sustainable farming methods and, as a result, have tripled their production yield. They have also seen an improvement in the quality of their products and have started earning more money from their premium, fair-trade, organic coffee, which Disney serves in some of its restaurants.

Deforestation in the areas has declined by 75% since 2008, which is good news for many of the region’s unique species, such as the critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey.

Yellow-tailed woolly monkey (image from Wiley Online Library)

By funding natural climate solutions projects, Disney has contributed to planting over 9 million trees and protecting over 1 million acres of forest, while enabling the company to make good progress towards its greenhouse gas emissions goal. These natural climate solutions projects are good examples of how corporations can make strategic investments that support local communities through economic development and employment, while also protecting wildlife and conserving biodiversity and helping the organization meet its own goals.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Disney and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 1 of 2): Disney Conservation Fund

May 4, 2020 by MARK ASPELIN

“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?”

—Walt Disney (1901-1966)

I recently attended a webinar about the International Crane Foundation’s efforts to protect Siberian Cranes, where I learned that Disney has been a significant partner in their efforts.  Full disclosure: I used to work for the International Crane Foundation (ICF) as an Aviculture Intern at ICF’s captive breeding facility in Baraboo, Wisconsin, I was an ICF Associate for a crane and wetland conservation project in Kenya, and I’m a confirmed “craniac”.   

This partnership with Disney piqued my interest so I decided to take a closer look at what Disney is up to in the world of biodiversity and wildlife conservation.

In reviewing Disney’s website, sustainability reports, and other sources, it’s clear that the company is focusing a lot of its efforts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing waste, and conserving water resources. Disney is also pursuing renewable energy sources to support its operations, such as the “Hidden Mickey” solar array (pictured above) that generates enough power to operate two of its four theme parks in Orlando, Florida. However, given my specific interest in biodiversity and wildlife conservation, I’ll be focusing on two other Disney initiatives: The Disney Conservation Fund (today’s post) and “Natural Climate Solutions” (next week’s post).

The Disney Conservation Fund was setup in 1995 to support nonprofit organizations in an effort reverse the decline of wildlife through a combination of research and community engagement. Twenty-five years later, the Disney Conservation Fund has now contributed $100 million to support a wide variety of nonprofit organizations and conservation efforts.

Many companies choose to donate money to worthwhile causes, but Disney has been particularly effective in how they package and promote their philanthropic efforts in the form of the Disney Conservation Fund.

In some cases, the company’s donations are linked to Disney films. For example, while launching Disney’s “The Lion King” movie, the company also launched a “Protect the Pride” global conservation campaign to help protect and restore the lion population across Africa. Disney contributed $3 million to the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund and helped raise awareness about lion conservation issues.

In other cases, Disney’s philanthropic efforts get featured in a weekly blog post series called “Wildlife Wednesday” that is written by Scott Terrell, a veterinarian who serves as Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Director of Animal and Science Operations. For example, here is a link to the “Wildlife Wednesday” post that highlights Disney’s support of Siberian Cranes: “Wildlife Wednesday: Disney Helps Reverse the Decline of Siberian Cranes

Siberian Crane, Grus leucogeranus

Each year, in addition to awarding grants to organizations, Disney also recognizes individual “Conservation Heroes” for their commitment to conservation. Over the years, the list of Conservation Heroes has included famous conservationists such as Dr. Jane Goodall and celebrities such as John Cleese and Isabella Rossellini. However, in more recent years, the heroes tend to be names that you won’t recognize – they are people around the world who are playing an important role to advance conservation in their communities. For example, here is the list of the 2019 Conservation Heroes. Since its inception, Disney has recognized more than 180 Heroes from nearly 50 countries.

In addition to showcasing Conservation Heroes, each year The Disney Conservation Fund awards several million dollars to support a wide variety of non-profit organizations and causes. For example, in October of 2019, The Disney Conservation Fund awarded $6 million in grants to 80 nonprofit organizations around the world. The list of 2019 projects that were supported by the Fund includes an effort by the International Crane Foundation to conserve another one of my pals – the Sarus Crane.

