Life on earth is facing a major crisis with thousands of species threatened
with imminent extinction - a global emergency demanding urgent action. This
is the view of 19 of the world's most eminent biodiversity specialists, who
have called on governments to establish a political framework to save the planet.
The planet is losing species faster than at any time since 65 million years ago,
when the earth was hit by an enormous asteroid that wiped out thousands of animals
and plants, including the dinosaurs. Scientists estimate that the current rate
at which species are becoming extinct is between 100 and 1,000 times greater than
the normal "background" extinction rate - and say this is all due to
The call for action comes from some of the most distinguished scientists in
the field, such as Georgina Mace of the UK Institute of Zoology; Peter Raven,
the head of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, and Robert Watson, chief
scientist at the World Bank. "For the sake of the planet, the biodiversity
science community had to create a way to get organised, to co-ordinate its work
across disciplines and together, with one clear voice, advise governments on
steps to halt the potentially catastrophic loss of species already occurring,"
Dr Watson said.
In a joint declaration, published today in Nature, the scientists say that
the earth is on the verge of a biodiversity catastrophe and that only a global
political initiative stands a chance of stemming the loss. They say: "There
is growing recognition that the diversity of life on earth, including the variety
of genes, species and ecosystems, is an irreplaceable natural heritage crucial
to human well-being and sustainable development. There is also clear scientific
evidence that we are on the verge of a major biodiversity crisis. Virtually
all aspects of biodiversity are in steep decline and a large number of populations
and species are likely to become extinct this century.
"Despite this evidence, biodiversity is still consistently undervalued
and given inadequate weight in both private and public decisions. There is an
urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy by creating an international
body of biodiversity experts," they say.
More than a decade ago, Edward O Wilson, the Harvard naturalist, first estimated
that about 30,000 species were going extinct each year - an extinction rate
of about three an hour. Further research has confirmed that just about every
group of animals and plants - from mosses and ferns to palm trees, frogs, and
monkeys - is experiencing an unprecedented loss of diversity.
Scientists estimate that 12 per cent of all birds, 23 per cent of mammals,
a quarter of conifers, a third of amphibians and more than half of all palm
trees are threatened with imminent extinction. Climate change alone could lead
to the further extinction of between 15 and 37 per cent of all species by the
end of the century, the scientists say: "Because biodiversity loss is essentially
irreversible, it poses serious threats to sustainable development and the quality
of life of future generations."
There have been five previous mass extinctions in the 3.5 billion-year history
of life on earth. All are believed to have been caused by major geophysical
events that halted photosynthesis, such as an asteroid collision or the mass
eruption of supervolcanoes. The present "sixth wave" of extinction
began with the migration of modern humans out of Africa about 100,000 years
ago. It accelerated with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and began
to worsen with the development of industry in the 18th century.
Anne Larigauderie, executive director of Diversitas, a Paris-based conservation
group, said that the situation was now so grave that an international body with
direct links with global leaders was essential. "The point is to establish
an international mechanism that will provide regular and independent scientific
advice on biodiversity," Dr Larigauderie said. "We know that extinction
is a natural phenomenon but the rate of extinction is now between 100 and 1,000
times higher than the background rate. It is an unprecedented loss."
The scientists believe that a body similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change could help governments to tackle the continuing loss of species.
"Biodiversity is much more than counting species. It's crucial to the functioning
of the planet and the loss of species is extremely serious," Dr Larigauderie
said. "Everywhere we look, we are losing the fabric of life. It's a major
Species under threat
The first comprehensive inventory of land mammals in 1996 found a quarter,
including the Iberian lynx were in danger of extinction. The situation has worsened
Reptiles & amphibians
The Chinese alligator is the most endangered crocodilian - a survey in 1999
found just 150. Frogs, toads, newts and salamanders are the most threatened
One in five species are believed to be in danger of extinction; that amounts
to about 2,000 of the 9,775 named species. Most are at risk from logging, intensive
agriculture, trapping and habitat encroachment. Many experts believe the Philippine
eagle and wandering albatross could become extinct this century.
The oceans were thought to be immune from the activities of man on land, but
this is no longer true. Pollution, overfishing, loss of marine habitats and
global warming have a dramatic impact on biological diversity. More than 100
species of fish, including the basking shark are on the red list of threatened
Many plants have yet to be formally described, classified and named - and some
are being lost before they have been discovered by scientists. Plants of every
type are being lost.
Insects & invertebrates
Many insects are wiped out by pesticide-reliant intensive agriculture. Others,
such as the partula tree snails of Tahiti are menaced by invasive species.
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