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

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

Wilson began his talk by challenging the audience to consider: "How will we be remembered 1,000 years from now, when we're as remote as Charlemagne?" He cited a long list of modern achievements that included milestones and technological innovations such as the colonization of space, global communications, and decoding the human genome.

"In this ebullient view," he asked, "what might we have overlooked, what do we risk losing forever?" A huge reduction of the world's biodiversity, he asserted, is something for which future generations "are most likely not to forgive us."

Wilson said while destruction of the natural environment began a long time ago, "we are proceeding to gulp down our capital faster and faster, without adequately recognizing that it is finite and is being depleted rapidly by over-consumption."

The situation will be further strained, he noted, because of the high rates of population growth in many countries. The world population is projected to grow from 6 billion people today to 8 billion at mid-century, while per-capita levels of water and land are dropping to "risky" levels.

Reducing poverty is a twin challenge to conservation, Wilson emphasized, because many of the world's poorest people are now heavily dependent on the natural environment to meet their basic needs.

"The greatest challenge of this and future centuries," he said, "is to raise the standard of life for people [in the developing world] as much as possible while preserving as much natural life as we can."

Century of the Environment

Wilson said that while destruction of the natural environment is accelerating much faster than the damage can be repaired, society increasingly recognizes the need to act. "Today, new technology combined with an enlightened attitude will get us out of this bottleneck," he predicted.

"The 21st Century," said Wilson, "is destined to be the century of the environment, a time to get our house in order."

He said he foresees a scientific explosion of knowledge about biodiversity in the years ahead because of technical advances and a convergence of scientific disciplines—much like that which made it possible to provide, in a remarkably short time, access to an overwhelming amount of information about the human genome.

Today, for example, a number of innovations have been introduced that are making it possible for scientists to reach the canopies of towering trees in rain forests to study the rich colonies of life that exist there.

Scientists are also increasing their understanding of the conditions required to sustain species, which is needed to guide conservation measures.

From studies of so-called island ecology, researchers can now better predict how species are affected when habitats shrink or are sliced into patches by human activities such as logging or the building of trails. It's now known, Wilson said, that when an area of habitat is reduced by 90 percent, the amount of its biodiversity is reduced by half. Even the species that remain, however, suffer "edge effect," such as drier conditions, that heighten their vulnerability.

Following his talk, Wilson responded to a question about genetically modified plants. He said transgenic crops will be necessary to help feed the world by producing greater yields and making it possible to grow crops that require less water and other natural resources. As for "superweeds," he said they already exist in the natural world in the form of invasive species that are wreaking havoc on many ecosystems and costing society billions of dollars a year in damage.

Regarding concerns about the possible harmful effects of transgenic foods on human health, Wilson said careful monitoring, by regulatory agencies and others, will be needed.

Nonetheless, he added, "I think the benefits outweigh the risks."

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