Sarus Crane, Grus antigone

The International Crane Foundation is working to protect two of the last remaining refuges in Cambodia’s Lower Mekong Delta by researching optimal habitat maintenance conditions, enhancing understanding of the value of wetland habitats, and developing sustainable livelihoods that contribute to biodiversity conservation.

The Disney Conservation Fund is an excellent example of how corporate philanthropic efforts can be structured and packaged in a way that is good for biodiversity and wildlife as well as good for business.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Disney’s efforts to support natural climate solutions. I hope you’ll join me then.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Thank You to David Clarke and “Inside EPA” For the Recent Interview and Article About Corporations and Biodiversity

April 27, 2020 By Mark Aspelin

Thank you to David Clarke for his April 10, 2020 interview and article that was published on April 20, 2020 in Inside EPA on the topic of Corporations and Biodiversity. Below is a copy of David’s article.

April 20, 2020

Interview

Corporations May Face Pressure To Accelerate Conservation Programs

April 10, 2020

Many corporations have been slow to adopt broad conservation programs despite the potential that such efforts could boost earnings, but that could change as stakeholder pressure rises for faster and more-aggressive ecosystem protection, says a top conservation biologist.

Mark Aspelin, CEO of the Profitable Conservation consulting firm and the author of a book describing how corporate programs could benefit both corporate profits and biodiversity, in an exclusive interview with Environment Next, says companies could increasingly face calls from shareholders and others for more-aggressive steps to protect habitats and biodiversity.

Aspelin says that, depending on their type of business and the scope of operations, companies adversely affect biodiversity in various ways — and can take steps to reduce those impacts. The impact points are frequently framed using the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human population, and overharvesting.

Mark Aspelin

Mark Aspelin

Pressure for additional conservation measures may arise as a result of the coronavirus spreading health emergencies across the globe, with the United Nations Environment Program posting a statement, “Coronavirus outbreak highlights need to address threats to ecosystems and wildlife.”

With the exception of human population, companies can impact biodiversity in all of the HIPPO areas, most notably through pollution and habitat destruction, which includes climate change. Mining, forestry, oil and gas development, agriculture, and other sectors all have impacts in these two categories, either directly or in their supply chains.

Other sectors have more industry-specific impacts. Shipping and cruise ships, for example, affect invasive species, such as zebra mussels which were brought into the Great Lakes in the 1980s and now have spread to inland lakes in 28 states. Overharvesting is the product of overfishing, which the Environmental Defense Fund has identified as “the most serious threat to our oceans.”

‘Profitable Conservation’

Aspelin began working with corporations in 1998, and in 2018 published his book, “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.” In some cases, companies see opportunity to earn profit by embracing sustainability as their business brand, such as outdoor clothing company Patagonia, non-toxic cleaning products maker Method, green buildings, green roofs, and similar sectors.

In other cases, companies save money through pollution prevention, “design for the environment” approaches, building retrofits, and green infrastructure. Chemical company Union Carbide Corporation, for example, constructed a 110-acre “tertiary treatment wetlands” in Texas to comply with wastewater treatment standards, at a cost of $1.4 million as opposed to $40 million to construct a “gray infrastructure” treatment plant. Union Carbide is a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, whose chief sustainability officer Mary Draves in an exclusive interview with Environment Next described the corporation’s diverse sustainability priorities, including the circular economy and climate change.

In a municipal project, New York City bought land or used conservation easements covering over 130,000 acres to save the $10 billion cost of building a massive drinking water filtration plant, plus saving at least $100 million annually in operating costs.

“I hope those kinds of stories will play out on a much larger scale,” Aspelin says in the interview. Companies do engage in profitable conservation, but “it’s not mainstream by any stretch.” Corporate responsiveness “varies a lot,” depending on the issue, he notes. Corporations are “very much on board” when it comes to pollution because “it’s a language they speak already,” with an easily identifiable return on investment (ROI) from efficient production processes or from finding markets for their outputs, as with circular economy approaches.

