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World: Hot Spots Endanger Ecosystems

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 3 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading environmental conservation organization has identified 24 places around the world, including the Mediterranean basin, it calls biodiversity "hot spots."

Conservation International (CI) says these "hot spots" cover less than two percent of the planet's land surface but contain more than 50 percent of it's terrestrial biological diversity.

It is in these hot spots that ecosystems are at "greatest risk," it says, with some so badly degraded that they have less than 10 percent of their original natural habitat. In the Mediterranean basin, only two percent is in anything approaching pristine condition.

Russell Mittermeir, President of CI, says it chose these 24 locations to focus international attention and investment for preserving biodiversity so as to achieve the most value for the money spent. "We are not saying focus only on these hot spots and ignore everything else," says Mittermeier. "Every nation's biodiversity is critically important to its future."

However, he adds, "biodiversity is not evenly distributed on the planet and some areas, particularly the tropics, harbor far greater concentrations of biodiversity."

One aspect of the hot spots is that almost 40 percent of all terrestrial plants and at least 25 percent of vertebrate (animal) species are endemic to these areas -- that is, found nowhere else on earth. That's what makes them such a rich and valuable resource for the continued health of the planet, says CI.

In addition to the Mediterranean basin, the CI designated hot spots include the tropical Andes in south America, Madagascar and Indian Ocean islands, South Africa's Cape floristic province, southwest Australia, large areas around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the eastern Himalayas.

There are no designated "hot spots" in the area of the former Soviet Union. Mittermeier says Russia does have some of the most important boreal (northern) forests on the face of the earth, but they are low in biodiversity. "If you look at Russia as a whole, obviously because of its large extent of forest, it's very important for that reason," he told RFE/RL, "but in terms of biodiversity priority, we would put it much lower than the tropical rain forests."

The Mediterranean, on the other hand, is particularly important for biological diversity because of the huge plant diversity it contains and because of the endoism (number of plants found nowhere else.) Plants are what everything depends upon, says Mittermeier, and the Mediterranean "actually has the second highest number (13,000) endemic plant species in the world after the tropical Andes, which is the richest hot spot area with 20,000 endemic plant species."

Actually, says Mittermeier, what is surprising is that while tropical rain forests are extremely high in biodiversity, there are five major Mediterranean-type ecosystems which are also very high. Those include the Mediterranean itself, Central Chile, the tip of South Africa, southwestern Australia and northern California.

In addition to the hot spots, CI designated three areas as major tropical wilderness -- the Amazon basin in south America, the Congo basin in Africa, and the pacific islands around New Guinea.

The wilderness areas are different because they have at least 75 percent of natural vegetation, most in pristine condition, and with a human density of no more than five people per square kilometer.

"These wilderness areas are great storehouses of biodiversity and major watershed areas," says Mittermeir, "and often are the last places where indigenous people have any hope of maintaining traditional lifestyles."