Tallying Up Nature to Save Its Diversity

From the deck of a 50-foot pleasure craft plying Baja California's southernmost waters, a man spots a bird swooping around a rocky cliff.

The sighting ignites a flurry of excitement on board as a team of marine biologists and conservationists dive into various English- and Spanish-language books, trying to find any listing for the rare bird.

The group is cruising the islands of the Sea of Cortez - known as the Galapagos of Mexico for their biological wealth and diversity - and includes Mexican biologists heading up a local nature-awareness organization, US conservationists, a Mexican park administrator, and a US marine biologist with a specialty in Southeast Asian fishes. They share one purpose: investigate and preserve the plant and animal life that makes Mexico the fourth-most biologically diverse country in the world.

The group symbolizes the growing global interest in the discovery, cataloging, and preservation of biodiversity.

The reasons are clear: Awareness is growing in both developed and developing countries that much of the earth's great wealth of plant and animal life is disappearing even before mankind knows exactly what's about to be missing.

"We are in the midst of a mass extinction, an event not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago," says John Tuxill, an author and researcher at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. Extinction rates today are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal, Mr. Tuxill adds, affecting Earth's biodiversity, which underpins everything from food production to medical research.

But "even as we begin to appreciate the vast array of goods and services that diverse natural systems provide," he adds, "most of what we are losing is still a mystery." In the unprecedented, mostly man-made fires still burning in Mexico's virgin Chamalapas rain forest, for example, perhaps hundreds of as-yet-unknown plant and animal species have been lost, scientists estimate.

Awareness of the need for diversity has continued to grow since the first global environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That meeting led to the international Convention on Biodiversity. It also spurred a worldwide shift in conservation efforts.

Include people in the solution

"The old approach to conservation was, find some valuable area, put a fence around it, and say to everybody, 'You're out,' " says Serge Dedina, a marine biologist and northwest Mexico program manager for the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy. "But we've learned that seeing people as the enemy doesn't work. Now they're included as part of the solution."

That point was made earlier this year when the Washington-based group Conservation International (CI) presented at a Mexico City reception the Spanish-language edition of a beautifully photographed book on the world's great centers of biodiversity.

The book uses the term "megadiversity," coined by CI's president, Russell Mittermeier, to focus attention on how most of the world's biodiversity is concentrated in just a handful of countries. More than two-thirds of the earth's biological diversity is concentrated in only 17 of the world's 230 countries, CI says (see list at right).

An interesting aspect of the 500-page "Megadiversity" book is its depiction of the diversity of people and cultures in each of the countries listed. The point seems clear: Efforts toward the preservation of nature must include people and cultures to be successful.

The megadiversity list came out of Mr. Mittermeier's conviction that the loss of biodiversity surpasses all other environmental issues in importance - and thus requires special attention. "This is really a way to put the spotlight on these countries and allow all of us to prioritize global conservation efforts," says Mittermeier, who adds another factor: "People like lists."

The "megadiversity" list is also a way to "awaken public awareness and pride in these countries of what they possess," Mittermeier says. "Just as the world has a G-7 [group of the world's wealthiest nations], we should also have a G-17" of the world's most biodiverse countries. "The people in these countries need to know they have something very special," he adds, "and accept that as both a responsibility and an opportunity."

That point about getting people involved in conservation efforts is also made in the offices of Mexico's National Biodiversity Commission (Conabio), which occupies a former mansion in southern Mexico City. The stairway leading to the director's office is not lined with photos of parrots and spider monkeys, as one might expect, but of people using the resources around them - wood, fish, cotton, grasses, clay - to survive and prosper.

"That was done purposely," says Jorge Sobern Mainero, Conabio's executive secretary. "We have to find new alternatives for people, otherwise nature won't survive - and maybe the people won't, either."

Indigenous cultures lived in harmony with nature for centuries, Mr. Sobern says, but now their contact with "Western" influences is changing the way they live and leading to a more "predatory" relationship with their environment. Rain-forest dwellers who before used bird populations sparingly now rob nests and decimate the bird population to satisfy international demand for exotic birds. As a result, many species face extinction.

Reasons for some optimism

Modernization is allowing forest-dwellers to increase in numbers and live longer, while maintaining some practices - such as slash-and-burn agriculture - that add to today's environmental problems.

"Our challenge is to convince people who want to improve their lives by using the natural resources available to them that these activities can be sustainable," Sobern says. And that means halting the massive conversion of land - from forests and wetlands to farmland or pavement, for example - in favor of using the land's resources in their natural state.

Sobern picks up a penholder on his desk featuring a brightly colored butterfly in plexiglass.

"This comes from an area where, before, the people's cash crops required cutting down the forests, and the butterflies were dying out. But now butterflies are the cash crop. It's sustainable," he adds, "and the most important thing is that this new activity requires saving the forest."

What Conabio has learned since its creation in 1992 is that only about 10 percent of Mexico's biological wealth is known. The same holds true in other biologically rich countries, Sobern says, and especially in developing countries that lack the resources to rapidly investigate and catalogue their vast wealth.

Among CI's 17 megadiverse countries, 15 are still developing.

Rapid land conversion and habitat loss in those countries mean "destruction of species and biodiversity is still the predominant tendency, but we are resisting the tide," Sobern says. "The thousands of small efforts going on everywhere are adding up to change, and that's what allows me to throw my hat on the side of optimism."

One of those "small efforts" is being coordinated by the Nature Conservancy's Mr. Dedina, who is assisting Mexicans to better manage nature preserves by involving local people. "We're finding the best way [to promote conservation] is to sit down with the people living in an area and figure out how to get everybody involved," Dedina says. "If people feel a part of something, they're more likely to protect it."

Fitting projects to local needs

In Baja California, Dedina is working with a nonprofit organization called ISLA and nature-reserve staff members. The Mexicans develop outreach programs tailored to local needs. "We're emphasizing more interaction with the population," says Francisco Alvarez, coordinator of the Baja California reserve's southern zone. "Before we studied fish, for example. But now we work more with fishermen on conservation methods and alternative activities [like tourism] so the fish population will be there to study."

The objective is the same, Mr. Alvarez says: preserving the biodiversity of one of the world's most biologically rich regions. "Since it's human activity that threatens this natural wealth," he says, "the more people involved in the conservation effort, the better chance we have of succeeding."

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