Although habitat conservation is not yet “top of mind” for companies, Aspelin expects it will become a more widespread concern as stakeholder pressures for corporate sustainability become stronger, such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s declaration in January that “climate risk is investment risk” and sustainability will be the $6.8 trillion asset manager’s “new standard” for investing.

Climate Change

Although habitat destruction and biodiversity do not have the same resonance with corporations as pollution prevention, climate change is now getting a lot of corporate attention, and company climate commitments indirectly provide biodiversity benefits because altered climate affects habitat composition and the distribution of species, Aspelin says.

Corporate responsiveness to climate change pressures “is relatively new,” Aspelin notes. “Back in the day,” when he worked with companies “it was up to us to figure out” the primary environmental impacts associated with the companies’ operations, he says.

With Coca Cola, for example, the main environmental impact issue was water, and climate change was not discussed. Regulatory compliance was a major driver, rather than realizing an ROI from investing in conservation, Aspelin says, noting that he worked with a number of sectors, including petrochemicals, oil and gas, railroads, and tourism.

To build awareness of corporate conservation benefits, Aspelin contributed a series of articles about profitable conservation to the E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which has embraced naturalist E.O. Wilson’s call for protecting half the Earth’s lands and seas for biodiversity and is pursuing a Half-Earth Project to advance that goal.

For now, state, federal, and international policies remain the most effective approaches to force conservation, including through the Endangered Species Act, wetlands conservation, and other approaches that use a regulatory “stick, not a carrot.” On the incentive side are carrots such as solar rebates for businesses, green roof tax incentives that save cities storm water management costs, and municipal incentives to join in circular economy systems. Corporate zero waste goals are also working as a voluntary approach.

While not yet mainstream, corporate efforts to protect habitats are occurring in some settings, such as in the oil-rich Permian Basin’s Pecos River watershed, in Texas, where the conservation group National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) is touting its work with the Agriculture Department and major oil and gas companies to protect fish, wildlife, and their habitats in the area, suggesting the effort could serve as a model for other industries.

NFWF also works with Walmart on its Acres for America program, under which the retailer has committed to purchasing and preserving one acre of wildlife habitat in the United States for every acre of land the company develops, Aspelin notes. From 2005 to 2015, the program protected more than 1 million acres through 61 projects in 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and Walmart and NFWF are now in the midst of a 10-year continuation of the program, which NFWF describes as “one of the most important public-private land conservation partnerships in the United States.” While he commends the Walmart programs, Aspelin says it remains “unusual” for companies.

Emerging Pressures

Among emerging pressures on companies is the fact that conservation is a major issue on the environmental agenda this year. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is circulating a “zero draft” calling for urgent steps to protect 30 percent of all ecosystems and for economic sector reforms to reduce by at least 50 percent business and supply chain negative biodiversity impacts. Aspelin suggests that companies with large natural resource impacts would be the most likely to be affected by CBD commitments.

In addition, according to a March 18, 2020, Scientific American article, “Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge,” a number of researchers now believe that humanity’s destruction of biodiversity “creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19” and a new discipline, planetary health, has emerged “that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things, and entire ecosystems.”

From a climate perspective, the pandemic’s resulting economic slowdown has produced huge pollution decreases, Aspelin says, but the focus remains on human health. — David Clarke

Cisco Systems and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 2 of 2): Preventing Overharvesting Through Technology

April 20, 2020 By Mark Aspelin

“We see massive opportunities for our innovation, expertise, and culture to play a role in finding solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.”
—Chuck Robbins, Chairman and CEO of Cisco

Last week, we looked at two small-scale, local strategies that Cisco Systems uses to promote biodiversity conservation. Today, we’ll add a third strategy that Cisco is deploying at an international level to tackle the final letter of the HIPPO acronym of biodiversity threats – Overharvesting. In case you need refresher on that acronym, the acronym HIPPO represents the greatest threats, in order, to biodiversity: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation, and overharvesting.

