UN Atlas of Biodiversity Maps Human Impact

CAMBRIDGE, England, August 1, 2002 (ENS) - Plants are vanishing so quickly that the Earth is losing one major drug to extinction every two years, according to a new atlas of biodiversity released today by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

The "World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth's Living Resources for the 21st Century" is the first comprehensive map based view of global biodiversity. By using maps to show the location of plants and animals, it draws together the work of researchers across the world who have identified particularly rich or vulnerable areas.

Based in Cambridge, England, the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) was established in 2000 as the world biodiversity information and assessment center of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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The Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, is the prime source of the anti-cancer drug taxol. It grows in moist soils in British Columbia, Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Many populations are in potentially serious decline. (Photo courtesy FAO)
Fewer than one percent of the world's 250,000 tropical plants have been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications, UNEP-WCMC experts say, yet the ones that have been tested are the source of many medicines upon which humanity relies.

In the United States alone, 56 percent of the top 150 prescribed drugs with an economic value of $80 billion are linked with discoveries made in the wild. Eighty percent of people in developing countries rely on medicines based largely on plants and animals.

The atlas graphically reveals humankind's alteration of the natural world. During the past 150 years, humans have directly impacted close to 47 percent of the global land area, the atlas shows. Under one scenario, biodiversity will be threatened on almost 72 percent of Earth's land area by 2032.

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Gorilla mother and infant in the Congo Basin (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Southeast Asia, the Congo Basin and parts of the Amazon are forecast to suffer the greatest losses of biodiversity, the UNEP-WCMC atlas shows. As much as 48 percent of these areas will become converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas, compared with 22 percent today, suggesting wide depletions of biodiversity.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, said wise use of the Earth's natural resources is at the heart of sustainable development and a key issue for world leaders attending the crucial UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) which opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 26.

Biodiversity is, along with water, energy, health and agriculture, one of the five priority areas for the summit as outlined by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"Biodiversity should be one of the key issues underpinning all decisions taken at the Johannesburg Summit," said Toepfer. "You cannot tackle water, energy, health, agriculture, and ultimately poverty without the conservation, wise use and proper distribution of the many benefits arising from the living world."

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UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer June 5, 2002 at the final WSSD preparatory meeting in Bali, Indonesia (Photo courtesy ENB)
Humans now divert about 40 percent of the Earth's productivity to their own ends, much of it carried out "in a destructive and unsustainable way," Toepfer said.

Toepfer said the value of wild resources to the pharmaceutical industry alone highlights the pressing need for new and more imaginative ways of exploiting plants and animals so that the benefits are shared by all.

"We must address the issue of genetic resource sharing by giving developing countries, where the majority of biodiversity remains, an economic incentive to protect wildlife by paying them properly for the plants and animals whose genes get used in new drugs or crops," he said.

Brian Groombridge, co-author of the atlas, says, "There is little true wilderness left to support the expansion of the human population on this planet.

"Over the last decade food supply has increased to meet the growing population through higher productivity - about 69 per cent - and exploitation of wilderness - 31 percent. But, with little wilderness area left, where will the additional capacity come from?" he asks.

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Students from Minnesota explore the Ecuadorian rainforest (Photo courtesy VCC Wilderness Club)
"Globalization and the pace of technological development are out-stripping our understanding of the impacts we are having on ecosystems - putting many basic services at risk, particularly for the poor," says Groombridge.

The atlas goes beyond doom and gloom scenarios and shows how reversible current problems are. Pulling together the latest scientific assessment of the entire range of living plants and animals, it details how robust, resilient and accommodating biodiversity can be - within limits.

UNEP-WCMC Director Mark Collins says, "We know enough about the distribution of species and ecosystems to ensure that the world's biodiversity is managed effectively. Give nature half a chance and it will take care of itself."

Interactive maps from the atlas are available online at: http://stort.unep-wcmc.org/imaps/gb2002/book/viewer.htm