The United Nations has designated 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, described as "a celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives."
Throughout the year, the world is invited to take action to safeguard the variety of life on earth and increase public awareness of the biodiversity with its many facets.
According to UN figures, three species vanish every hour. Experts believe there could be as many as 6-12 million more animal and plant species as yet unknown to science.
Jean-Christophe Vie, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Geneva, says that time is running out as there is scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis.
"Nowadays, the extension rate is 1,000 times higher than what it was before man's expansion on earth. So we have an extinction crisis," Vie says.
"Many species are threatened in all groups we have studied. One-third of corals, one-third of amphibians -- frogs [and] salamanders --, 22 percent of all mammals in the world are threatened. And we have studied only a small portion of biodiversity so far."Berlin Launch
In a ceremony in Berlin today, German and UN officials were among those launching the International Year of Biodiversity in Germany.
In her speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the world will face "enormous costs" if no action is taken against climate change and securing biodiversity.
Merkel said countries should invest more money in protecting species and create a network of wildlife protection areas.
She also proposed the creation of a new international body to deal with the science of biodiversity and refine scientific arguments for saving species.
Merkel said the body could work as "an interface between the politics and the science to integrate knowledge," like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does with climate change.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program, agreed, saying the time had come to do something on biodiversity comparable to the IPCC.Threat To Human Existence
As natural systems such as forests and wetlands disappear, humanity loses the services they currently provide for free, such as the purification of air and water, protection from extreme weather events, and the provision of materials for shelter and fire.
Growing desertification in such places as China's Hebei Province is one consequence of deforestation.
Natural systems such as forests and wetlands provide human society with a wide range of benefits such as food, fibers, clean water, pure air, healthy soil, protection from extreme weather events, and many more.
"More than half of the human population lives in cities now, so they don't necessarily make the link between their daily life and biodiversity," the IUCN's Vie says.
"But everything we eat or drink comes from biodiversity. The water is produced and purified by biodiversity. Wood is a product of biodiversity. Most people on earth are using medicinal plants. Fishes are produced mostly freely by nature. Crops are pollinated by bees, butterflies."
In Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan, the destruction of forests due to the cutting of trees for fuel, cattle grazing, and land cultivation and other threats is affecting the lives of residents -- causing land degradation and erosion that lead to mudslides, landslides, and flooding.
The jellyfish Mnemiopsis leidyi has spent the last decade menacing the waters of the Caspian Sea. The invader, probably brought to the sea in the ballast water of a ship, has been devouring much of the Caspian plankton that provides the main sustenance for local fish, causing fish stocks to plummet and affecting the livelihoods of many local fishermen.
Call For Action
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity acquired a global pledge at a summit in 2002, when governments pledged to achieve a "significant reduction" in the rate of biological diversity loss by 2010.
But Vie says the target is not going to be met mainly due to habitat destruction, expansion of agriculture, deforestation, overexploitation of biological resources such as fish, invasive species, and, on top of that, climate change.
Local fishermen in many countries have suffered from the overfishing of stocks.
A convention summit is to be held in Japan in October. But given the disappointing outcome of the critical December climate-change conference in Copenhagen, it is unclear what kind of deal might materialize on biodiversity.
The UN conference ended with a face-saving note and no agreement on binding targets on how to reduce emissions of the gases held responsible for global warming.
Ahead of the gathering, the IUCN had said inaction would put the future of some of the world's best-known creatures at risk.
Vie calls on governments to set targets to reduce the rate of biological diversity, provide incentives to protect species, and impose taxes for activities that are detrimental to biodiversity.
He also urges governments, economic actors, and individuals to get serious about saving species.
"We expect certain countries are going to adopt an ambitious target. We want a robust framework, something we can monitor, Vie says.
"And we need to support the governments to achieve these targets by not sanctioning them when they do something good for nature. Some decisions are unpopular sometimes."
Many environmental organizations will be running special programs and mounting events during the year to increase awareness of the enormous variety of life and the loss of species.
The IUCN will be posting on its website a daily portrait of each of the 365 animals, birds, and plants most under threat of disappearance, including the arctic fox and salmon species.
Another conservation group, WWF, is highlighting 10 species it considers especially threatened, ranging from commercially significant ones such as bluefin tuna to tigers and polar bears.