World's leading conservationists meeting in Missouri

Monday, October 5, 2009 | 5:29 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Some of the world's leading conservationists said Monday that they need public and political help to avert a global crisis of diminishing biodiversity.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, representing more than 1,300 leading institutions worldwide, is meeting this week in St. Louis for its 64th annual conference. Zoo and aquarium directors said rising Earth and sea temperatures, overfishing and human encroachment on habitats have taken a heavy toll on the world's creatures.

WAZA President Gordon McGregor Reid said the association plans not only to lobby world leaders about lowering carbon dioxide emissions and other issues, but also to do more to educate the 600 million people who visit zoos and aquariums globally every year.

Organization leaders said their groups have a duty to educate people about the effects of biodiversity loss.

Jane Smart of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based network of more than 1,000 government and non-governmental organizations, said the public needs to be made more aware of the relationship between biodiversity and the well-being of humans.

She said it must be made a world priority. The IUCN publishes a "red list" that tracks the status of species, and while it chronicles some successes, most of the news isn't good.

"The species are in severe trouble," she said. "How can we wake up the world to the loss of biodiversity?"

The groups also intend to press politicians and other global leaders to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Existing levels are 387 parts per million and rising, and world leaders have said they want to strive for a cap of 450 ppm. But anything higher than 350 ppm will heat the oceans, make them more acidic and kill the water plant life that he said provides 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe, McGregor Reid said.

"The oceans," he said, "are the lungs of the planet."

The two-day conference is being hosted by the Saint Louis Zoo and is covering such topics as species extinction, conservation initiatives, population and poverty.

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