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Brussels, 9 February 2004

Biodiversity Loss: Facts and Figures

What is biodiversity loss?

From the time when humans first occupied Earth and began to hunt animals, gather food and chop wood, they have had an impact on biodiversity. Over the last two centuries, human population growth, overexploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation have resulted in an ever accelerating decline in global biodiversity. Species are diminishing in numbers and becoming extinct, and ecosystems are suffering damage and disappearing.

Biodiversity - short for biological diversity - means the diversity of life in all its forms - the diversity of species, of genetic variations within one species, and of ecosystems.

  • An estimated 80% of the original forest that covered the Earth 8,000 years ago has been cleared, damaged or fragmented.

  • Some experts assess the rate at which species are becoming extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural rate would be.

  • A sample of 23 common farmland birds and 24 common woodland birds monitored in 18 European countries show a decline in numbers by 71% between 1980 and 2002.

How many species are threatened with extinction?

12,259 species are known by IUCN, the World Conservation Body, to be threatened with extinction. IUCN keeps the world's inventory of the conservation status of animals and plants, compiling data from thousands of scientists and conservationists worldwide.

However, the 12,259 threatened species are only the tip of the iceberg. Nobody knows how many species there are on Earth, let alone how they are doing. The total number of recorded living species is around 1.75 million. But more than two thirds are insects and other invertebrates, which are extremely difficult to monitor. An estimate of the real number of species on Earth is 14 million.

For its 2003 "Red List of Threatened Species", IUCN was able to evaluate the conservation status of 2% of 1.53 million species for which it has descriptions. The only two well-monitored groups are birds and mammals, so IUCN was able to evaluate 100% of birds and 99% of mammals for threatened status.

The continent of Europe is estimated to be home to more than 200,000 animal and plant species. These are relatively small numbers compared with other regions of the world, but the proportion of threatened species is far higher.

Western Europe's population density and level of industrialisation have seriously impaired biodiversity.

  • The two well-monitored groups of the world's animals are mammals and birds. Currently, every fourth (24%) mammal and every eighth bird (12%) is facing a high risk of extinction.

  • Threatened mammals include African and Asiatic lions, orang-utans, tigers, Chinese alligators. In Europe: the European mink, the Arctic fox, various types of squirrels and lizards, and all European dolphins, seals and whales.

  • The most endangered big cat in the world is the Iberian lynx. Once common in Spain and Portugal, there are only a few hundred left, which live in a few isolated pockets in Spain.

  • Across the European continent, 42% of mammals are threatened, 15% of birds, 45% of butterflies, 30% of amphibians, 45% of reptiles and 52% of freshwater fish.

  • The last known "Bucardo", a Pyrenean mountain goat, died in January 2000 in a Spanish national park. Its body was found by forest rangers.

How are ecosystems doing?

Ecosystems are self-regulating communities of plants and animals interacting with each other and with their non-living environment - forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, deserts and agricultural landscapes. Ecosystems are vulnerable to interference as pressure on one component can upset the whole balance. They are also very vulnerable to pollution. Many ecosystems have already been lost, and many others are at risk.

The world's forests house about half of global biodiversity. But they are disappearing at a rate of 0.8% per year. Tropical forests are vanishing at an annual rate of 4%.

  • The EU has lost more than half of its once so biodiverse and species-rich wetlands.

  • Up to a third of the world's coral reefs have already perished and another third is under threat.

  • Only 10% of the world's biodiverse areas and 1% of the world's oceans are protected - sometimes not very effectively.

Why do we need biodiversity?

Humans are dependent on biodiversity. It provides us with food, medicines and raw materials, and delivers many other goods and services that we need. Forests, for example, provide us with wood, oxygenate the air, purify water, prevent erosion and flooding, moderate climate, turn waste into nutrients or raw materials such as oil and gas.

  • Experts estimate the value of the goods and services provided by ecosystems at €26 trillion a year - twice the value of what humans produce each year.

  • Between 10,000 and 20,000 plant species are used in medicines worldwide.

What are the main threats to biodiversity?

  • Human population growth means growing demands for space and food.

  • Urban sprawl and intensive agriculture and forestry encroach on habitats.

  • Extension of road, rail and electricity networks fragments habitats and scares away some species.

  • Overexploitation of natural resources means we consume too much of a species or of goods that ecosystems provide. It also includes excessive hunting, collecting and trade in species and parts of species.

  • Pollution affects the health of animals and plants as much as human health. Environmental disasters such as oil spills have devastating consequences for birds and the marine fauna and flora.

  • Climate change is predicted, by the end of this century, to raise global temperature by between 1.4° and 5.8° Celsius and the sea level by between 9 and 88 cm. Many species will not be able to adapt or to move to other regions. Over the last century, the average temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.6° Celsius and the sea level has risen by 10 to 20 cm. The 90s were the warmest decade in the last 1,000 years.

  • Invasive alien species are species that enter an ecosystem where they don't occur naturally and then thrive and overwhelm endemic species. Often, they are taken there by humans.

  • Human population has grown from approximately 1.65 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.3 billion today. In 50 years, the UN predicts a world population of 9 billion.

  • Due to overfishing, 80% of the fish stocks in the EU face collapse or are of unknown status.

