Friday, 29 October 2010

The reaper

The IUCN - the International Union for the Conservation of Nature - recently published a report at the UN biodiversity summit in Japan warning of the scale of the problem facing the planet's animals. One fifth of the world's vertebrates are now facing some level of extinction threat, with a new species making the red list every week. It's not very positive news.

A friend is currently in Mongolia and had a trip through the Gobi desert for a few days. Whilst there he saw bactrian camels, and more than he was expecting to. He met a number of the local nomadic people, and each told him numbers had been increasing significantly for two decades and the spreading desert meant this was likely to continue. Bactrians have the IUCN status of Critically Endangered and they state that the population is declining. There are Non-Governmental Organisations being well paid to ensure their protection. This could be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly that the NGOs work has been successful and the recent growth in numbers pointed to by anecdotal evidence is the result. Secondly that population levels in different areas of their habitat are moving in different directions with an overall downward trend. Thirdly - and cynically - that there is a possibility some organisations are exaggerating the plight of the camel and still taking funding. This most likely happens on some scale, but I'd expect the IUCN's monitoring process is robust enough to have a decent grasp on the bigger picture.

Sadly, there's no doubt the number of species close to extinction is higher now that it's been since we started keeping track and it's definitely exacerbated by human activity. Global warming aside, the main problem has been habitat loss through logging and land cultivation for farming, but pollution, hunting and over-fishing  have also had heavy tolls. Palaeontologists know very well that there have been far more dramatic drops in biodiversity in the past - the fossil record shows this clearly. The difference is that this time we have a level of responsibility. We can do something about it. There are some positives here. Conservation efforts such as hunting restrictions and captive breeding have prevented the loss of a few species, and an increased global awareness should help slow down the growth of the red list at the very least. There's a story today on the work of The Frozen Ark, in Nottingham, where DNA samples of thousands of endangered animals are stored. In case. The point of being able to resurrect 'lost' species is not too far away, and while there is an ethical debate surrounding the field of cloning and the like, it would be completely irresponsible not to act now to preserve what we have; to give the animals we have affected so badly just a touch more hope.