Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 19:17 GMT
Islands of hope to challenge extinction
three panda cubs
Endangered species like these panda cubs attract attention: Millions more do not
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

With the Earth approaching a wave of extinctions some scientists say bears comparison with the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, research suggests a radical approach could save many wild species from dying out.

A team of ecologists says the answer is to concentrate money and effort on the small number of areas that are home to the widest variety of species, instead of spreading resources more thinly.

The team, headed by Dr Norman Myers, of Green College, Oxford University, reports on the research in the science magazine Nature.

It examined a number of biodiversity "hotspots" - regions containing a high proportion of global biodiversity in a small area.

They found that 44% of all higher plants and 35% of all land vertebrate species are confined to 25 hotspots, which together make up just 1.4% of the Earth's land surface.


The total area of the hotspots is 2,122,891 square kilometres - and 38% of that already enjoys at least nominal legal protection.

Protecting the rest, the team says, "represents the greatest biodiversity challenge of the foreseeable future."

dinosaur model
Is the death of the dinosaurs a model for today?
Every continent except Antarctica includes one or more hotspots, and almost every tropical island forms part of a hotspot.

To qualify, a hotspot has to contain endemic plant species comprising at least 0.5% of all plants worldwide. It must also have lost 70% or more of its primary vegetation.

The 25 hotspots surveyed contain the remaining habitats of 133,149 plant species and 9,645 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians).

These species, now confined to 1.4% of the available land, used to occupy 11.8%.

The hottest hotspots are Madagascar, the Philippines and Sundaland (the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo), followed by the Atlantic forest of Brazil and the Caribbean.

The team writes: "It is often supposed that, were the present mass extinction of species to proceed virtually unchecked, between one-third and two-thirds of all species would be likely to disappear within the foreseeable future.

The price of conservation

"The hotspots analysis indicates that much of this problem could be countered through protection of the 25 hotspots.

"We could go far towards safeguarding the hotspots and thus a large proportion of all species at risk for an average of $20 m per hotspot per year over the next five years, or $500 m annually."

chainsaw operator
Not only hotspots need protection
Dr Myers told BBC News Online: "This 'silver bullet' idea has mobilised about $400m during the 1990s, mainly from the MacArthur Foundation, the World Bank's global environment facility, and from non-governmental groups.

"The scale of spending needed is peanuts relative to space probes and military spending - just twice the cost of a single Pathfinder mission to Mars.

"And even if the sum needed were a hundred times larger, it would be worth paying to prevent the planet being impoverished.

Only a start

"Extrapolating from earlier extinctions, we estimate that it would take at least five million years, and possibly a lot longer, to replace all the species that could die out."

In an accompanying article in Nature, Stuart Pimm, of Columbia University, New York, and Peter Raven, of Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis, say that protecting the hotspots "is necessary, but not sufficient.

"Unless the large remaining areas of humid tropical forests are also protected, extinctions of those species that are still wide-ranging should exceed those in the hotspots within a few decades."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

27 Jul 99 |  Sci/Tech
Bears face extinction
06 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Quarter of parrot species on brink
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories