Nations are getting on board with biodiversity efforts, but more can be done

Saturday, May 31, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Professor Byron Scott: Today’s storyline is one we judge to be underreported. It is about biodiversity and results of the current Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany, in which more than 100 nation are participating. The Living Planet Index, which is compiled by the Zoological Society of London for the World Wildlife Foundation and tracks nearly 4,000 wildlife species, has shown falls in populations of about 27 percent over the last 30 years. That number includes bird and fish populations. Why is this happening, and can the biological diversity meeting influence this disturbing trend?

Russell Greenberg, center head, Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C.: Exploitation of species is a huge problem. Habitat loss is also a major, complicated issue. It’s not just a matter of setting aside and protecting habitats like people thought decades ago. We’re increasingly focusing on the whole landscape. The biggest disproportionate impact in endangerment and extinction occurs on islands. Island flora and fauna are really taking it. By creating an archipelago of protected landscapes in a sea of unprotected ones, we can create a new landscape and protect as many areas as possible. Other global impacts include transporting pollutants like mercury into the boreal forests and climate change affecting undisturbed areas thousands of miles from development.

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Nina Haase, producer, “Living Planet,” Deutsche Welle Radio, Bonn, Germany: The disappearance of biodiversity is not new, but the human contribution to it is. The rate of decline is 100 to 1,000 times faster than it used to be, so nature can’t recover by itself. The clear message being sent in Bonn is that we need to do something. The topic is of global importance, and it has reached everyone across all levels of society.

Scott: Why aren’t we seeing much reporting about this story in the United States?

Sunny Lewis, founding editor-in-chief, Environment News Service, Seattle: Our news service has covered this story since its founding in 1990. During that time, biodiversity has shrunk. The delegates in Bonn are saying it may not be possible to meet a 2010 target to stop biodiversity loss, and they’re saying they can’t significantly reduce it either. Many factors play into this. Large, efficient fleets are over-fishing ocean species, and logging is wiping out species in Indonesia and Africa. One species may not make a difference, but it’s happening all over.

Scott: What is the view from Japan?

Stephen Hesse, environmental columnist, The Japan Times, Tokyo: When we talk about biodiversity, we’re talking about the variety of life throughout the planet — all plants, all animals. That’s 5 to 30 million species, of which we have only identified a minimal portion. We’re wiping them out before we even find them. These species are the backbone to our economy, to our survival. They’re our food, our shelter, our clothes, the things we make medicines from. To be cavalierly changing the climate, clearing our oceans of species, and dumping waste into our rivers is a tragedy. We can talk about stopping the change, but we’re having such a huge impact that we need more than a slowing of the destruction. We need a different way of doing business.

Scott: There have been reports of floating masses of plastic continents in the ocean, perhaps twice the size of Texas. Reportedly, seabirds and fish consume the plastic and suffocate. Do these plastic islands exist?

Lewis: One of the biggest “garbage islands” is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Plastic from around the North Pacific Rim gets caught up in a large, turning current and contaminates the ocean. But the lines from fishing boats that stretch out for hundreds of miles are a larger threat to seabirds. Seabirds get hooked, and when fishermen pull the lines in, the birds are attached. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature based in Geneva puts out a red list, and every few years it finds fewer birds have survived. The IUCN also says climate change is one of the primary factors putting birds at risk of extinction.

Scott: Why do we have to get more than 100 nations together to talk about threats to biodiversity?

Haase: It is a task the international community can only solve together. They set up the convention in 1992, saying they’d have a target date by which they’d have an agreement. At this conference, they’re trying to establish a road map to reach the deadline in two years. It’s a daunting task. It’s about finding out who is responsible and who should pay for it. For instance, less than 1 percent of our world’s oceans are protected areas. The rest is beyond national jurisdiction, which means the global community has to come together and reverse the way it’s done business.

Scott: Is the U.S. a signatory to this convention?

Lewis: Yes, and the U.S. puts a lot of money into conserving species, but there are so many threats. While money is important, it’s also a matter of the attitude of greedy people who want that tiger skin, who must kill a rhino to get its horn. Poachers are wiping out a lot of the species. It’s not just habitat destruction.

Haase: People have realized it comes down to a sustainable use of nature. We need to find a way of living with what we have, of not consuming too much of our planet’s resources. The conference is calling for a study about the economics of biodiversity. Experts are saying we can’t do anything if business doesn’t get on board. They’re trying to evaluate that, much as they did with studying how much mitigating the effect of climate change costs. When they did that, the international community got the message and started acting.

Scott: Japan is often demonized for environmental sins like over-fishing. What is Japan’s attitude on this issue?

Hesse: Japan is realizing it needs to lead the pack in controlling illegal fishing. Japan is mostly staying within its own limits, but unfortunately it’s easy to buy illegal catch through countries like China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Those countries over-fish or buy illegal fish and process it so it comes out as a product of China or of the Philippines. Therefore, the Japanese can buy it and claim they’re not responsible for its legality. Everyone is pointing a finger at everyone else, but the Japanese consume about 30 percent of tuna, and they need to take a lead in the ecosystem’s preservation.

Scott: What are the potential action items, beginning with this conference?

Haase: Germany, as the host country, has taken the first step by announcing it will invest 500 million Euros during four years. That’s a positive, clear sign to the international community that we need money. The IUCN’s director general said biodiversity needs the same attention as climate change has gotten.

Greenberg: The greatest species loss is in the tropical forest, so protecting the remaining forest remains a big issue. The other shoe that will drop is the matrix around our parks. The challenge is finding ways people can live, make money and raise families on the landscapes around these reserves and still have them be areas that provide connectivity and friendly areas for biodiversity.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Mark Stanley and Catherine Wolf.

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