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Keeping Options Alive

The scientific basis for the conservation of biodiversity

Not since the Cretaceous era ended some 65 million years ago have losses been so rapid and great. If the trend continues, one quarter of the world's species may be gone by 2050.

Executive Summary

As the 21st Century approaches, the world is being impoverished as its most fundamental capital stock--its species, habitats, and ecosystems--erodes. Not since the Cretaceous era ended some 65 million years ago have losses been so rapid and great. If the trend continues, one quarter of the world's species may be gone by 2050. Desertification, fisheries collapse, tropical deforestation--such losses already attest amply to how much biological impoverishment costs human beings. If we continue to borrow from the future, literally eating our seed corn, those costs will rise.

An alarm has been sounded. In response, the number of international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations concerned about biodiversity and the breadth of their activities has increased dramatically during the last decade. Under their wings, protected areas, zoos, botanical gardens, aquaria, seed banks, and other sanctuaries and research stations have been set up to rescue and propagate endangered species. Some of the participants in this new movement are institutions working to demonstrate the compatibility of ecosystem protection and economic development; others are integrating development planning and crafting an international convention for preserving biodiversity. Some development assistance agencies are considering how their grants and loans affect biodiversity, and various groups are exploring new ways to finance the conservation of biological diversity.

Still another reason for optimism is the rapid stride now occurring in conservation biology and landscape ecology. Scientists' understanding of how to maintain viable breeding populations of species and provide sufficient habitat to support them has grown dramatically since the late 1970s, as has the availability of effective conservation techniques. Worldwide, more people trained in forestry, ecology, conservation biology, and other key fields are needed, but their ranks are beginning to grow.

For all these reasons, the chances of reversing the current trends in many ways look better now than they did only a few short years ago. But agreement is universal that current efforts are insufficient. What is needed is a coordinated attack on the problem at its roots, one that both makes use of the best modern science and reflects concern for the human well-being of those most affected. Only when a "critical mass" of participants are cooperating in a "critical mass" of initiatives within the framework of a common strategy will biological diversity be saved. This cooperation must involve an active participation among governmental and non-governmental organizations in both developing and industrial countries.

In a way, Keeping Options Alive: The Scientific Basis for Conserving Biodiversity is a "how to" publication. Its timely premise is that the biological sciences can help policy-makers identify the threats to biodiversity, evaluate conservation tools, and come up with successful management strategies to the crisis of biotic impoverishment before it is full-blown. To these ends, Reid and Miller provide an overview of where the world's species and genetic resources are located and why they are valuable, a new analysis of species extinctions in tropical forests that supports previous estimates and reinforces the magnitude of the problem that we face, and a survey of the most recent findings of conservation biology. The authors also suggest how these findings can best be put to work for both in situ and ex situ conservation, and they add to evidence that the biodiversity crisis is not restricted to tropical forests, but threatens biological resources in temperate zones and marine ecosystems as well. Finally, this report underscores the important interdependence between biological diversity and human cultural diversity and the policy implications of this critical bond.

Ultimately, of course, the solution to the biodiversity crisis will be political. It will require both improving planning and management and redressing the social inequities that force people and nations to use resources unsustainably. Indeed, many of the long-term actions that Reid and Miller call for in Keeping Options Alive will not occur in the developing world unless the industrial countries provide their fair share of the financing, technology, and knowledge needed to implement them. But creating a decision-making framework based on the most current and comprehensive scientific understanding of the world's biological wealth is essential when so much of it has yet to be inventoried, much less evaluated, and when some of the potentially most important species and ecosystems have few politically empowered constituents. Only by marrying scientific fact to political and economic reality---as Keeping Options Alive strives to help policymakers do---can we hope to maintain the biological wealth on which long-term economic development depends.

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