  • In 2001, 40% of all EU fish catches were taken from stocks considered to be below safe biological limits. For certain types of fish, notably cod, haddock, whiting, hake and other round fish as well as salmon and sea trout, the percentage was as high as 60%.

  • According to a study published in "Nature" in January 2004, climate change could wipe out a third of the Earth's species by 2050.

  • Imported as a pet from North America, the grey squirrel has caused the extinction of the local red squirrel in the UK and Italy. It is better at competing for food.

  • The tasty Nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria in Africa in 1954 and caused the extinction of more than 200 endemic fish species.

What is the EU doing?

1979 "Birds Directive" - first EU law designed to preserve the natural environment, identifying 181 vulnerable bird species native to the EU and obliging Member States to create "Special Protection Areas" (SPA) to safeguard them. Today, the SPAs are part of the Natura 2000 network.

1992 "Habitats Directive" - listing 700 (by now 800) animal and plant species and 200 habitat types of EU importance. They are to be protected in "Special Areas of Conservation" (SAC), which Member States select together with the European Commission. The Habitats Directive also initiates the establishment of the Natura 2000 network, which is made up of SPAs and SACs.

1992 LIFE-Nature programme is launched to co-finance projects aimed at conserving the natural environment and supporting the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives.

1992 Convention of Biodiversity adopted during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The European Community is a signatory. The Convention's three main goals are: 1. the conservation of biodiversity, 2. the sustainable use of its components, and 3. the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilisation of genetic resources.

1998 EU Biodiversity Strategy - seeks to anticipate, prevent and fight the causes of biodiversity loss at source.

2000 EU Water Framework Directive - aims to protect the aquatic environment and ensure good quality of all water resources in the EU by 2015, based on sustainable cross-border water management.

2001 Four Biodiversity Action Plans - setting out the details for implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy and tackling conservation issues in the areas of agriculture, fisheries, natural resource use and economic and development co-operation. The objective is to ensure that policies in these sectors do not undermine conservation efforts.

2001 EU Sustainable Development Strategy launched by EU leaders meeting in Gothenburg - one of its four priorities is to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010.

2002 Reform of the Common Fisheries Policies to achieve sustainability of fish stocks, protect the marine environment and secure the future of the European fisheries sector.

2002 Strong EU participation in the World Summit on Sustainable Development, ensuring a number of concrete targets and timetables, including the goal to significantly reduce global biodiversity loss by 2010.

2003 Kiev Resolution on Biodiversity - at a meeting of pan-European Environment Ministers in Kiev, Ukraine, the EU commits itself to halting the loss of biodiversity in the pan-European region by 2010 by taking nine specific actions.

2003 Mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policies cuts the link between subsidies and production levels and makes greater provisions for support to rural development and agri-environment schemes.

2003 In line with the provisions of the Biodiversity Convention on access to genetic resources and benefit sharing, the European Commission urges EU companies and research institutes not to take genetic resources from other countries without their consent and without offering them a fair share of the profits and research results arising from the use of their resources.

  • Natura 2000, the EU network of protected areas in which our threatened or vulnerable animals, plants and habitats can survive, is made up of over 18,000 sites and covers around 17.5% of EU15 land territory (63.7 million ha).

  • As a result of EU species action plans, the population of the Spanish imperial eagle has grown from 50 pairs in 1974 to 175 pairs in 2002 and the Spanish population of the cinereous vulture has risen from 370 pairs in 1984 to 1,300 pairs in 2002.

  • Since 1992, LIFE-Nature has co-financed 535 projects in the EU and acceding countries, which have greatly contributed to the conservation of wild fauna and flora.

  • For the period 2000 to 2004, the EU has allocated 300 million euros to LIFE-Nature.

  • Eleven projects in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which were funded by LIFE-Nature, contributed to stabilising the population of the critically endangered Monk seal.

  • Two projects funded by LIFE-Nature currently seek to help the Iberian lynx in Spain recover. They envisage improvement of its habitat and agreements with landowners to increase the populations of prey species such as rabbits.

  • The EU is the world's largest donor. An estimated 3%, or €190 million, of the EU's development co-operation is directly related to conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

  • Thanks to EU efforts, salmon are coming back to many rivers in Western Europe, otters and beavers have become more common again, and the black storks have returned.

EU agenda for 2004 to reach the 2010 target:

  • Review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy and conservation laws with Member States and stakeholders to identify areas where stronger action is needed to deliver the 2010 targets

  • 9-20 February: 7th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to agree on concrete measures to reach the 2010 target at the global level

  • 25-27 May: EU Conference on Biodiversity in Malahide, Ireland, to draft a "2010 Delivery Plan"

  • Establishment of a set of biodiversity indicators, together with the European Environment Agency, to measure biodiversity and evaluate policy performance

  • Stronger efforts to ensure that other policies (agriculture, fisheries, transport, energy) do not conflict with conservation needs

  • Completion of the Natura 2000 network in the EU15, including its extension to the marine environment, and measures to improve management, ensure proper monitoring and financing, integrate Natura 2000 into wider land development plans and generate broad support for it

  • Expansion of the Natura 2000 network to include sites in the ten accession countries, which they are due to propose upon accession on 1 May

Further information can be found at:

European Commission - Nature Conservation

Directorate-General Environment

European Environment Agency

IUCN - World Conservation Union

Convention for Biodiversity

WWF International

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