Destruction of ecosystems now threatening human species

Posted: 2 August 2002

Scientists estimate that at current extinction rates of plants and animals, the Earth is losing one major drug every two years. This startling fact is revealed in the first World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth's Living Resources for the 21st Century, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

Around 80 per cent of people in developing countries rely on medicines based largely on plants and animals. In the United States alone, 56 per cent of the top 150 prescribed drugs with an economic value of $80 billion, are linked with discoveries made in the wild. However, it is estimated that less than one per cent of the world's 250,000 tropical plants has been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications.

Cultivating medicinal plants© UNEP-WCMC

Population pressures

The Atlas also highlights how current rates of human population growth and consumption are threatening the natural world - and the very existence of humans themselves.

"There is little true wilderness left to support the expansion of the human population on this planet," says Brian Groombridge, co-author of the Atlas. "Over the last decade food supply has increased to meet the growing population through higher productivity (about 69 per cent) and exploitation of wilderness (31 per cent). But, with little wilderness area left, where will the additional capacity come from?"

During the past 150 years, humans have directly impacted and altered close to 47 per cent of the global land area, say the authors.

Under one bleak scenario, biodiversity will be threatened on almost 72 per cent of the land area by 2032. The Atlas reveals losses of biodiversity are likely to be particularly severe in South East Asia, the Congo basin and parts of the Amazon. As much as 48 per cent of these areas will become converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas, compared with 22 per cent today, suggesting wide depletions of biodiversity.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said wise use of the Earth's natural resources was at the heart of sustainable development and a key issue for world leader's attending the crucial World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) which opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 26 August.

"Humankind now diverts about 40 per cent of the Earth's productivity to its own ends, much of this is being carried out in a destructive and unsustainable way. It is vital that we reverse these unsustainable practises while at the same time taking advantages of the opportunities presented by the planet's natural capital, its natural wealth," he said.

Mr Toepfer said the proper and responsible use of the Earth's natural treasures could play a key role in reducing poverty and thus should be seen by world leaders at WSSD as a key area to address. Biodiversity is, along with water, energy, health and agriculture, one of the five priority areas for the United Nations as outlined by Kofi Annan, its Secretary-General.

The new Atlas outlines some of the broad ecological relationships between humans and the rest of the material world and summarizes information on the health of the planet. More specifically it shows how "wilderness areas" are on the retreat as roads and urban centres spread into places like the Amazon basin, the Arctic and desert zones.

Precautionary principle

"Globalisation and the pace of technological development are out-stripping our understanding of the impacts we are having on ecosystems - putting many basic services at risk, particularly for the poor," says Groombridge. "At the same, there is now enough evidence to show that we should take the precautionary approach and not interfere with the global processes that maintain our fishing, forestry, agriculture, health and climate."

The Atlas goes beyond doom and gloom scenarios and asks how irreversible current problems are. Pulling together the latest thinking on the subject it shows, through a scientific assessment of the entire range of living plants and animals, just how robust, resilient and accommodating biodiversity can be - within limits.

By using maps to show the location of biodiversity, UNEP-WCMC draws together the work of researchers across the world who have identified particularly rich or vulnerable areas, including 'hotspots' and 'eco-regions'. These are regions where it is particularly important to identify development paths that can serve humankind without reducing nature's capital.

The Atlas is the first comprehensive map-based view of global biodiversity. It provides a wealth of facts and figures on the importance of forests, wetlands, marine and coastal environ-ments and other key ecosystems. It is the best current synthesis of the latest research and analysis by UNEP-WCMC and the conservation community worldwide.

Hard facts from the World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth's Living Resources in the 21st Century

  • up to 95% of species may have disappeared during the later Permian extinction episode, some 250 mill yrs ago.

  • 80% of the maize varieties used in Mexico in 1930 have been lost

  • up to 500 food plant species have been recorded in home gardens of one village in Java.

  • the biomass of the world's humans plus their domestic livestock is only exceeded by the estimated combined biomass of the world's bacteria.

  • starting some 45,000 years ago a high proportion of larger land animals became extinct in North America, Australia, the Caribbean and elsewhere, coincident with human arrival.

The World Atlas of Biodiversity was prepared by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and published by University of California Press. For access to press release, maps, presentation, poster and other materialss, click here.