Ecology & The Environment:

Can Biodiversity Be Saved?


By Professor G. Agoramoorthy

Protected Areas Management and Eco-Tourism, Tajen Institute of Technology, Taiwan

Director, Research and Conservation Department, Wildlife Reserves Singapore



How much biodiversity is the world in danger of losing? Even for scientists, this question is difficult to answer because some 4 to 40 million species are unknown and unmonitored, and other elements of biodiversity such as genes, populations, communities and habitats are equally hard to assess. There is no doubt that our planet’s forests are under attack, and indeed about 200 million ha were lost between 1980 and 1995 alone --an area larger than Mexico. In this murky situation, we have no choice except to protect forests that are known to harbour a maximum diversity of species.


Biologists have identified 25 biodiversity hotspots that cover about 2 per cent of our Earth’s land surface. The catch phrase ‘‘biodiversity hotspots’’ was actually coined by the British ecologist Norman Myers more than a decade ago. Endemism in vascular plants is the main criterion for identifying hotspots, because each hotspot harbours about 2,500 species of endemic vascular plants or 1 per cent of the total known diversity.


The Caribbean, Philippines and Madagascar are considered the highest priority hotspots. Madagascar and the Caribbean alone are among the top five hotspots in terms of endemic species of flora and fauna, exceeding 2 per cent of global diversity, and the Philippines is in the next four in this privileged list. However, these areas have lost alarming amounts of natural forests in recent years as a result of habitat destruction. In 2000 a study published by a global alliance of conservation groups called BirdLife International found that as much as 12 per cent of the world's 9,800 bird species are threatened with extinction within the next century and that in the near future an additional 8 per cent may become threatened. It does not mean that other areas that are not included in the hotspots should be ignored, and, indeed, every country in the world must attempt to protect its own biodiversity.


The majority of the biodiversity hotspots are located in countries where poverty is rampant, and this frustrates attempts to preserve threatened habitats. Thus, the threat to biodiversity loss is real. The global human population reached 6.1 billion in 2000, an increase of 77 million over 1999. The mean human density in biological hotspots is 73 people/km2, which is 71 per cent greater than the global mean density. Asia and the Pacific have 23 per cent of the world's land areas but 58 per cent of its people. The Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Hotspots are the most densely populated (341 people/km2). The combination of rapidly expanding populations existing in abject poverty in biodiversity hotspots may lead to social disorder, further frustrating attempts to preserve biodiversity.


The Global Environmental Facility that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit organized by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro, has co-financed USD5 billion over the last six years, of which 70 per cent has gone to biodiversity conservation projects worldwide in addition to the involvement of several multilateral development banks in biodiversity-related investments. Although this might have made life comfortable for conservationists, did it eliminate poverty among the marginalized people who live in hotspots? The forest where I watched monkeys while I was a student in India has already disappeared, replaced with a new bustling town. People still remain poor near the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. When people are socially healthy, when they have hope for their future, only then will the future of biodiversity be secured in hotspots.


We are living in a marketing world today. Passion is not enough to safeguard biodiversity, and we must be practical. We must give more attention to strengthening demand for financing and to promote win-win investments, for example, in the energy and water sectors where biodiversity conservation and economic benefits can go hand in hand. It is also necessary to increase the Western support to environmental investments in South East Asian countries. Furthermore, it is important to establish or strengthen the role of the national environmental and biodiversity conservation funds. These funds could get their resources through taxes/fines from national/international and this practice today accounting for 20 per cent of environmental expenditures in several Central and Eastern European countries. Moreover, biodiversity conservation and nature tourism have decades old history in Southeast Asia. Ecotourism is a multi-billion dollar business industry, and it capitalizes on a growing regional market sector. Ecotourism is also a tool for the future as it nurtures the already high respect that young people have for the local and regional natural scenery, wild areas and wildlife.


You will be surprised to know that the estimated economic and environmental benefits from biodiversity are in fact substantial. In the USA alone, their services contribute an estimated USD319 billion per year! Relative to the USD6 trillion per year of US gross domestic product (GDP) the services amount to 5 per cent of GDP. For the world the benefits are estimated to be USD2928 billion per year, or approximately 11 per cent of the total world economy of USD26 trillion per year. These estimated benefits are clearly conservative since a similar study estimates world economic benefits of biodiversity to be USD33,000 billion per year!

