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Chilling Reality of Globe's Biodiversity

by Steve Chao

I have begun an experiment of sorts. Having devoted the past month to learning about the loss of the world's biodiversity (and frankly chilled by the prospects), I set out to gauge public opinion on the matter.

The lab work was carried out in various restaurants, with family and friends, the test subjects. Talking about the issue, as I quickly learned, almost always requires a quick briefer. 

Despite the fact the UN has designated 2010 as the international year of biodiversity, most people only have a rough inkling as to what exactly it means. 

And so, over appetizers, I begin with the typical yarn about the huge variety of animals and plants, how we are all co-dependent in this "web of life", and how that web is unravelling.

What alarms virtually every person is when I start rattling off the figures:
That there are now some 17,291 life forms threatened with extinction - more than one-third of the total 47,677 recognised. Seventy-five per cent of genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost.
Half of the world's original forest cover has disappeared.
Three quarters of the world's fisheries are fully or over-exploited.

And these are all conservative estimates.

The world's top scientists, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, believe we are headed towards a great extinction. And while there have been five previous ones, this will be the only one caused by humans.

At this point, the talk inevitably shifts towards the question: "Why aren’t we doing more to save the planet?" And that is the quandary of human nature. 

Despite the evidence, the danger signs, the testimonies from scientists who have documented the demise of various species, the consensus reached by most of my dinner test subjects, is that we as a species ourselves, are crippled by our inability to address the future. 

That human beings are occupied by the here and now – is evidenced by the massive pace of uncontrolled growth in building unsustainable cities.

The COP10 Biodiversity Conference, involving 193 nations, currently taking place in Nagoya, Japan was supposed to have been a celebration. 

Seven years ago, when a Strategic Plan was drafted, it was agreed that all parties would work towards slowing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. But while there has been progress in creating such things as marine and park sanctuaries, the assessment by the conference's panel gave the effort a grade of "F".

The implications are spelled out by Ahmed Djoghlaf, the meeting's executive secretary, who is tasked with making the scientific data palatable to politicians, businesspeople, and the human population at large.

"Without biodiversity there's no life. It's not only emblematic species such as polar bears and giraffes and elephants. It affects the air, the forests, the food we eat, the medicines - it's everything," he saysd.

There are signs the world is slowly awakening to this reality.

In Tokyo, one of the world's densest urban centres, with a weekday population of 36 million, the city, along with individuals, has started to bring a bit of nature back to this concrete jungle.

On the rooftop of an 11-storey building in the fashionable district of Ginza, Kazuo Takayasu and his team of volunteers shed their business suits, for white uniforms and hats that have a protective fine-mesh net covering for their faces. They are urban beekeepers.

Takayasu has been harvesting honey on the rooftop for 4 years. From a modest 160kg in 2006, the project now yields some 70kg a year.  
But Takayasu says urban beekeeping is much more than about the honey.

"Honeybees pollinate flowers, allowing so many vital things in the city to grow. We also believe they can pollinate people. The thinking before was that nature and cities had nothing to do with each other. We're altering that view," he says.

Indeed, Takayasu's rooftop hives, have created such a buzz, it's encouraged several neighbourhood buildings to create rooftop gardens. One of the most widely talked about is on the top of Hatsuruku Sake Brewing Company.

There, Asami Oda, the company's Tokyo vice-president has encouraged his employees to pitch in and plant rice, along with a variety of vegetables – all in an effort to help "green" the city.

Tokyo authorities have begun to encourage such development and have mandated that all new buildings in certain areas will have to reserve "green zones". New factories will have to set aside as much as 20 per cent of its overall land space.

These are of course still small gestures. But they are, according to Djoghlaf, important ones.

The hope is the COP10 meetings will see countries dedicate as much as 15 to 20 per cent of terrestrial and marine areas as sanctuaries. 

"If business-as-usual continues, we will very soon reach tipping points - which means irreversible damage to major ecosystems, weakening the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life," Djoghlaf says.

If the results from my experiments are anything to go by, the future looks far from promising.

Beyond comments decrying the sad state of the world's environmental affairs, the dinner guests have generally felt the topic of biodiversity loss far too gloomy a one to dwell on, and the conversation turns to much lighter subjects.

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