The Uncertain Future of Extinctions

The earth’s biodiversity is undergoing what some biologists are calling the sixth great mass extinction since life began. Unlike the others, this one is manmade. Given the inexorable rise of the global population to over 12 billion by next century, according to some estimates, it’s often hard to see much of nature coming along with us. A recent study by Microsoft researchers offers a glimmer of hope. They used computer algorithms to analyze more than 100,000 species of flowering plants, compiled by the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, England, one of the largest such databases, to identify biodiversity hotspots which contain the highest concentrations of endemic species. A Duke University led study of the data subsequently calculated that protecting 17 percent of the earth’s landmass would preserve more than two-thirds of its plant species. Currently almost 13 percent of the Earth’s land area is protected—although protection is limited in the key areas identified by the research, like Central America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa. Conservation International, a leading campaign group, has called for 25 percent protection, with 11 percent of land area in need of protection to ensure adequate storage of biomass carbon in natural ecosystems. A 2004 study estimated that the funding shortfall to manage all existing protected areas (PAs) in developing countries was between $1-1.7 billion per year. The study projected that an expansion of the PA system of 3.5 million square kilometers to cover key gaps for biodiversity could cost up to $9 billion to establish and at least $4 billion per year over the next decade to manage.