Species Disappearing 100 Times Faster Than Ever Before

PARIS, France, January 24, 2005 (ENS) - Species are being lost globally at a rate 100 times faster than the average rate during the Earth's history, a panel of prestigious scientists today warned an international convention gathered at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. They said tens of thousands of other species are already committed to future extinction because of the recent worldwide loss of their habitats.

To halt and reverse the "alarming rate of extinction of living species and destruction of their ecosystems," more than 1,000 researchers, political leaders and representatives of the private sector opened a five day conference this morning. The meeting is being held under the patronage of French President Jacques Chirac and Koïchiro Matsuura, the director-general of UNESCO.


President of France Jacques Chirac is concerned about the unprecedented loss of Earth's biodiversity. (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
One of the main objectives of the International Conference on Biodiversity: Science and Governance is to assess current knowledge and define the needs for research and scientific expertise.

Participants will examine public and private approaches to biodiversity conservation and management and look at ways to develop measuring standards and observation systems to monitor biodiversity.

“This conference is an important opportunity both to take stock of scientific knowledge and to make it available to all stakeholders, especially to decision makers," declared Matsuura. "It is also an opportunity to link the scientific community, political, and economic decision-makers, and civil society.

"All must work together to stem the loss of biodiversity, which undermines humanity’s future prospects on Earth,” he said.

Many animal and plant species continue to be threatened with extinction, despite the fact that more than 170 countries have ratified the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, and that the international community made a strong commitment at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002 to reduce the loss of biodiversity significantly by the year 2010.

The IUCN-World Conservation Union estimates that more than 7,000 animal species are threatened while among plants the figure is nearer to 60,000.

Michel Loreau, president of the scientific committee, in his speech during the plenary session this morning, presented the draft of a Paris Appeal of scientists in favor of biodiversity. A work in progress, it will be open for amendment proposals during the convention.


Professor Michel Loreau of the Ecole Normale Supérieure presented the scientists' statement. (Photo courtesy Ecole Normale Supérieure)
"Biodiversity is a natural heritage and a vital resource for all humankind," the document opens. But then it warns, "Biodiversity is being destroyed irreversibly by human activities."

This biodiversity, which is the product of more than three billion years of evolution, the panel said, is a natural heritage and a vital resource upon which humankind depends in many different ways - for aesthetic, spiritual, cultural, and recreational values; as well as food, wood, textiles and pharmaceuticals.

Biodiversity supports ecosystem services on which human societies depend often indirectly, such as production of resources for domesticated or harvested animals, crop pollination, maintenance of water quality and soil fertility, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, and resistance of ecosystems to disturbances and environmental changes.

And finally, the scientific panel said, it provides opportunities for human societies to adapt to changing needs and circumstances, and discover new products and technologies.

"A major effort is needed to understand, conserve and sustainably use biodiversity," the Paris Appeal states.

European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told the opening session this morning that "protecting biodiversity means that governments will have to take difficult decisions where the benefits will only result in the longer-term. These are decisions which will not always be universally popular in the short-term."

"It means persuading the fishermen, who risk their lives to bring fish to market, that they have to change their practices in order to avoid the collapse of fish stocks and damage to the marine environment," Dimas said.


European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas by the sea in his native Greece. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
"It means telling farmers that we don’t just want more food. Instead we want more emphasis on quality and respect for the environment," said Dimas.

"It means ensuring that infrastructure and other development projects do not damage areas critical for nature protection," said the new environment commissioner.

Dimas announced that the Commission plans to provide €30 million to China to strengthen biodiversity governance.

To date, scientific literature describes fewer than 1.5 million living species, out of an estimated total of up to 30 million species on Earth.

Biodiversity, however, encompasses not only living species but the range of ecosystems they form. The loss of ecosystems such as coral reefs has been shown to increase the vulnerability of coastal areas in the event of natural disasters, such as last month’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The recent tsunami, "while not directly related to biodiversity, has shown the importance of conserving natural systems," said Dimas. "There are indications that the loss of coral reefs and mangrove swamps in certain parts of Asia has reduced the natural protection of coastlines - a protection which would have softened the devastating impact of the tsunami."

The world has made "slow progress" towards the goal of reducing global biodiversity loss by 2010, he said and emphasized that all 25 European Union member states must fully implement environmental law.

He said that later this year, the Commission will submit a Communication to the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament setting out a road map for the 2010 biodiversity targets.

It will prioritize species and habitats for protection and reinforce integration of biodiversity protection into other key policies - such as agriculture, fisheries, regional development, and development assistance, Dimas said.

He promised to fund scientific research as "a basic principle at the heart of all of the EU’s environmental policy."


The blue pike was an endemic fish of the Great Lakes in the United States and Canada. Commercial and sport fishers together landed a billion pounds of the fish between 1885 and 1962. At times, the blue pike made up more than 50 percent of the commercial catch in Lake Erie. It was declared extinct in September 1983, although a few are reportedly still seen. (Photo courtesy Nativefish.org)
"But the real key to success will depend on the willingness of all of us – the Commission, member states, civil society and our partners in third countries - to implement the suggestions and to mobilize support," he said.

Other speakers this morning were Jacques Chirac President of France; Marc Ravalomanana, the President of the Republic of Madagascar; Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria; Abdullah Badawi, Prime Minister of Malaysia; Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, laureate of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize; François d’Aubert, France’s Minister for Research; Serge Lepeltier, France’s Minister for the Ecology and Sustainable Development; Klaus Toepfer, Director-General of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Hamdallah Zedan, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity; and Valli Moosa, President of IUCN-World Conservation Union.

This afternoon the first of four plenary sessions will focus on the challenges of biodiversity, science and governance.

Status and trends of the world’s biodiversity will be the subject of the second plenary session on Tuesday

Wednesday's focus will be the social and ecological benefits of biodiversity

Biodiversity and management of living resources is the focus of Thursday's plenary.

Summary reports of the workshops will be presented on Friday. At that time the scientific community will present its conclusions in a session that will include the participation of Xavier Darcos, Minister Delegate for Cooperation, Development and French speaking countries; Walter Erdelen, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO; Stéphane Dion, Canada's Environment Minister; Guanhua Xu, China's Minister of Science and Technology; Elliot Morley, the UK Minister for Environment and Agri-Environment; and François d’Aubert, French Minister for Research.