There are estimated to be between 10 and 100 million species of plants and animals, but human encroachment into habitats and over-exploitation of natural resources could kill 25 per cent by 2025 in the biggest wave of extinctions since the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
The Prime Minister told his audience of award-winning environmental activists from every continent: 'Today we mark another anniversary - 150 years ago the last pair of great auks were killed and their eggs destroyed.' The auks, flightless diving birds which stood over two feet tall, were killed for their skins.
The biodiversity convention, which Britain has belatedly ratified, was one of two major environmental treaties prepared for the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, two years ago this month. Britain had major reservations when the treaty was being negotiated, mainly because the Government felt it gave too much power to developing countries in demanding financial aid from rich nations to pay for wildlife conservation.
Although Mr Major signed the treaty at Rio, the Government also put down a legal statement saying Britain had the sovereign right to decide how much money to contribute. The next step, ratification, means a country agrees to be fully committed to the terms of the treaty but this 'interpretative statement' still stands.
Nearly 60 countries have now ratified, although France and the US have yet to do so. The treaty calls on nations to make plans for conserving their wild plants, animals and wilderness areas for future generations. It also calls on wealthy nations to help the Third World countries which harbour most of the world's biodiversity in their forests, savannahs and coral reefs.
Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, said: 'Now we've ratified it's time to change our own laws to protect what little remains of our grasslands, heathland, fens and ancient forests. Biodiversity is being hammered in Britain.'
At yesterday's ceremony, 39 environmental campaigners were enrolled into the United Nations environment programme's global 500 roll of honour. From Britain they included the Duke of Edinburgh, the climate scientist, and the prime ministerial adviser Sir John Houghton.
Other award winners from Britain were Brenda and Robert Vale, architects and lecturers at Nottingham University, who have designed and built their own super-insulated town house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, which consumes almost no energy.
Zulekha Ali, an environmental journalist from Pakistan, won her award posthumously. As a reporter on an English language paper, The News, she exposed illegal sand excavations from a beach which caused several deaths, and the lethal dumping of toxic chemcials in a river. She drowned trying to rescue a friend who fell into the sea.
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