“Overharvesting” is a broad term that refers to the harvesting of a renewable resource at a rate that is unsustainable. The term can apply to plants, fish stocks, forests, grazing pastures, and game animals. The motivation behind hunting, fishing, and plant collection may be for food, economic reasons, cultural reasons, or sport. Regardless of the reason, overharvesting implies that changes need to be made to current harvesting practices or else animal and plant populations may not recover. The result can be species extinction at the population or species level, and major ecosystem disturbances due to imbalances in predator–prey relationships.

Corporations have an important role to play in preventing the overharvesting of plants and animals. This applies to all companies—not just the ones in the fishery, pharmaceutical, and herbal-medicine industries that directly source plants and animals. One of the most effective ways that many companies, large and small, attempt to prevent overharvesting is to “green” their supply chain. Greening the supply chain is also an effective strategy for combating other biodiversity threats, such as habitat destruction and pollution.

However, greening the supply chain isn’t the only strategy that corporations pursue when it comes to preventing overharvesting. Some companies are leveraging their technology to help prevent illegal hunting of endangered wildlife.

In the case of Cisco, they are specifically addressing the issue of rhino poaching in South Africa. This might sound strange. After all, what the heck does a technology company in Silicon Valley have to do with hunting rhinos in Africa? In the case of Cisco, the company’s strategy is to showcase its technology by using it to combat a challenging, high-profile wildlife conservation issue.

dimension-data-hero-600x400

Cisco has partnered with Dimension Data, an IT consulting and technical support services company headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a “Connected Conservation” initiative that tracks rhino poachers at a game reserve in South Africa. Cisco and Dimension Data are using seismic sensors, drone cameras, thermal imaging, biometric scanning, and networking technology to track the movements of all humans who enter the reserve grounds. Park rangers use these new tools in combination with traditional sniffer dogs and trained soldiers on the ground to catch and deter poachers while minimizing disturbances to the endangered rhinos.

The results have been impressive so far. The Connected Conservation initiative has been successful in reducing rhino poaching at the South African reserve by 96%. To learn more about this effort, you can view a video about the Connected Conservation initiative on the Cisco website. Cisco and Dimension Data’s efforts are also included in a documentary called “Save This Rhino” that features proactive efforts in South Africa to save critically endangered rhinos.

This partnership between Cisco and Dimension data is not a one-off project. In fact, the two companies are soon celebrating the 25th anniversary of their strategic business partnership. Together they work to innovate and deliver services and solutions around the world, with projects in nearly 150 countries.

More and more companies are leveraging their products and technologies to develop solutions that directly help in the fight against overharvesting. As for the Connected Conservation initiative, this approach may soon be leveraged to protect other endangered species throughout the world. The main obstacle that prevents the spread of this technological approach is the US$ 1.5 million-per-year cost of the system. However, despite its hefty price tag, it’s an effective proof of concept that will hopefully prove to be effective in protecting other critically endangered species.

Thanks for reading and wishing you a Happy Earth Day this week!

Mark

Walmart and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 2 of 2): Zero Net Deforestation

April 6, 2020 By Mark Aspelin

“Our world is increasingly transparent and we’re out to earn trust. When people shine a light on Walmart and see our decisions – the jobs we create, the activities in our supply chain – we want them to like what they see.”
—Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

To continue our discussion from last week’s post about Walmart’s approach to biodiversity conservation, today we’ll focus on Walmart’s goal of Zero Net Deforestation.

To determine how to tackle this goal, Walmart first reviewed studies and learned that certain agricultural commodities, such as palm oil, soy, cattle, and timber, were driving most deforestation in the world, so that’s where the company decided to focus its attention. Walmart then sought to address the major drivers of deforestation in its operation and supply chain for each of these commodities, which we’ll highlight below.

