May 19, 2022

World Biodiversity Day: The Hourglass is Running Out

Endangered species hourglass

By Eric Miller

This Sunday, May 22nd is World Biodiversity Day. Merriam-Webster defines biodiversity as: “Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.” While that is accurate, it doesn’t fully express the complex web of life created by the vast array of plant and animal species. Biodiversity that is so vast, we’re still discovering new species every day.

One straightforward example is the loss of the dodo, a species that is a poster child for extinction, a species that was extinct on Mauritius in 1662, less than a century after its discovery. This tragic extinction illustrates a complex cycle of life may have been broken for another unrelated species – a tree in Mauritius. Although long-lived, this species is slowly declining as it has been speculated that its seeds needed to pass through the dodo’s gastrointestinal tract to germinate. While only one small story, sadly, since 1662, the rate of extinction has exponentially increased due to human activity.

We now live in a period aptly called “The Sixth Extinction,” a period that surpasses the rate of “mass extinctions” of the dinosaurs. It’s shocking that all the world’s Asian elephants would probably not fill an average professional baseball stadium, and that the numbers of all remaining tigers in the wild are less than the population of a small town. A recent series of workshops estimated that 20% of all reptile species are rapidly declining and many are threatened with extinction.

There are moral and ethical reasons to preserve the Earth’s diversity, and practical ones too. For example, it’s estimated that most emerging diseases come from altered environments and unnatural mixing of species, diseases that directly affect humankind. Despite the looming catastrophe, there are some bright spots – successful work on giant pandas, Ozark hellbenders, California condors, germinating endangered tree species in Madagascar, to name a few. However, those valuable activities only scratch the surface of need. And the work is complex. Among those challenges is not only creating protected areas, but slowing climate change, preventing the spread of invasive species and diseases, controlling the wildlife trade, and unsustainable human activity. Regarding the latter, perhaps Dr. Emil Tsarina, former Governor of the Tamatave Province in Madagascar, best summed it up: “Madagascar is a country where biodiversity and poverty coexist, for biodiversity to win, poverty must lose.” Madagascar is not alone in facing those complex interactions.

The New York Zoological Society’s William Beebe famously stated the consequences of these threats, “…when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must come to pass before such as a one can be again.”  Let’s not wait for another universe to recreate lost species, but instead rededicate ourselves to preserving species and protecting biodiversity here and now. Let’s make World Biodiversity Day into World Biodiversity Year, Decade, and Century.

The Convention on Biological Diversity website provides resources and actions you can take to inspire change for nature that are aligned with the new global biodiversity framework. Click here to check out the website and access this information.

Note: The hourglass signage is property of Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

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