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The Ark

spring2020 | By by Paul Robbins, Dean, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

The Ark

The Ark


According to a 2019 United Nations study, nearly one million species are threatened with near-immediate extinction. This represents one eighth of all life on Earth, and science suggests this is the beginning of a larger trend. As the number of these plants and animals dwindles, moreover, the odds of saving them, and their unique genes, only become worse. While climate change is a critical driver, the central culprits are habitat loss and direct competition for resources with human beings. While the globe must tackle climate change, the urgency to preserve species and habitats is immediate. A huge part of the tapestry of life is set to vanish from the face of the Earth.

Not only does this loss represent a tragedy in and of itself, these losses in genetic resources will endanger things depended on by humanity, including pharmaceuticals and foods. We must bolster efforts not only to mediate this loss, but to actually bring species back from the edge.



We have the tools to reverse this trend. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we have the knowledge, the science, the methods, the countless existing community-based partnerships, and a whole new generation of energetic problem-solvers to rise to the challenge and reverse the tide of species extinction. The current scale of our efforts, however, is short of the challenge that such a global threat warrants. On the eve of the 50th Earth Day, UW’s Nelson Institute is therefore proposing a robust initiative to immediately address global species decline, investing in three tools that will be critical for success:

These tools, all of which were either invented at UW-Madison, or for which the institution stands at the forefront in their development, are available now. Greatly expanding their power, scale, reach, and focus requires a significant investment. To implement them together, in an effort aimed at rescuing a specific set of targeted hotspots (e.g. India, Madagascar, Botswana, Southeastern United States, Brazilian Amazon), would be without precedent.



Immediate action by UW-Madison scholars, students, and graduates, linked closely to local communities and conservation authorities, will have immediate impacts.

This initiative will follow the Wisconsin Idea to its logical conclusion: addressing the largest biological threat in human history by actually protecting species, nurturing their genetic resources, and reviving the places they live across the globe. With investment in this effort, the Nelson Institute and the UW become a global clearinghouse for best practices in conservation, based on current research, tied to local partnerships, supporting work by countless other governments, NGOs, firms and local communities.

Our graduates will be trained to utilize the UW as a source of vital ecological knowledge so that the billions of dollars currently spent on species conservation and restoration will be focused in the most impactful way.



For 50 years, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies has catalyzed the remarkable resources of UW-Madison to train cohorts of dedicated students from around the world to protect critical habitats, innovate new forms of energy, design new environments, and communicate the urgency of our incredible moment. The Institute and its UW community nurtures and supports scientists who track forest conservation with satellites, protect human health on a changing planet, sequence the genomes of endangered species, and interact with faith leaders on green solutions. Most urgently, we do all this by attending, first and foremost, to justice, equity, and basic human fairness.

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