Palm oil. In 2010, Walmart set a goal to sustainably source any palm oil that is used in its global private-brand products. The company also encourages its national-brand suppliers to source palm oil from sustainable sources. By the end of 2015, 100% of Walmart’s private-brand palm oil was sourced sustainably in accordance with the certification standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which included the use of the following supply chain models: Mass Balance, Segregated, Identity Preserved, and Credits. In 2017, Walmart decided to adopt a more rigorous approach of only using the RSPO criteria of Mass Balance or Segregated supply chain systems, or equivalent standards, by the end of 2020.

What the heck does all of that mean? Here are the RSPO definitions that should help make things a bit clearer:

  • Identity Preserved Supply Chain Model: Sustainable palm oil from a single identifiable certified source is kept separately from ordinary palm oil throughout supply chain.
  • Segregated Supply Chain Model: Sustainable palm oil from different certified sources is kept separate from ordinary palm oil throughout supply chain.
  • Mass Balance Supply Chain Model: Sustainable palm oil from certified sources is mixed with ordinary palm oil throughout supply chain.
  • RSPO Credits / Book & Claim Supply Chain Model: The supply chain is not monitored for the presence of sustainable palm oil. Manufacturers and retailers can buy Credits from RSPO-certified growers, crushers and independent smallholders. RSPO’s traceability system for certified palm products is called PalmTrace.

As reported in its 2019 Environmental, Social & Governance Report, the breakdown of Walmart’s Palm Oil supply chain models is as follows:

  • RSPO Identity Preserved: 0.02%
  • RSPO segregated or equivalent: 12.87%
  • RSPO Mass Balance: 47.38%
  • Palmtrace Credits: 39.72%

In other words, Walmart has some work to do in order to transition away from the use of Palmtrace Credits (~40% of its supply chain methodology in calendar year 2018) in order to accomplish its revised 2017 goal. As result, Walmart is now looking for ways to move towards sources of certified, sustainable palm oil that have been physically verified. The company is also determining how it can best support an industry-wide movement as the industry transitions to 100% traceability for sources of palm oil.

Beef. In 2016, Walmart achieved its goal to only source “sustainable beef” that is not associated with deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by getting 100% of its Brazilian beef suppliers to participate in Walmart’s Beef Risk Monitoring System. To monitor its supply of beef, Walmart created a geospatial monitoring system that tracks suppliers, volumes, and over 75,000 registered farm locations, and the data are combined with maps that show where deforestation is taking place. The tool then analyzes Walmart orders to ensure that no beef comes from deforested areas. Beef suppliers are trained to manage geographical information at their slaughterhouses and input the coordinates of their suppliers’ farms into the system. The company is now working to expand the program to include cow-calf operations to address the risk that cattle might be traded from high-risk ranches to approved ranches, and the risk that ranchers who contribute to deforestation may re-register their operations under different names. As the program expands, other sensitive biomes outside of the Amazon will be included, such as the Cerrado tropical savanna ecoregion of Brazil.

Soy. Walmart is working with its supply chain and the Consumer Goods Forum to acquire soy through deforestation-free channels. Walmart supports an indefinite extension for the Soy Moratorium in the Amazon region of Brazil, which has helped reduce the amount of Brazilian soy that comes from deforested areas from 30% to 1%. The company also supports the expansion of the Soy Moratorium to other parts of Brazil where a similar approach is needed.

Pulp and paper products. To address deforestation through logging for timber, Walmart is working to reduce packaging materials and ensure that pulp and paper products are purchased from sustainable sources. The company set a goal of zero-net deforestation associated with its private brand products and is encouraging its national-brand suppliers to set similar goals. Walmart uses a Sustainability Index to measure and track supplier performance based on the percentage of virgin fiber. For the calendar year 2018, the percentage of private-brand pulp and paper volume certified by the Forest
Stewardship Council, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest
Certification, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or is using recycled content, was reported to be 91%.

To help promote transparency and traceability across its supply chains, in 2017, Walmart joined the World Resources Institute and 20 other companies to launch Global Forest Watch Pro. Global Forest Watch Pro is an online platform that provides companies, banks and other stakeholders with data and tools for monitoring global forest loss due to the production of key commodities such as palm oil, soy and Brazilian beef. The online platform’s algorithms leverage the use of cutting-edge satellite technology and cloud computing to provide real-time information about where and how forests are changing around the world.

