Attenborough aghast at global decline of butterfly population

Disappearance of species points to catastrophic environmental damage, says Sir David. Michael McCarthy reports

A A A

Butterfly numbers are declining rapidly all around the world, Britain's leading conservationist, Sir David Attenborough, warns today. The celebrated television presenter is sounding the alarm that butterfly loss, a concern in Britain for decades, has become a global problem, with species disappearing in every continent.

They range from the giant swallowtail of Jamaica to the Atewa dotted border from the Atewa mountains of Ghana, from the Oregon silverspot of America's Pacific coast to the Apollo butterfly of the Alps. And their disappearance is a clear indication, Sir David says, of something going very wrong in the background environment.

He is signalling the threat in a speech to the largest-ever gathering of butterfly experts, who come together today for a three-day symposium in Reading.

"Butterflies are sensitive indicators," Sir David said. "They decline when habitats are destroyed and when man harms the environment. We have known about butterfly losses in Britain for over 50 years. Now there is mounting evidence that it is a global problem."

The symposium, attended by 300 scientists and organised by the British charity Butterfly Conservation, has been called to assess the success of efforts around the world in meeting the United Nations target of halting biodiversity declines by 2010. However, the agenda reflects fears in countries throughout Europe and as far apart as Japan and the United States that there is still a long way to go to achieve this.

"Halting biodiversity loss is the coming decade's great challenge," Sir David said. "It's on a par with getting a man on the moon. An increase in butterfly numbers around the world could be the first indication that we've achieved this goal. Like that first step on the moon, it would be a giant leap for mankind."

Dr Martin Warren, Butterfly Conservation's chief executive, said there was increasing evidence that the problem was a global one. "We have just published a new "red list" of European butterflies showing that around 10 per cent of European butterfly species are facing possible extinction," he said. "We are getting the same message from elsewhere. Symposium delegates come from all six continents and they are all saying the same. Declines on the scale of those occurring in Britain and in Europe are happening in their part of the world too. Habitats are being destroyed; butterflies and other wildlife are in decline."

Dr Warren said that it was already apparent that the 2010 deadline for halting biodiversity loss had not been met. But he added that trying to achieve it had been important. "I think we now know the enormity of the challenge. We must make it a top priority in the coming decade."

Monitoring of butterfly numbers started in the UK in 1976 and has spread around the world. The "red list" of European butterflies, published last week, stated that one species, the Madeiran large white, had already probably become extinct in recent years. Other endangered European butterflies include the Danube clouded yellow, now confined to a few sites in Romania, and the violet copper, a beautiful wetland species that has undergone drastic declines in many countries.

Four British butterflies that are in serious decline at a European level are the large blue (reintroduced after going extinct in the late 1970s), the large heath, the Duke of Burgundy and the Lulworth skipper.

The latter two had their worst ever year in Britain last year, and have declined by 65 per cent and 87 per cent respectively since 2000.

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015