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Is the end nigh?

Going, going, gone... Species on Earth are dying out faster than science can count, says a report released last week at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2006 01:03 IST

Going, going, gone... Species on Earth are dying out faster than science can count, says a report released last week at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil. Declining numbers of plants, animals, insects and birds across the planet are adding up to a wave of extinction that’s 1,000 times faster than in the past. This is the sixth mass extermination since modern life began 650 million years ago, and the worst since a comet switched off the lights on the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. At this rate, young readers of Sci-Files could say goodbye to half of their fellow species by the time they turn 80, as the exploding human population deprives thousands of other species of their biological resources.

Ironically, ‘lost worlds’ teeming with exotic species are also being unearthed. Last year, scientists stumbled on to a 300,000-hectare treasure house of biodiversity in the Foja Mountains of the Indonesian province of west Papua. This paradise of giant flowers and rare wildlife that show no fear of humans owes its existence to being in a unique geological blind spot untouched by man. Some of the animals found there, like the long-beaked echidnas (a primitive egg-laying mammal) have been hunted into extinction elsewhere.

Earlier this year, scientists discovered an underwater mountain off Saba Island in the Caribbean: the world’s third-largest atoll, which is home to more than a dozen new species of fish and seaweed. The incredible richness of marine life on Saba’s endangered coral beds is a poignant reminder of what we’re losing without even knowing it. For beyond mammals, birds, and plants, we don’t know how many species there are on Earth, forget how many are disappearing.

Scientists fear this human-caused biotic holocaust — a wholesale elimination of species — would leave the planet impoverished for at least five million years. Fortunately, it’s still not too late to make conservation efforts to check the major drivers of biodiversity loss. They include the loss of habitat through climate change, expansion of agriculture, the introduction of alien species that disrupt ecosystems after being carried across the world (often accidentally — say, in ship ballast tanks), wanton exploitation of wildlife (as in over-fishing), and depletion of nutrients through chemical fertilisers, sewage and air pollution.

Of course, you might say that if Earth has recovered from five waves of species loss in the prehistoric past, what’s the big deal this time round? Well, it is being driven by a single species, while the other five were triggered by climatic upheavals. And it’s up to that single species — us — to decide the fate of the biosphere for the next five million years, which is the minimum time it takes to replace species after a mass extinction.