I hope you enjoyed this two-part overview of Walmart’s approach to biodiversity conservation. I’ll be back next week with a new topic or case study that highlights the role of corporations in protecting our planet’s biodiversity.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

Walmart and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 1 of 2): Acres for America


March 30, 2020 BY MARK ASPELIN

“The doubters got on board quickly when they saw that our P & L could benefit while we were doing good work for the environment. A constant theme for us in engaging our associates and stakeholders has been shared value: the need to integrate sustainability into business, not treat it as a separate effort, and to ensure we deliver business value as well as value for the environment and society.”
—Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

After taking a break from writing blog posts for awhile, I’ve decided to resume writing once again, although I’ll primarily be posting to my Corporationsforbiodiversity.org site.   

I’ll be deviating a bit from the format of my earlier company profiles. Rather than cover every strategy related to biodiversity for each company, I’ll instead focus on just one or two strategies that have the most direct, tangible benefit to biodiversity / wildlife conservation, or strategies that are relatively unique.  I’m hoping that strategy will enable me to get a new post out each week.  Let’s start things off by looking at Walmart’s approach to biodiversity.

With 275 million weekly customers, it’s a safe bet that most of us have been to Walmart at one time or another. Walmart is the largest company in the world, with over US$ 514 billion in total revenue, and a staggering 2.2 million associates spread across 11,300 stores in 27 countries. The Walmart brand includes Walmart Supercenters, Walmart Neighborhood Markets, Sam’s Club (United States, Mexico, Brazil, and China), ASDA (England), and Seiyu (Japan). This behemoth’s supply chain includes over 100,000 suppliers from around the world … no small task to manage. Walmart clearly posts some jaw dropping figures in terms of it’s scale, but how does Walmart stack up in the world of biodiversity conservation?

Pretty darn good! While Walmart neglects to mention the word “biodiversity” in its 2019 Environmental, Social & Governance Report, the Company is doing a lot a great work the directly and indirectly benefits biodiversity. In fact, Walmart has become a leader in many aspects of corporate sustainability. So much so, that I ended up dedicating a whole chapter to Walmart’s conservation efforts in my book Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies that Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.

In the case of Walmart, it has a variety of robust environmental goals associated with climate change and waste, such as the following:

  • By 2030, work with suppliers to reduce or avoid carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from by 1 gigaton from global value chains.
  • Be powered by 50% renewable sources by 2025.
  • Achieve zero waste to landfill from its own operations in key markets, including the U.S., U.K., Japan and Canada by 2025 in accordance with the Zero Waste International Alliance guidelines.
  • Achieve 100% recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable packaging in all Walmart private-brand products by 2025.

… and the list goes on.

The two goals that I’ll focus on in this post and next week’s post directly aim to address the biodiversity threat of habitat destruction / fragmentation:

  • Conserve 1 acre of land for every acre developed by Walmart stores in the U.S.
  • Achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.

This week’s post will address Walmart’s goal to conserve one acre of land for every acre developed by Walmart stores in the United States. To meet this goal, Walmart has adopted a voluntary compensatory strategy through its Acres for America Program. Here is some background on that Program.

In 2005, Walmart partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to establish the Acres for America program “to conserve lands of national significance, protect critical fish and wildlife habitat, and benefit people and local economies.”

Acres for America supports biodiversity and natural-resource conservation through four program priorities:

  1. Conserve critical habitats for birds, fish, plants, and wildlife.
  2. Connect existing protected lands to unify wild places and protect migration routes.
  3. Provide access for people to enjoy the outdoors.
  4. Support local economies that depend on forestry, ranching, and wildlife.

The results have been impressive. Walmart started with a goal to conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land developed by Walmart stores but has achieved closer to a 10:1 ratio of conservation to development.

