Only 4% more protected land could save biodiversity

A global inventory of the planet’s wildlife is urgently needed, along with funding and recruitment in taxonomy and ecology. At a Science Media Centre press conference, experts called for more efforts to preserve biodiversity and support attempts to develop a global electronic database of species. Only a marginal increase in protected land could save many more species.

“It’s remarkable that we don’t have a complete inventory of the species we share the planet with,” says the chief executive of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). We still know very little about what species exist, particularly those that are only a few millimetres in size, says Professor John Lawton. For example, of the three million species of insect estimated to exist, only one million have been identified. And the total area of oceans sampled is half the size of London.

“We’re handicapped by not knowing what’s out there,” agrees Professor Robert May, former chief scientific advisor to the UK government. The EU is aiming to reverse the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, yet we don’t actually know what that rate of loss is, he argues. The best estimate is that extinction rates are a thousand times faster than they would be naturally, and are expected to increase 10-fold over the next century.

Biodiversity is also suffering because has it has few champions in the science world, says May. Ecology and taxonomy are losing graduates to more ‘sexy’ subjects like molecular biology. In Africa, says Professor Lawton, where termites are responsible for the destruction of buildings and land, there is only one qualified termite taxonomist in the whole of Africa.

For those who do end up in ecological research, the bias is shifted towards birds and mammals, with two-thirds of research papers being published on those species. This approach ignores the more important aspects of functioning ecosystems, says Professor May, because it is the smaller species, such as soil microbes, that keep the system going.

The world also needs a global catalogue, to bring together information scattered in museums around the world, says May. The UN has made a start, with attempts to develop a Global Biodiversity Informatrix facility, but more funding is needed to enable institutions like the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens to transfer their data from card indexes to electronic databases.

Without a global database, species disappear before they are recognised. “It’s like burning books faster than we can read them,” says May, arguing that while we have a tradition of cataloguing books in libraries, we neglect other forms of knowledge equally in need of organisation.

But although current rates of extinction are alarming, all is not lost. A little more protected land will save a lot more species, argues Professor Lawton. Globally, 6% of the Earth’s surface is set aside for nature and conservation. If another 4% of land was added, and that 10% was properly protected, half of the planet’s species could effectively be preserved.

Nevertheless, human beings need to avoid making a greater ecological footprint, says Lawton, as the population already consumes half the planet’s resources and consumption is growing exponentially. “The underlying cause of accelerating extinction is too many people,” concurs Professor May, although species introduction can also be damaging. The Scottish islands of Uist are struggling with their population of hedgehogs, says May. Originally introduced to eliminate garden slugs, the hedgehogs now threaten seabirds because they eat the birds’ eggs.

The cost of doing more would not be prohibitively expensive, concludes May. Setting aside 10% of land would cost £30 billion a year, while ‘greening’ agriculture would cost £300 billion per year. But with a global GDP of £30 trillion, these measures would only come to 1% of the planet’s GDP. Currently, the annual turnover at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses exceeds global spending on taxonomy.

The biggest difficulty is engaging politicians. Because biodiversity loss occurs on slow timescales, it is easier for politicians to act on more pressing issues such as climate change, argues May. “Most spending in the life sciences is directed at knowledge directly helpful to us,” says May. “All congressmen know that they are likely to get sick.”

But promoting biodiversity on its potential to generate pharmaceutical products is misleading, and can backfire, argues Professor Lawton. Instead, bioprospecting – understanding organism behaviour in terms of survival – offers more scope for business. For example, starfish are able to float on the sea’s surface for hours without getting burnt, because they are covered in a slime that essentially acts as a waterproof sunscreen. “Asking the intelligent questions can lead to useful biotech solutions,” says Lawton.

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