RSPB Martin Harper's blog Guest Blog by Tony Juniper What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

One of the gravest misconceptions of modern times is the still widely held view that efforts to nurture nature can be a drag on economic development. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From nutrient recycling in soils to the protection of coasts by wetlands and from carbon capture and storage in forests to the pollination of crop plants by insects, nature is has massive economic value. Without it there is no development, no economy and no prospect to meet long-term poverty reduction goals. The truth is that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ecology, not the other way around.

In my new book called "What has nature ever done for us?" I tell the stories of how natural systems sustain our welfare. Some of the things I discovered left me stunned. A case in point concerns the economic value of India’s vultures – or more accurately their former value.

Across the subcontinent during the 1990s, India’s three vulture species suffered a catastrophic decline. It was caused by an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat farm animals. Residues in the bodies of dead cattle and buffalo proved toxic to such birds and their numbers plummeted from about 40 million to a few tens of thousands.

Each year the vultures were eating about 12 million tonnes of rotting flesh. With the vultures’ gone this became food for wild dogs. Their population rocketed and more dog bites and human rabies infections followed. This in turn led to an estimated 50,000 or so more deaths than would otherwise have been the case. The cost of this and other consequences on India’s economy was (over a decade or so) put at an eye-watering US$34 billion.

Taken together, the loss of natural services is believed to be costing the global economy more than 6 trillion dollars per year, or equivalent to around 11 per cent of world GDP. By contrast, the estimated cost of meeting global targets to avert the impending mass extinction of species is put at about US$76 billion, or about 0.12 per cent of annual GDP.

There are many initiatives underway that set out to restore services once provided by nature. For example, efforts to reverse the decline in vulture populations are being co-ordinated by a consortium of national conservation organisations and multi-national vulture experts, including the RSPB. This initiative, Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), was launched in 2011 to help coordinate research, advocacy and implementation of the actions needed to prevent these birds from disappearing forever.

This and a whole lot of other work is not only about conservation for its own sake, but also about the practical benefits we all derive from what nature provides. The sooner political and business leaders realize that it makes economic sense to nurture nature the more likely it will be that goals to improve human wellbeing can be met.

What has nature ever done for us? is by Tony Juniper and published by Profile Books.

An SOS - Save Our Species project, implemented by the RSPB, will establish and support four Vulture Safe Zones in India. These will be large areas of 100km radius where diclofenac use will be reduced through local advocacy, awareness raising and the promotion of alternative drugs that are safe for vultures. This builds on a body of foundation work for which the Darwin Initiative has provided key support.

First published by the RSPB January 21st 2013