Prague, 26 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Between 25,000 and 50,000 species of animals and plants disappear every year, and the loss is likely to accelerate in the future because of shrinking habitats and global warming.
This is the conclusion reached by scientists from across the world attending an international conference on biodiversity, which is under way in Paris. The conference is jointly sponsored by the French government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The 1,200 specialists attending the conference are seeking ways to prevent the loss of biodiversity due to disappearing natural habitats and world climate change.
Natarajan Ishwaran, director of UNESCO's division of ecological and earth sciences, says the conference also aims to bring science closer to policymaking and governance issues.
"There is a feeling that, although there is a lot of scientific information and scientific expertise available in biodiversity, the data, information, knowledge, experience may not be adequately used in policymaking and governance mechanisms on protecting, conserving, and sustainably using biodiversity. So the conference aims to bridge that gap, and it has brought together a lot of scientists and policymakers, NGO representatives and UN agency institution representatives," Ishwaran says.
"For every hectare of tropical forest [you cut], you lose a large number of species, some of which, or many of which, you may not have even recorded."
Some scientists even go as far as to say the world is threatened by its biggest mass extinction in 65 million years, when the dinosaurs disappeared.
Scientists at the conference say an alarming number of species are threatened by extinction. This despite the fact that more than 170 countries have signed and ratified the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and the Johannesburg World Summit in 2002 pledged to reduce the loss of biodiversity significantly by 2010.
Less than 2 million of an estimated 10 to 30 million species have been identified and described by scientists so far.
UNESCO cites figures suggesting that one-in-four known mammal species and one-in-10 bird species is in danger of extinction. However, UNESCO's Ishwaran tells RFE/RL that the losses could be much higher, since extinction also threatens species that have never been recorded.
"For every hectare of tropical forest [you cut], you lose a large number of species, some of which, or many of which, you may not have even recorded. At the species level, there are several threatened. I think the IUCN's [International Union for Conservation of Nature] last count in 2004 said that there are about 16,000 species [of living creatures] which are threatened with extinction. But there are certain types of species -- particularly the large animals, both carnivores and herbivores -- which require extensive space. They are threatened as the human population demands more space," Ishwaran says.
UNESCO says one-in-six plant species -- or some 60,000 out of 350,000 -- are also threatened with extinction.
The conference is also pointing to the ecological lessons to be learned from December's deadly tsunamis in South Asia. It cites initial reports that indicate that regions that kept their land or sea ecosystems more or less intact were better able to withstand the destructive force of the tsunamis.
"The early indications are that certain parts of the tsunami-hit regions where natural or recovered vegetation -- mangroves, coral reefs -- were intact, or where they had been effectively rehabilitated, in those areas, the damage of the tsunami or the impact of the tsunami wave -- the impact on people -- appears to be smaller," Ishwaran says.
In a joint appeal, participants in the Paris conference say that biodiversity, which is the product of more than 3 billion years of evolution, "is being destroyed irreversibly by human activities."
They say the best way to help slow down the extinction of species would be to create a global panel of specialists who would act jointly with governments and international organizations.
The proposal won the immediate endorsement of French President Jacques Chirac, who said France would propose the creation of what he called an "intergovernmental group on the evolution of biodiversity."
Specialists say the panel's structure should resemble that of a highly successful group on global warming set up in 1988, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
IPCC has had a huge impact on the global political agenda because its reports take a neutral, science-based approach.
But some prominent environmental groups are expressing skepticism about the efficiency of the Paris conference, and are also criticizing France's own environmental record.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth issued a joint statement this week as they and other environmental groups held a parallel debate in Paris on the protection of tropical rainforests. The statement said: "We fear that once again speeches will just give rise to more speeches."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Greenpeace forest campaigner Illanga Itoua urged Paris to take more concrete action.
"The crisis is happening, and what we need is not more discussion, it's more action. More research, yes, of course, but also a lot more concerted action on the ground. And for France, to contribute to the process through a conference whilst the CBD [the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity] needs implementation on the ground is what we regret in this instance, even though we do of course recognize the value of bringing people together," Itoua says.
Itoua said a summit in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, next week on the protection of the Congo Basin rainforest will be a good opportunity for France and other countries to prove they are true to their words.