More Species Than Ever Threatened With Extinction, Report Says
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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Today, we examine a new report about the health of the world's many plants and animals.
Scientists say counting the many different kinds of plants and animals on Earth is one way to measure the health of our planet. Scientists use the word biodiversity to describe the existence of many kinds of plants, animals and other organisms. One definition of biodiversity is the differences of life at all levels of biological organization. Biodiversity is also a way to measure the differences among all the organisms on Earth.
Scientists say the existence of biodiversity is extremely important for human life. Plants and animals provide much of our food, medicines and materials for industry. Biodiversity makes possible the natural development of improved crops. Biodiversity helps to create a balance for our atmosphere and water supply. And it provides activities through the enjoyment of nature.
Scientists say a lack of biodiversity has led to agricultural crises in history. One example is the potato famine in Ireland in the nineteenth century. At the time, many people in Ireland depended on potatoes for food. When the potato crop failed, millions starved to death or were forced to leave the country.
Recent scientific findings about biodiversity have not been good. Last month, the World Conservation Union added almost two hundred plants and animals to its list of threatened species. The group warned that life on Earth is disappearing fast and will continue to do so unless urgent action is taken.
The World Conservation Union is one of the world's largest groups working to protect Earth's environment. It aims to save, or conserve, natural resources by influencing governments and private citizens around the world. To do this, it supports and develops new conservation science methods, and carries out research internationally. Then it links the research and results to policies by organizing talks among governments, civilians and private companies.
The World Conservation Union works with eighty-three nations and more than one hundred government agencies. It also works with more than eight hundred non-governmental organizations, and thousands of scientists and experts.
The World Conservation Union has offices in forty nations. Its headquarters is in Switzerland. The group was created in nineteen forty-eight after an international conference in France. Its name then was the International Union for the Protection of Nature. Its name was changed to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, or IUCN, in nineteen fifty-six. In nineteen ninety, the group began using the name World Conservation Union. But many people still know it as the IUCN.
Experts say the World Conservation Union is an important organization. They say wealthy nations like the United States have their own environmental agencies to study possibly threatened species. But developing nations use the work of the IUCN because they are not able to carry out studies of species within their borders.
The World Conservation Union says no one knows how many kinds of plants, animals and other organisms are found on Earth. It says scientists believe the number is about fifteen million. But only about two million are known.
The group says seven hundred eighty-five species have disappeared from the Earth in the past five hundred years. And it says that sixty-five others are in danger of disappearing, or becoming extinct. They are now only found in places that are protected by people.
Each year, the World Conservation Union publishes a report that names those organisms it considers threatened or in danger of becoming extinct. The report is called the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
This year, information in the Red List came from more than ten thousand scientists in one hundred forty seven countries. The scientists considered more than forty-one thousand species. They found that more than sixteen thousand of them are in danger of becoming extinct. That is one hundred eighty-eight more threatened species than the report found last year.
The scientists said it is possible to reduce this number but that people around the world must begin to act now. They said the IUCN recognizes that some species naturally disappear over time. But they said studies have found that human activity is speeding up this process. The group says rates of extinction today are at least one hundred to one thousand times greater than they would be naturally.
Animals listed as in danger of extinction include the western lowland gorilla in Africa. IUCN officials said the gorilla is in trouble as a result of hunting and the spread of the Ebola virus. The report said the population of these animals has decreased by more than sixty percent during the past twenty to twenty-five years.
Another animal in danger of extinction is the orangutan. Species of orangutans found in Sumatra and Borneo are dying because people are cutting down the trees in which they live.
One animal in extreme danger is the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji. Threats to its survival include fishing and pollution. IUCN officials said the baiji could already be considered extinct because only one or two individuals are known to live in China.
The Gharial crocodile in India and Nepal faces extinction because much of its living area has been destroyed. The scientists are blaming the destruction on dam building, agricultural projects and sand mining.
The World Conservation Union added corals to its Red List for the first time this year. Ten coral species from the Galapagos Islands are included. The report says threats to the corals include climate change and the weather event known as El Nino. El Nino and climate change are also threatening seventy-four kinds of seaweed in the Galapagos.
Twelve thousand different kinds of plants are also named in the report. More than eight thousand are considered threatened. Only one has been declared extinct. That plant is a Malaysian herb known as the woolly stalked begonia. It is only known from collections made on Penang Island in the late nineteenth century. Not one of these plants has been seen in the past one hundred years.
Seven hundred thirty-eight kinds of reptiles also are named on the threatened species list. Ninety are threatened with extinction. One example is a Mexican freshwater turtle. This creature is in danger because of a loss of its living area. Another reptile on the list is a kind of rattlesnake in Mexico. Hunters are threatening this snake.
More than one thousand kinds of birds are also included on the list. This year, the survival of only one species has improved. It is the Mauritius Echo Parakeet. This bird species was considered one of the world's rarest fifteen years ago. The Mauritius Echo Parakeet is still in danger. But its numbers have increased recently as a result of human protection and a captive breeding and release program.
The World Conservation Union says governments around the world have accepted two thousand ten as a target year for slowing the rate of biodiversity loss. Yet it says human activity remains the main reason for the drop in the number of species. The group says people are destroying the places in which living things live, poisoning the air and spreading disease among them. It also recognizes climate change as a serious threat to many kinds of plants, animals and insects.
The group says most of the threatened animals live in some of the world's hottest places. It says nations with large numbers of threatened species are Australia, Brazil, China and Mexico. IUCN officials say it is in the interest of people to protect wildlife around the world. They say human life is linked to biodiversity and our very survival may depend on protecting it. The World Conservation Union says its report clearly shows that much more needs to be done to protect and improve biodiversity.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty. Read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. Listen again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.