Global extinction crisis looms, study says

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A growing number of creatures could disappear from the Earth, with one-fifth of all vertebrates and as many as a third of all sharks and rays now facing the threat of extinction, according to a new survey assessing nearly 26,000 species around the world.

In addition, forces such as habitat destruction, over-exploitation and invasive competitors move 52 species a category closer to extinction each year, according to the research, published online Tuesday by the journal Science. At the same time, the findings demonstrate that these losses would be at least 20 percent higher without conservation efforts now underway.

"We know what we need to do," said Andrew Rosenberg, senior vice president for science and knowledge at the advocacy group Conservation International and one of the paper's co-authors. "We need to focus on protected areas, both terrestrial and marine."

The survey, conducted by 174 researchers from 38 countries, came as delegates from around the world are meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to debate conservation goals for the coming decade.

The researchers analyzed the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" - a periodic accounting that classifies mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish along a spectrum of how imperiled they are.

Although many industrialized countries have undertaken conservation efforts at home and helped fund this work overseas, "the reality is we're still exporting degradation across the world" by taking food and other resources from the developing world, said co-author Nicholas K. Dulvy.

"We've transformed a third of the habitable land on earth for food production," said Dulvy, who co-chairs the IUCN's shark specialist group. "You can't just remove that habitat without consequences for biodiversity."

Southeast Asia's animals have experienced the most severe hit in recent years, stemming from a combination of agricultural expansion, logging and hunting. Species in parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America and Australia have also all suffered significant population declines, largely due to the chytrid fungus killing off amphibians. Forty-one percent of all amphibians are now threatened with extinction.

Norway's environmental minister, Erik Solheim, who is attending the talks in Nagoya, said in an interview that this sort of accelerating biodiversity loss, coupled with climate change, should compel nations to act boldly: "Very clearly, there's an increasing sense of urgency here," he said.

The grim study underscores the failure by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to fulfill a 1992 pledge to achieve "a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level" by this year. The convention's 193 signatories meeting this month in Japan will set a conservation target for 2020; a U.S. delegation is attending the two-week session even though the United States has not ratified the pact.

Environmental groups are pushing for a goal of protecting 25 percent of all land on Earth and 15 percent of the sea by 2020. At the moment, roughly 14 percent of terrestrial areas and less than 1 percent of the ocean enjoy some degree of environmental safeguards.

The new study documents the impact of such policies - 64 vulnerable species have begun recovering due to concerted conservation efforts, the article says. It provides a snapshot of how the world's birds, mammals and amphibians has evolved over three decades.

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