Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Can "Rewilding" save Earths' life-support ecosystems

Here is another important story outlined in the book Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.  Scientists and environmentalists all over the world  are warning of the looming extinction of thousands of species.  They say that half of all species of plants and animals could disappear by the end of the century--and with them earth's life-support ecosystems that provide our food, water, medicine, and natural defenses against climate change.

The author - Caroline Fraser offers a detailed account of various campaigns to address this crisis. She refers to this process as "rewilding". This idea "aims to save species by restoring habitats, reviving migration corridors, and brokering peace between people and predators." She travels with wildlife biologists and conservationists, to report on major projects that are "turning Europe's former Iron Curtain into a greenbelt, creating transfrontier Peace Parks to renew elephant routes throughout Africa, and linking protected areas from the Yukon to Mexico and beyond."

Here are exerpts from her book featured in a long article in Scientific American:

"The current extinction rates are alarming enough. Preeminent biologist E. O. Wilson believes we stand to lose half of all species by the end of this century. Of the 45,000 species evaluated in the 2008 Red List, issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 17,000, or nearly forty percent, may vanish. Conservative estimates suggest that the extinction rate in the modern era has reached a hundred to a thousand times normal....

Why do species matter? Why worry if some go missing? Part of the answer lies in the relationships coming to light between creatures like the canyon coyotes and the chaparral birds. After the nineteenth century’s great age of biological collecting, when collectors filled museums to bursting with stuffed birds and pinned beetles, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proved to be an age of connecting. Biologists have begun to understand that nature is a chain of dominoes: If you pull one piece out, the whole thing falls down. Lose the animals, lose the ecosystems. Lose the ecosystems, game over....

The tremendous variety of species held in wilderness areas, particularly the tropics, is our bank and lifeline, our agricultural and medical insurance policy. Three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from twelve plant species, but those species are dependent on thousands of others: pollinators (insects, bats, birds), soil microbes, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and fungi. The tropical rain forests contain a pool of genetic diversity for important food crops, a source for vital new strains that can be hybridized to fight pests and diseases....

Gradually, we are realizing that the environment is the economy. The planet’s rain forests currently function as a “giant ‘utility,’ ” according to Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Program. He points out that the Amazon alone releases twenty billion tons of water into the atmosphere daily, providing free air-conditioning, free irrigation, free hydropower. With more tracts of rain forest lost every day, what will it cost to provide artificially the services we currently get for free? A recent study commissioned by the European Union calculates that those lost services, along with the massive release of carbon as forests go up in smoke (accounting for 20 percent of carbon emissions worldwide), add up to 7 percent of global GDP, or two to five trillion dollars annually— the equivalent of the total cost of the Iraq War every year"....(Cont.)...