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The BBC's Julian Siddle
"The report says greater species loss is inevitable unless farming methods change drastically"
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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
World wildlife warning
brown bear
Nearly a quarter of mammals face extinction, says report
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A report by two international scientific groups says global wildlife faces the greatest extinction risk since the dinosaurs disappeared.

It says conservation strategies are failing, with nearly half the world's major nature reserves being heavily used for agriculture.

Yet hunger and malnutrition are widespread in many biodiversity-rich areas.

The authors urge a new approach that will both feed hungry people and also protect wildlife.

The report, Common Ground, Common Future: How ecoagriculture can help feed the world and save wild biodiversity, is published by the Swiss-based IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and Future Harvest, a Washington DC agricultural research group.

Forest clearing

If forest clearing continues at present rates, it says, the world's forests could lose more than half their remaining species by 2050.

It says nearly 24% of mammal species, more than 12% of birds and almost 14% of plants are threatened with extinction today.

Yet the strategy of setting aside protected areas for wildlife is not working, the report says.

A total of 45% of the world's major nature reserves are heavily used for agriculture, or surrounded by intensively farmed land.

Children face malnutrition and hunger
People in areas where wildlife is most at risk often suffer malnutrition and hunger
And people living in at least 16 of the world's 25 key biodiversity hotspots, where wildlife is most at risk, suffer extreme malnutrition and hunger, placing even greater stress on conservation efforts.

The authors say that if only the existing protected areas continue as wildlife habitat, they will lose from 30% to 50% of their species, because they do not contain large enough populations to maintain the species.

'Dying biodiversity'

The chief scientist of IUCN, Dr Jeffrey McNeely, says: "Protected areas are fast becoming islands of dying biodiversity because of the agricultural areas that surround them.

"Many animals need the ability to migrate in order to avoid extinction.

"Limited reserve areas cannot fill this need, and the lands that would be needed for the massive expansion of protected areas are already being used to feed local people and fuel local economies."

The remedy proposed by the report is ecoagriculture - helping farmers to grow more food while conserving habitats critical for wildlife.

The authors include several dozen case studies of what they say are successful ecoagriculture systems being used in Australia, the UK and other European countries, the US, Canada, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Common ground

The strategies include:

  • establishing networks of wildlife habitat in non-farmed areas and linking these with larger protected areas;
  • integrating perennial plants into farming systems to mimic natural habitats;
  • using less polluting farming methods;
  • increasing productivity on land already being farmed to reduce the need for more land;
  • making cropland more attractive to wildlife;
  • and establishing protected areas near farmed land.

Dr McNeely says the strategies are based on evidence that humans and wild species can share common ground.

"Many people believe that biodiversity can be preserved simply by fencing it off," he says.

"Our report shows that agriculture and biodiversity are inextricably linked.

"To avert widespread extinctions and feed the world, we must integrate biodiversity preservation into all landscapes."

New mindset

His co-author, Professor Sara Scherr, of the University of Maryland, says: "Many of the new approaches in ecoagriculture will require a change in mindset for many farmers.

"For centuries, farmers have generally done their best to clear land of natural vegetation and keep wildlife off their farms.

"This was the sign of a good farmer. Now we're asking farmers to let some of the wild back in."

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