By Stephen Leahy
NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 28, 2010 (IPS) - One-fifth of all birds, fish and animals are threatened with extinction - as many as six million unique and irreplaceable forms of life – an authoritative new assessment warned Wednesday.
Deforestation, agricultural expansion, overfishing, invasive alien species and climate change are the specific causes, but the main engine of destruction is an economic system that is blind to the reality that there is no economy or human well-being without nature, experts here say.
"Without global conservation efforts the situation would be massively worse," noted Simon Stuart, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, which launched the study at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, it is the most comprehensive assessment ever done of the world's vertebrates - mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes - Stuart said.
Every year, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one step down a three-step path to extinction, according to the study, which utilised data for 25,000 species from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Southeast Asia has experienced the most dramatic recent losses, largely driven by the planting of export crops like oil palm, commercial hardwood timber operations, agricultural conversion to rice paddies and unsustainable hunting, the study found. Parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America, and even Australia have also all experienced marked losses, in particular due to the impact of the deadly chytrid fungus on amphibians.
"The backbone of biodiversity is being eroded," said the eminent U.S. ecologist and writer Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University.
"One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place," Wilson said in a statement.
The term biodiversity and role of species is not well understood by the general public or policy makers. Biological diversity, better known as "nature", refers to the plants, animals and microorganisms and their ecosystems that provide humanity with food, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live.
"Nature's backbone is indeed at risk," said Julia Marton- Lefèvre, IUCN director general, who noted in a press conference here that one-third of all species are at risk of extinction. Another assessment of species, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, released last May found that one- quarter of plant species are threatened, the world's corals and amphibians are in sharp decline, and the overall abundance of vertebrates had fallen by one-third in the past 30 years.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, most delegates here at what is in essence a "save nature to save ourselves" international negotiation are playing politics and have been unable to agree to specific targets. Last May, CBD science and policy advisors negotiated targets in Nairobi to protect 20 percent of the land and oceans by 2020. And that 20 percent target is less than what many experts had advocated.