Sunday, 22 August 2010

Safeguard Biological Diversity -- by Dick Grossman, MD

This article appeared in the Durango Herald 22 Aug 2010. It is reprinted with the author's permission. The ark painting is courtesy of Two by Two Acres farm.
Noah, then, can be seen as the first great preservationist, preventing the first great extinction. He did exactly what wildlife biologists and climatologists are trying to do today: to act on their moral convictions to conserve diversity, to protect God’s creation in the face of a flood of consumerism and indifference by a materialistic world. -- Bill Moyers

There are two ways of looking at our place in the natural world. Traditionally humans have viewed ourselves as the pinnacle of life. The more accurate and modern view is that we fit into the great web of life.

We are gradually realizing that human existence depends on many, many species. We can no longer ignore the importance of thousands of species of plants and animals for the wholesomeness of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

This change in perception mirrors the change in political leadership. For instance, a king ruled a court of a small number of lords and knights during the middle ages and most people were mere peons and of little importance. Now, thank heavens, many governments are more democratic and individuals are valued much more highly.

The more we understand nature, the more we realize the importance of all components of an ecological system. There are many examples. It used to be thought that wolves were bad because they killed livestock. We now understand that they help to control the animals that are most dangerous to humans in our state—deer and elk—because of car crashes. Reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has also proven valuable to trees. With the presence of predators, elk and moose don’t stay in one place eating the tender new shoots so forests are thriving.

We can find another example of important organisms hidden underground. Although we tend to think of fungi as problem makers (like the cause of athlete’s foot) some are very beneficial. Mycorrhizae are helpful fungi that live on or even in the rootlets of most plants and trees. The fungus helps the plant absorb water and minerals. The plant reciprocates by providing the fungus with sugars for energy.

Although mycorrhizae have been known about for a long time, knowledge of their importance is fairly new. Many crops are much more productive and resistant to diseases when these fungi are present.

We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction. Perhaps best known of the great extinctions is when the dinosaurs were killed off by some unknown force. Unfortunately there is little doubt that we humans are causing this great extinction. One in five vertebrate species is threatened or already extinct. We know much less about invertebrate species of animals, so scientists are clueless about how many of them are endangered or already have been wiped out.

We also don’t know how vital each threatened species is. The world can probably go on without many of them—but there are some species whose absence may change our planet drastically. Since it is impossible to know which species is essential we should not take the chance of losing any more.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature keeps a list—the Red List—of threatened species. Every day they feature one species.

Conservation biology is the branch of science that works to preserve biological diversity and to prevent species from becoming extinct. Conservation biologists usually cite four causes for loss of biological diversity: loss of habitat, unsustainable harvesting, pollution and invasive (non-native) species. Unfortunately, humans—our increasing population and extravagant consumption—directly or indirectly cause these hazards.

The Center for Biological Diversity has come up with a novel way to make the point about human population. On each box of their Endangered Species Condoms (shown on the right, see the video) there is a picture of an animal at risk of extinction. Inside, along with two condoms, is this statement: “Human overpopulation is destroying land, water, and wildlife habitat at an unparalleled rate, causing a massive planetary extinction crisis. In growing to 6.8 billion people, humanity has killed off tens of thousands of plants and animals. But we can still save panthers, sea turtles, wolves, and countless other endangered species by choosing to stop overpopulating the planet.”

This is the International Year of Biodiversity. Let’s recognize the underlying cause of loss of biological diversity. And let’s do what we can to preserve the integrity of the great web of life by safeguarding endangered species.

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