A furtive rustling sound first drew me to the pile of dead leaves. Then I spotted it. A long, snuffling nose emerged into the crisp air, soon followed by an impossible array of bi-colored spikes seemingly exploding in every direction. I watched, transfixed, as this curious beast continued to push through the underbrush, searching for worms and insects.
How could such a striking and unusual creature be wandering through my urban backyard outside London?
My first encounter with a hedgehog as a young boy remains indelibly imprinted on my mind more than 30 years later. The power of nature to transform us, infusing all of our senses, becomes evident through these vivid, lasting connections. For example, while I can’t recall much from the age of three, I can still clearly feel the joy and wonder that jolted me when I discovered a salamander hiding beneath a rotting log.
The diversity of life on Earth influences us in profound ways — perhaps none more so than a flower, as Lupita Nyong’o eloquently explains in Flower, Conservation International’s latest Nature Is Speaking film.
As Flower says, it feeds people. In fact, flowering plants produce the vast majority of food we eat, like fruits, grains, beans and potatoes, and they provide the world’s poor with 90% of their basic needs.
While we depend in large part on domesticated crop species, the protection of wild species is also crucial. The wild relatives of many domesticated plants provide an irreplaceable reservoir of genetic diversity that can be used to improve crop yields, especially through increased resilience to climate change, invasive pests and disease.
The array of chemicals that plants produce to deter predators, and even communicate, turn out to provide us with life-saving medicines. For example, medicines made from rosy periwinkle have increased survival rates from childhood leukemia by 85%. Yet, we also know that many plant species with the potential for triggering tremendous innovation in technology and medicine still remain to be discovered.
The list of benefits that nature provides to people — also called “ecosystem services” — is long. Understanding that these services are vital for human well-being, CI works to preserve the links between healthy ecosystems and healthy, sustainable societies. While we tend to target direct, quantifiable benefits, the example of the flower provides an opportunity to also explore some of the less tangible benefits — sometimes overlooked, but by no means less important.
Why do we give flowers to express our love, our apologies or our sympathies? The intricate beauty and delicate fragrance of each type of flower evolved not for human appeal but to attract particular varieties of pollinators that aid in their reproduction. Yet, we are similarly drawn to their colors, forms and scents. Species inspire us. They feed our souls. Even the greatest of scientists and philosophers struggle to explain exactly why, but it is so.
My own childhood experiences with hedgehogs, salamanders and species too numerous to list strongly influenced my career path. As director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), I lead field expeditions to explore and understand environments around the world, providing data to help maintain the connections between biodiversity, healthy ecosystems and human societies.
Since its inception, RAP results have supported the creation, expansion and improved management of more than 20 million hectares (around 49.4 million acres) of marine and terrestrial protected areas — places that are critical for sustaining nature and its benefits. Like other CI programs, RAP is working to empower communities to sustainably manage their natural resources. We have trained hundreds of students and local community members — the next generation of scientists and conservationists.
RAP expeditions have also discovered over 1,400 species new to science. But most species on the planet remain unknown, and each new species we document holds the potential for great advances in science, medicine or agriculture. Yet on a personal level, my greatest reward still lies in the inspiration I receive from observing each flower, each insect, each bird, each frog, each fish … and I know I am not alone.
The publication of our findings, especially the discovery of new species, generates widespread fascination. I often receive emails from parents explaining how our discoveries have inspired their children to pursue careers in biology and conservation. Recently, I even received a beautiful poem written about our work.
This is of course nothing new. Nature, and flowers, have been muses to some of the greatest poetry, literature and art. Consider the works of Van Gogh, Monet, O’Keefe, Thoreau, Keats, Emerson, Frost and Leopold, to name just a few. Where would we be without them?
Every person on Earth deserves a healthy environment and the fundamental benefits that nature provides. But the planet is rapidly changing. For people to thrive, we need to act now to preserve not just the tangible benefits, but also the inspiration, wonder and awe by which nature transforms us all. This, in my opinion, may be the most important ecosystem service of all.
Trond Larsen is the director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program. To learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website. In addition, every time you use the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on social media platforms, HP will donate $1 to CI (up to $1 million) — learn more.