Get ready for ecosystem collapse in the years aheadS

The number of species (and entire genera) that are recognized as endangered is growing at an ever-increasing rate. Conservation scientists report in a new survey that they expect the Earth will suffer major hits to biodiversity levels in the years ahead.

Conservation, like most environmental issues, is something of a touchy subject. It's always a challenge for members of the scientific community to highlight losses of biodiversity when there are so many other global concerns that we need to tackle.

"As with climate change the large level of investment needed if loss of biodiversity is to be stopped will result in an increase of public and political scrutiny of conservation science," said study author Murray Rudd. "That makes it important to show how much scientific consensus there is for both the problems and possible solutions."

To this end, Rudd distributed a survey to 583 of the world's leading conservation researchers (who, collectively, have published papers in 19 international journals). The goal of the survey was to gauge opinions on the extent and geographic scope of biodiversity loss, and what Rudd describes as the key questions facing conservation science: "why people care, how priorities should be set, where our efforts should be concentrated and what action we can take."

Rudd describes his findings in the latest issue of Conservation Biology:

Conservation scientists (n =583) were unanimous (99.5%) in their view that a serious loss of biological diversity is likely, very likely, or virtually certain. Scientists' agreement that serious loss is very likely or virtually certain ranged from 72.8% for Western Europe to 90.9% for Southeast Asia.

Tropical coral ecosystems were perceived as the most seriously affected by loss of biological diversity; 88.0% of respondents familiar with that ecosystem type agreed that a serious loss is very likely or virtually certain.

Rudd says that when it comes to maintaining ecosystems, understanding interactions between people and nature is a priority among scientists, but that they "largely rejected cultural or spiritual reasons as motivations for protecting biodiversity."

Another topic addressed in the survey is similar to one raised yesterday in our post about Africa's dwindling hirola population, namely: given conservation science's limited resources, how does one decide whether or not to intervene in the interest of saving a highly threatened species? The practice is known as "conservation triage," and is a long-standing point of contention among conservation scientists. Yet, according to Rudd, 50.3% and 9.3% of the researchers surveyed agree or strongly agree that criteria for triage decisions should be established.

"Understanding the degree of consensus within the scientific community will help policy makers to interpret scientific advice, improving the likelihood of successful of conservation initiatives," concludes Rudd.

"The extremely high level of consensus demonstrated by these results underlines the urgency of preventing further damage to the natural world."

Via Conservation Biology (doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01772.x)
Top image via Pavel K/Shutterstock