Biodiversity Expert Urges "Buying" of Endangered Ecosystems

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
May 3, 2001

With plant and animal species disappearing from Earth at unprecedented rates, biodiversity expert E. O. Wilson has proposed an immediate strategy to help halt that loss: buying access to the world's most important and threatened ecosystems so they can be managed for conservation.

In a lecture delivered May 2 at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, Wilson said conservationists recently estimated that a current investment of U.S. $28 billion would protect, well into the future, 70 percent of the known plant and animal species in the world.

"We now know that destruction of habitat does the most damage to the diversity of life all around the world," said Wilson, an entomologist and conservation biologist at Harvard University.

Wilson said the cost estimate was presented last year at a conference sponsored by Conservation International. Participants concluded that U.S. $4 billion would be enough to secure most of the remaining tropical forest wilderness—most of which is in Congo, New Guinea, and the Amazon—to prevent it from being logged or destroyed for other uses.

Similarly, another U.S. $24 billion could fund the long-term preservation of 2.4 million square kilometers of "hot spot" areas that are known to harbor a remarkably wide range of plant and animal life.

According to Wilson, 25 regions that together total only 1.4 percent of the ice-free surface of Earth contain as much as 44 percent of all major plant species and 36 percent of all the world's mammals, reptiles, and other animals.

"Large blocks of remaining wilderness areas can be preserved at remarkably low cost," said Wilson.

One approach is turning logging concessions into conservation concessions by "buying out" timber companies. Because logging companies operate at very low profit margins, that could be done for as little as U.S. $10 an acre, Wilson said. Other possible strategies include setting up trust funds, with the proceeds paid to countries to conserve important ecosystems; purchasing logging rights, but not cutting down the trees; and purchasing land outright.

Along with these measures, Wilson said research and management expertise should be made available to developing countries to help them explore alternative ways of benefiting from their biodiversity, such as through tourism and carbon credits.

"Resources have to be found immediately if we're going to save most diversity of life," Wilson warned.

A Legacy to Protect

Continued on Next Page >>


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