World Wildlife Day 2022 Theme Examines Key Species and Ecosystem Restoration

World Wildlife Day is an annual event held by the United Nations to raise awareness and celebrate Earth's animals and plants. World Wildlife Day 2022, on March 3, centers around the theme of "recovering key species for ecosystem restoration." But what exactly does that mean and why is it important?

Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist and conservationist, has over 40 years of experience on the subject. Redmond has worked on over 50 wildlife documentaries, including David Attenborough's famous encounter with a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. He is now working to make wildlife conservation profitable, as head of conservation at Ecoflix, an environment-centric non-profit streaming platform.

He told Newsweek that endangered species such as apes and elephants aren't just "nice to look at," but they are a "keystone" to ecosystems around the globe. And ecosystems are the basis on which our whole lives depend.

"People see wildlife for its ornamental value. It's pretty, it's interesting. It stimulates our imagination. But I would like to encourage people on World Wildlife Day to think of wildlife as the workers in the factory of the life support system that sustains all life on Earth, including us," he said.

Redmond said that if the human race is to protect animals, first, we have to restore their numbers to a functional level so they can "do what they were evolved to do." When people go on safaris, they watch elephants in the wild as a tourist attraction—but this is just a side benefit, Redmond said.

"The elephants are actually fertilizing the soils of the savanna in the forest, dispersing the seeds, pruning the trees and thinning out the vegetation. And that puts more nutrients into the trees which are the ones that store the most carbon," he said.

A recent study by Fabio Berzaghi, an Italian biologist, studied two patches of forest in the Congo Basin, one of the most important wilderness areas left on Earth. He studied one patch of the forest with a living population of elephants, and one where the elephants had been extirpated decades ago.

He found that where there had been elephants, there was 7 percent more above-ground biomass in the forest. Berzaghi attributed this to the way that elephants feed—they trample a lot of small plants and eat a lot of plants, and produce roughly 1.1 tons of manure each week.

Redmond said the elephants are effectively "doing the job of a gardener" who, when his vegetables are crowding together, thins them out.

A stock photo shows African elephants. A study revealed that they were integral to the forest ecosystem. AndreAnita/Getty Images

Reminiscing on his time with gorillas in Rwanda, over 40 years ago, Redmond said being part of that community taught him not just the complexities of the animals, but their ecological value. He used to sit with the gorillas daily and take notes on their behavior. This led the gorillas to regard Redmond as an honorary member of their community.

"Humans put a lot of store in exchanging glances with other people," he said. "Whether it's a lover's gaze or an aggressive stare, it's that eye contact that conveys your intent and to find that there are other beings that have a similar ability to look in your eye and express curiosity or wonder or, or anger or fear. It sort of changes your perspective on what it is to be human.

"Gorillas have a complex society and they have self-awareness and memory and forethought... and then you realize that these beings are playing critical roles in the health of ecosystems that actually make the whole biosphere work."

Redmond believes nature and wildlife need to be made a profitable part of the economy in order for them to be protected to the extent it needs to be. He co-founded Rebalance Earth, an organization aiming to do this. He also thinks there needs to be more education on just how important endangered animals are to the ecosystem.

"It's like turning the dial on your life support machine down. People say we want to protect 15 percent of our land as protected areas. If your grandmother was on a life support machine, would you turn the dial down to only work 15 percent? No, you'd want her to have as much life support as she needed. And that's what we have to convince people on World Wildlife Day," he said. "Yes, they're wonderful, inspiring animals, but they're also important to keep life on earth alive."

This article has been updated to include more information on Ian Redmond's background

A photo shows a gorilla in Rwanda. Redmond spent time in a community or gorilla's studying their behavior. SIMON MAINA/Getty Images