The current rate of species extinction is currently approximately from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates and is reducing biodiversity. Growing human populations and their associated increase in activities are destroying habitats that are required for the survival of many unique plant and animal species. Some threats to agriculture, forestry and natural ecosystems are related to the losses of pollinators, natural enemies of pests and fishes. Pollution of ecosystems and the depletion of basic resources have reached dangerous levels. If future generations are to live in a safe, productive and healthy environment, sound policies and effective conservation programmes must be implemented to protect biodiversity before it is too late for meaningful action.


Is it worth spending money to protect biodiversity in a city-state like Singapore? When Singapore was founded in 1819 it had a population of 150 people and the main island (544 km2 ) was almost entirely covered by rainforest. Today, more than half the island is urbanized to accommodate over three million inhabitants, and less than 100 ha rainforest and 500 ha mangrove forest survive in an endangered state.


The development has certainly made the city-state an economic giant in the Asia Pacific region. However, Singapore hasn't ignored the commitment for conservation. It realizes the responsibility to care for its own natural environment and indeed set aside protected reserves to preserve nature.


Singapore also cares for wildlife conservation in the region. An example is the Wildlife Reserves Singapore that manages world-class wildlife attractions such as the Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari that serve as repository for saving highly endangered species of wildlife native to the region. Dr Kwa Soon Bee, the Chairman of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, is the visionary and intellect behind the success of these three unique wildlife parks. It was he who initiated the new research and conservation department to promote wildlife research and conservation linking ex-situ and in-situ to safeguard endangered species of regional fauna. Besides, he encourages sponsoring biodiversity preservation projects locally and regionally using the wildlife research and conservation fund to specifically support native students and biologists.


It is hard to see people like Dr Kwa in Southeast Asia today. He reminds me of the legendary Hugh Cleghorn, India’s first Inspector General of Forest, who was the first to alert the world and the scientific community in 1851 on the effects of deforestation leading to global climate change. Though Hugh Cleghorn and Dr Kwa share the same profession as medical doctors, with their prodigious knowledge they have done more to bring wildlife, biodiversity and environmental conservation awareness to people than most modern-day biologists.


Finally, can we fit on this planet with a biosphere? Nobel Laureates Tinbergen and Von Wieiszacker admit that wealth and over-consumption cause environmental degradation. If rich people can learn how to live simply, the poor people can simply live. People tend to view earth's environment as something esoteric, but must realize that human lives depend on our biodiversity. The great majority of the public from developed nations, such as the USA, Germany and Japan, do not comprehend their dependence on healthy, functioning ecosystems. However, there has been growing a number of countries that are now party to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, and it is encouraging to learn that steps are being taken to implement various articles of the treaty. Real conservation consciousness can come about only through informed, educated and healthy citizens who are able to place biological conservation into social, political and economic contexts at local and international levels. Balancing economic development and environmental conservation are daunting tasks for future world leaders. Biodiversity conservation should be the bottom-line for all countries, and it will depend on measures to use its components sustainably and to manage natural resources in ways that minimize adverse impacts on biodiversity.


Professor G. Agoramoorthy teaches biodiversity conservation, protected areas management and eco-tourism at the Tajen Institute of Technology in Taiwan. He also directs the Research and Conservation Department at the Wildlife Reserves Singapore that manages the world-class wildlife institutions such as the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong BirdPark. He has conducted biodiversity field research to estimate population and conservation status of numerous species ranging from soil micro fungi to mega bats and from invertebrates to great apes. He has also carried out long-term demographic and social behavior field studies on primate species such as the Hanuman langurs in India, red howlers in Venezuela, black-and-gold howlers in Argentina, and Formosan macaques in Taiwan. He is an Honorary Advisor to the Sabah Wildlife Department, Malaysia where he currently carries out ex-situ and in-situ conservation research projects on endangered species of Borneo.


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