Price to Save Species Put at 10 Times Present Spending

A new species of miniature frog was discovered in Borneo. Microhyla nepenthicola, shown here on the tip of a pencil, is about the size of a pea. (Image credit: © Prof. Indraneil Das/ Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation)

World leaders failed to meet a 2010 target for cutting global biodiversity losses, but researchers say that conservation efforts still managed to stave off extinction for some species. Now they warn that countries must spend 10 times as much on conservation to halt the loss of plants and animals in the coming decade.

Increasing agricultural use of land, logging, over-exploitation of animals and invasive alien species have all contributed to the failure to significantly reduce biodiversity losses – a goal set by almost 200 countries during meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2002. The only good news comes from a new study showing that losses could have been 20 percent worse without conservation efforts.

Negotiations on new conservation targets have reached a stalemate at the 10th U.N. meeting for the Convention on Biological Diversity being held in Nagoya, Japan, researchers said during a press teleconference held on Tuesday (Oct. 26). They urged countries to form plans for solid action that could rescue biodiversity from its "desperate state."

"This situation is getting worse and that is having impacts on people all around the planet, but our results show that we can turn the situation around – we just need greater political will and resources," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Unit in Cambridge, England.

One of the biggest sticking points for negotiators is a plan to fight biopiracy – the act of plundering organisms from a country. Ideally, countries that had organisms taken from them would get a share of profits from later sale or usage of such organisms, but Canada and European Union countries are blocking the proposal.

The United States has signed but not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, and so it is only an observer at the Nagoya conference.

A conservation breakdown

About one-fifth of vertebrates – creatures with a backbone – are classified as "threatened" by the Red List. The list breaks down global risk of extinction into eight categories, with "threatened" encompassing the categories of critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable.

That percentage only continues to grow as, on average, 52 species move one category closer to extinction each year. That data came from looking at 25,780 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, cartilaginous fishes, reptiles and bony fishes, as detailed in the Oct. 26 issue of the journal Science.

Such vertebrate animals make up just 3 percent of all species, but have both symbolic and ecological importance for humans.

Conservation efforts have found some success in fighting off invasive alien species that threatened birds and mammals. For every five species that declined in category status because of this threat, two improved because humans took steps to tackle the invasive species.

Habitat loss for mammals and birds has posed more of a conservation challenge. For every species whose survival chances improved through human effort, 10 others saw a fall in status caused by agricultural expansion.

Targeted protection of birds has helped save them from hunting, but has not helped safeguard mammals as much. By contrast, marine mammals have fared better under conservation than birds – the humpback whale and blue whale stand out as successes due to protection from commercial whaling. [Related: Top 10 Species Success Stories]

Meeting the threat

Each individual species and region faces different threats. Rising extinction risks in Southeast Asia come largely from habitat loss due to planting export crops like palm oil, hardwood timber operations, and conversion of land to rice paddies.

By contrast, amphibian species in California, Central America, the tropical Andean regions of South America and Australia have become endangered by mysterious infectious diseases. That, combined with less conservation efforts for amphibians, has put the critters in "double jeopardy," researchers said.

The toxic effects of the veterinary drug diclofenac have also killed Asian vultures to the point where some populations have declined by 99 percent.

"What we need is a particular [conservation] solution to a particular problem, not just one solution that will work everywhere the same way," said Ana Rodrigues, an ecologist at the Center for Evolutionary and Functional Ecology in France and a co-author of the Science study.

More targeted conservation funding could help. A disproportionate amount of conservation funding is spent in wealthy countries, while poorer regions such as Southeast Asia see the greatest imbalance between improving and deteriorating biodiversity trends.

Saving the world

Researchers also want specific, measurable goals for the next decade's targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, said Stuart Butchart, a research coordinator for BirdLife International in Cambridge, in response to a LiveScience question.

"For 2020, the 20 targets that are currently being negotiated are much more focused and specific," Butchart explained. "They should be much more tractable in terms of turning into focused actions to meet each of the individual targets, certainly much more so than the great overarching 2010 target."

Those targets include extending protected areas across a greater part of the Earth's land and sea surface, as part of a strategic effort to reduce the losses of habitats.

Even the United States can take action despite not having ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, researchers said. They pointed to a recent "extinction hot spot" in Hawaii where the Kamao bird and other species have recently gone extinct due to invasive diseases and certain climate changes. Many more Hawaiian species are "teetering on the brink of extinction right in America's backyard,” the researchers wrote.

"If I could ask one thing [of the U.S.], it would be to show leadership and get serious about tackling the conservation issues in Hawaii," Butchart said.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.