Tens of thousands of species are already doomed to extinction in the next few years because of humanity's destruction of their habitats, warns a United Nations report published yesterday.
It says that 11 per cent of all known mammal species, 18 per cent birds and 5 per cent of fish are deemed to be threatened. Assuming that present trends of over-exploitation of wildlife and clearing of natural habitats continue, half of all the birds and mammals will be extinct within 300 years. It may be sooner, however, for the trends are accelerating.
The grim assessment is made in a 1,100-page report commissioned by the UN Environment Programme and published yesterday at the start of international wildlife protection negotiations in Jakarta, Indonesia.
It accepts that extinctions have always happened since life first appeared on Earth billions of years ago, but points out that today's rate is up to 10,000 times the natural average. The single most important cause is the clearing of forests and other natural habitats for timber and crop production.
While 38 birds and mammals were recorded as becoming extinct in the 210 years after1600 (when records began), 112 are known to have disappeared in the last 185 years.
The Global Biodiversity Assessment, which more than 1,000 scientists were involved in compiling, says that at least 5,400 animal species and 4,000 plants are known to be threatened. Biodiversity refers to the variety of living creatures, from viruses to blue whales.
An international biodiversity treaty was signed at the Earth Summit in Brazil three years ago, and delegates from dozens of nations - including Britain - are meeting in Jakarta this week to negotiate on measures to implement its aims.
At the heart of the report lies a huge paradox - that only about one- eighth of the total number of species in the world are actually known to science.
There are millions of insects and hundreds of mammals and birds that have not yet been discovered, described and named. The number catalogued is put at 1.75 million, but the new report's latest "guesstimate" for the total living on Earth is 13 million.
The great majority of species on the brink of extinction, or already extinct, are therefore uncharted. But their loss could ultimately be a threat to humanity for several reasons, the report warns. Wild species are still needed to develop new drugs and new crop varieties. And certain species play a key role in preserving habitats and preventing soil erosion.
At the opening of the conference, Indonesian vice-president, Try Sutrisno, told delegates that poor countries needed more funding from wealthy nations if they were to honour the biodiversity treaty.
"There is a need to look for other financial resources," he said. "This is particularly true in view of the fact that developing countries have foreign-debt problems which tend to get more serious and complicated."
Delegates said they had yet to agree a mechanism to fund proposed conservation work. Biodiversity projects are currently funded by the Global Environmental Facility, which is managed by the World Bank, and granted to countries upon request.
But developing countries say that the funds, which stand at about $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) for 1994-97, are too small and that procedures for disbursement are too slow.
Species under threat
Threatened Endangered Vulnerable Rare Indeterminate Total
Mammals 177 199 89 68 533
Birds 188 241 257 176 862
Reptiles 47 88 79 43 257
Amphibians 32 32 55 14 133
Fishes 158 226 246 304 934 Invertebrates 582 702 422 941 2,647
Plants 3,632 5,687 11,485 5,302 26,106
Source: World Conservation Monitoring Centre