To provide an example of how Walmart and the NFWF leverage those funds each year, let’s look at how those funds were allocated in 2019. In November of 2019, the Acres for America program awarded $3.6 million in grants, and leveraged an additional $70.2 million in matching contributions, to conserve 70,300 acres in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, and Kansas. The funds were allocated to support the following seven projects:

  • The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy will permanently conserve a 19,200-acre mountain property (Fisher’s Peak Ranch) located south of Trinidad, Colorado, which will become Colorado’s newest State Park. The property links intact habitat between the Eastern Plains of Colorado and the Western Slopes of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Grant amount $650,000.
  • The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will protect an 834-acre tract of untilled prairie and oak woodland in the Loess Hills of western Iowa just outside Sioux City. This area will become a State Wildlife Area within a 10,000 acre conservation area, ensuring that the grassland and savanna woodland species are properly managed. Grant amount $270,000.
  • Ranchland Trust of Kansas will partner with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, state and local partners to create a perpetual conservation easement on 9,250 acres of grasslands on the Ballet Ranch in the Red Hills ofKansas. The conservation easement will provide suitable habitat for species of concern, such as cave-dwelling bats, lesser prairie-chicken, plains minnow, longnose snake, and numerous grassland-obligate and migratory birds, while sustaining local economic viability as a working cattle ranch. Grant amount $650,000.
  • In eastern New Mexico, the Trust for Public Land will work with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire an 8,914-acre Cañon Ciruela property as an addition to the Sabinoso Wilderness, while will result in over 30,000 acres of protected wilderness. Grant amount $450,000.
  • In New York, the Nature Conservancy will establish a freshwater preserve at Follensby Pond in Adirondack Park, protecting 14,700 acres that are adjacent to the 275,000 acre High Peaks Wilderness Area. Grant amount $650,000.
  • In Oregon, the Trust for Public Land will work with federal, state and local partners to acquire the 7,500-acre Spence Mountain property on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake, providing critical fish and wildlife habitat. Grant amount $435,000.
  • In Washington, the Columbia Land Trust, in partnership with the Yakama Nation and federal and state agencies, will acquire 9,900 acre Mount Adams-Klickitat Canyon Forest in an effort to protect and restore the Wild & Scenic Klickitat River and its watershed. The canyon will connect federal and tribal protected habitat with thousands of acres of state and private conservation lands, providing critical habitat for 36 federally and state-listed wildlife species. Grant amount $500,000.

Walmart’s Acres for America program should not be confused with a traditional biodiversity offset program. Walmart’s voluntary compensatory action approach differs from a formal biodiversity offset in one important way: there’s no link between the actual biodiversity impacts of the company’s development activities and the biodiversity gains from purchasing land for conservation.

In other words, biodiversity offsets take the Walmart “acres-for-acres” conservation approach a step further by formally requiring no net loss of the biodiversity value of the land. Ideally, the goal is to obtain a positive net gain of biodiversity value from the transaction. The downside of biodiversity offsets is that they are more complex and expensive to implement. The costs and resources required to do a biodiversity offset can make traditional philanthropy and “acres-for-acres” conservation approaches more appealing and a better fit with stakeholder expectations, depending on the company, industry, and location.

In the case of Walmart, it’s very likely that the conservation value of the land purchased through the Acres for America program is greater than the conservation value of the land that Walmart is developing for its stores. As a result, the company chooses not to assess the type, scale, or amount of biodiversity lost and gained from each development project and land-conservation purchase. Instead, Walmart simply looks at the overall footprint of land developed for new stores and ensures that the company protects at least that many acres of high value habitat for conservation.

The results tell a compelling story. As of 2019, the Acres for America program has protected nearly 1.5 million acres, bringing it closer to its goal of conserving 2 million acres by 2025, and it has become the leading public-private land conservation partnership in the United States. It’s an effective approach that many other companies could benefit from imitating.

Well that’s all for today. Next week, we’ll look at another effective strategy that Walmart is putting into place that addresses the biodiversity threat of habitat loss: zero net deforestation.

Thanks for reading!

Mark