Friday, June 29, 2012

Conserving Biodiversity Is Essential For Human Economic Security and Survival

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) through its international news release of 19th June has cautioned the world that "the source of our food, medicines and clean water, as well the livelihoods of millions of people may be at risk with the rapid decline of the world’s animal, plant and fungi species".

The IUCN released its latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, on 19th June on the eve of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Red List is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity.

The list shows that of the 63,837 species assessed, 19,817 are threatened with extinction: the most threatened group is of amphibians (41%), folowed by reef building corals (33%), mammals (25%), birds (13%), and conifers (30%).

“Sustainability is a matter of life and death for people on the planet,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General, IUCN. “A sustainable future cannot be achieved without conserving biological diversity - animal and plant species, their habitats and their genes - not only for nature itself, but also for all 7 billion people who depend on it." 

                                                                                                          A film by IUCN

The latest IUCN Red List was a clarion call to world leaders who gathered in Rio to secure the web of life on this planet. Wealthy countries depend primarily on few domesticated species for their dietary needs, but globally millions of other people are dependent on hundreds of wild species.

Freshwater ecosystems are under substantial pressure from expanding human populations and exploitation of water resources. An important food source, freshwater fish are facing threats from unsustainable fishing practices and habitat destruction caused by pollution and the construction of dams.

A quarter of the world’s inland fisheries are located on the African continent, yet 27% of freshwater fish in Africa are threatened including the Oreochromis karongae, an extremely important source of food in the Lake Malawi region that has been severely overfished. In the latest IUCN Red List update the Mekong Herring (Tenualosa thibaudeaui), an important commercial fish endemic to the lower Mekong River in the Indo-Burma region, has been listed as vulnerable as a result of overfishing and habitat degradation.

Fishing constitutes main source of food and primary income in 90% of coastal populations in several parts of the world, but overfishing has led to decline of commercial fish stocks by over 90%. Currently 36% of skates and rays are threatened with extinction including the commercially valuable Leopard Ray (Himantura leoparda), which is listed as now a vulnerable species due to extensive habitat degradation and fishing pressure.

More than 275 million people are dependent on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and livelihoods. Globally, coral reef fisheries are worth USD 6.8 billion annually. Overfishing affects 55% of the world’s reefs. According to the IUCN Red List, 18% of groupers, an economically important family of large reef fish, are threatened. It is therefore imperative that Coral reefs must be protected and managed sustainably to ensure them as source of essential food that millions of people rely on as a source of protein.

“The services and economic value that species provide are irreplaceable and essential to our wellbeing,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez, Deputy Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC). “Unless we live within the limits set by nature, and manage our natural resources sustainably, more and more species will be driven towards extinction. If we ignore our responsibility we will compromise our own survival.”

Crop wild relatives, such as the Critically Endangered Beta patula, a primary wild relative of cultivated beets, are of vital importance for food security and agriculture as they can be used to produce new crop varieties. It is estimated that crop wild relatives contribute more than USD 100 billion worldwide towards increased crop yields.

Production of at least one third of the world’s food, including 87 of the 113 leading food crops, depends on pollination carried out by insects, bats and birds. This ecosystem service is worth over USD 200 billion per year. According to the IUCN Red List 16% of Europe’s endemic butterflies are threatened. Bats, which are also important pollinators, are also at risk with 18% threatened globally.

The latest IUCN Red List update shows that four members of the hummingbird family, which is known for its pollination services, are now at greater risk of extinction with the Pink-throated Brilliant (Heliodoxa gularis) listed as Vulnerable. In addition to their important pollination roles, bats and birds also aid in controlling insect populations that may otherwise destroy economically important agricultural plants.

Invasive alien species are one of the leading and most rapidly growing threats to food security, human and animal health and biodiversity. A recent analysis of IUCN Red List data highlighted invasive alien species as the fifth most severe threat to amphibians, and the third most severe threat to birds and mammals.

Together with climate change, invasive alien species have become one of the most difficult threats to reverse. For example, Water Hyacinth (Eichnornia crassipes) is an aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin, but in Africa its rapid spread poses a significant threat to water supplies and the use of inland waters for fishing or transportation. The economic impacts may be as much as USD 100 million annually across all of Africa.

Solutions incorporating awareness and prevention measures, as well as early warning and rapid response systems that include containment, control and eradication programmes, need to be implemented on both a regional and global scale in order to reduce the negative effects of alien species.

The latest IUCN Red List shows that 10% of snakes endemic to China and South East Asia are threatened with extinction. Snakes are unsustainably used in traditional medicines and anti-venom serum, as food, and as a source of income from the sale of skins. Nearly 43% of the endemic snake species in South East Asia which are in the Endangered and Vulnerable categories are threatened, and this trend ought to be reversed.

The world’s largest venomous snake, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), is listed as vulnerable due to loss of habitat and over-exploitation for medicinal purposes. The Burmese Python (Python bivittatus), best-known in the West as an invasive species in the Florida Everglades, is also listed as vulnerable in its native range, with trade and over-exploitation for food and skins, especially in China and Vietnam, being the main threats to the species. Despite its designation as a protected species in China, populations there show no evidence of recovery, and illegal catching continues.

While  medicinal plants and animals are used as source of medicinal products in several countries, about 100 most-prescribed drugs originate from wild species. Amphibians play a vital role in the search for new medicines as important chemical compounds can be found on the skin of many frogs. Yet 41% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction, including the recently described frog, Anodonthyla hutchisoni from Madagascar, which is now considered endangered.

More than 70,000 different plant species are used in traditional and modern medicine. The IUCN Red List update includes a number of South East Asian plants which are used for food and medicine. The Tsao-ko Cardamom (Amomum tsao-ko), is now a nearly threatened species because its edible fruits have been over-harvested for trading. In several cases the over-exploitation combined with loss of habitat due to deforestation and other threats has resulted in species being listed in a threatened category.

Two relatives of turmeric – Curcuma candida and Curcuma rhabdota (Candy Cane Ginger) - are both listed as vulnerable, and the Zingiber monophyllum, a wild species of ginger is listed as endangered.

Other important services supplied by species include improvement and control of air quality by plants and trees. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year. They clean the soil, act as carbon sinks, and clean the air. Bivalve molluscs and many wetland plants carry out water filtration services to provide clean water, whilst snails help control algae.

In Africa 42% of all freshwater molluscs are globally threatened and in Europe 68% of endemic freshwater molluscs are globally threatened by habitat loss, pollution and the development of dams.

“Most of the drivers of biodiversity loss, including species extinctions, are economic in nature,” says Dr Simon Stuart, Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission. “An economy can only be described as ‘green’ if it promotes the achievement of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that governments agreed on in 2010.”

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