Hope for coral reefs

The need for united, global decision-making on climate action and biodiversity conservation has never been clearer. The effects of climate change on marine environments can be seen across the world – from loss of sea ice, to accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves. Climate change is upon us.  
Nowhere is this more apparent than our coral reefs which are one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth.
ZSL has worked for decades to protect and restore coral reefs around the world, from grassroots conservation to delivering the best marine science, which has collectively informed global policy.
“The tiny living organisms known as coral polyps are the architects of some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth,” says Dr. Catherine Head, postdoctoral researcher at ZSL. “The reefs they build provide vital habitat, feeding, spawning and nursery grounds for more than a million aquatic species, while around 450 million people rely on them for sustenance, coastal protection and livelihoods.
“The enormous pressures on these priceless ecosystems are already clear to see. Coral bleaching, caused by rising sea surface temperatures, is an all-too-visible marker of polyp stress or death. Between 2014 and 2017, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef lost half its coral to bleaching incidents. In the last 30 years, climate change, pollution and overfishing have resulted in reef coverage decreasing by more than 50%.”
Prof. Heather Koldewey, Head of Bertarelli Marine Science Programme at ZSL adds, “In recent years, we have seen more frequent and more severe bleaching events that threaten the existence of coral reefs. Protected areas buy us some time, but we cannot save coral reefs without reducing our carbon emissions, specifically keeping warming to 1.5 degrees.”
Coastal communities will be the first to see devastating the effects of this, from increased erosion and swamped shorelines, loss of food and employment to health and wellbeing. ZSL’s conservationists have worked to support these communities and mitigate impacts, for example, establishing over 40 community-managed marine protected areas in the Philippines and a further ten in Mozambique. We have built local capacity through training programmes and supporting the protection and recovery of the most unique and irreplaceable coral species. We engage the millions of visitors to our two zoos in coral reef conservation through our pioneering exhibits and conservation breeding programmes.
Together with other conservation charities, we have enabled the protection of some of the largest marine protected areas, including the Chagos Archipelago which contains the World’s largest living coral atoll. Through research in this unique Indian Ocean observatory, our scientists have built an understanding of the health and resilience of coral reefs and the myriad of species that depend on them, from the tiniest shrimps to top predators like sharks. We have helped reveal a strong link between rich biodiversity and a thriving ecosystem, and the links between healthy islands and healthy reefs. Such insights inform management strategies that build the resilience of coral reefs, ranging from island restoration and supporting the 30×30 initiative to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.
It’s essential that we put nature at the heart of global decision making and empower wildlife conservationists and climate change scientists to work together towards effective outcomes including reducing global CO2 levels. Economies worldwide need to come together and make the shift to a sustainable, low-carbon future, we may have to face the fact these dazzling and diverse habitats could be lost.
Together, with radical measures and nature-based solutions, we have an opportunity to change the future of our planet. ZSL’s pioneering work around the world shows that nature can return and thrive given the right combination of help. Our vision for the future, a world where wildlife thrives, is underpinned by the Sustainable Development Goals and is led by the power and insight of our world leading science, boots on the ground field conservation and practical experience of caring for endangered animals in our zoos.  Vitally, our conservation interventions are low-cost and high impact.
As individuals we have the ability to make change, but we need your help. At this crucial moment for our planet, I invite each of you to make a transformative change for the future of our shared planet.
Visit zsl.org to learn more about how you can support us as we create a world where wildlife thrives.
James Wren is the ZSL Executive Director of Fundraising and Engagement.
Photo of Mushroom coral (Heliofungia actiniformis) with popcorn shrimp by Wolfgang Krutz