An ancient Chinese legend tells the story of a beautiful princess who refused to marry a man she didn’t love. As punishment, her family drowned her in the Yangtze, where she was reincarnated as a baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer).
When the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held their first meeting in 1993, the dolphin was listed as endangered, despite millions of years of evolution and a deeply-rooted connection to Chinese culture. Today, the iconic species is thought to be extinct.
More than 17,000 species—36 percent of the total of number of species assessed—are threatened with extinction, a startling number which underscores the need for immediate action.
This week in Paris, the United Nations is holding one of several celebrations and conferences to launch the International Year of Biodiversity to draw attention to the escalating plight of the world’s species as countries prepare for the CBD’s October meeting in Nagoya, Japan—a meeting which will set new targets for combating the global problem.
In reaction to recent biodiversity losses, the world’s nations should see this year as an opportunity for a new, bolder commitment to this crucial cause.
A New Target
Aside from the threat to species, the extinction crisis is also inextricably linked to ecosystem health and human well-being. The United Nations formed the CBD as a global forum for facilitating action to both sustainably manage and conserve biodiversity, and to ensure that the benefits of its conservation are shared by everyone.
IN DEPTH: 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity: discover what CI is doing to ensure species survival.
At CBD’s 2002 meeting in the Netherlands, 2010 was set as the target year for “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth”. As that year begins, it is clear that we have fallen quite short of the goal. This year, CBD will bring together governments, businesses and organizations in a series of meetings in cities around the world to discuss biodiversity protection. The new targets will be decided at the October meetings.
Despite not meeting 2010 targets, important progress has been made since the last CBD meeting to safeguard species from extinction.
In 1994, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established the current categories for their Red List of Threatened Species, a scientific framework that has since become the global standard for assessing species status and prioritizing conservation action. Its data is accessible to everyone, including scientists, governments, businesses and the general public.
Conservation International (CI) has been and will continue to be a key player in the race to identify and assess the world’s species, working with the IUCN and other partners to share resources and fieldwork. CI Conservation Science Advisor Conrad Savy emphasizes that despite setbacks, much progress has been made since the establishment of the Red List: “The list has grown to assess all the world’s mammals, sharks, amphibians and birds, and continues to grow to include marine and freshwater species, from sea grasses and dragonflies to reptiles and cacti. In that time, we have probably lost the Yangtze River Dolphin and Golden Toad [Bufo periglenes], but rescued the Arabian Oryx [Oryx leucoryx] and Seychelles Magpie Robin [Copsychus sechellarum].”
LEARN MORE: Find out about CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) and how it is working to save species.
As biological diversity underpins the health and functioning ability of ecosystems, its protection is an important aspect of all of CI’s initiatives, such as the protection of standing forests as a crucial climate change mitigation strategy. A recent paper co-authored by CI’s Dr. Celia Harvey explains how forest protection through a global REDD+ framework could have the dual benefit of slowing the rate of climate change while also conserving biodiversity. In addition, REDD+ would provide important financial incentives for governments and communities to conserve and restore natural habitats.
The Next Steps
The most recent version of the Red List (published in November 2009) revealed that species extinction continues at a dangerous rate. More than 17,000 species—36 percent of the total of number of species assessed—are threatened with extinction, a startling number which underscores the need for immediate action.
In December, CI President Russell Mittermeier and CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the two organizations, agreeing to strengthen their partnership to fulfill CBD objectives. Among their goals, CI plans to work with the CBD secretariat to catalyze research and action in key areas, such as quantifying the contribution of biodiversity and related ecosystem services to human society; promoting the links between biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts; improved implementation of the Programme of Work on Protected Areas; and strengthening engagement with businesses.
It may be too late for the baiji, but with urgent action, we can prevent countless other species from following in its wake.
READ MORE: The Red List