Crikey intern Laura Griffin writes: Biodiversity is the variety of life forms on earth, including plants, animals and micro-organisms (and their genetic material) and the often finely balanced, fragile and interconnected ecosystems that they connect. But how do governments and science organisations help to maintain biodiversity and limit the extinction of species?

Reuters recently reported a study that showed, for example, that eight species of algae removed nitrate (a common pollutant) from (artificial) streams 4.5 times faster, on average, than a single species alone.

Since colonisation, Australia has suffered the largest recorded decline in biodiversity of any continent. Species continue to die out.

Australian scientists recently announced a world-first index to determine how close species are to extinction that will be used with the IUCN ‘Red’ list. Corey Bradshaw, the director of ecological modeling at Adelaide University’s Environmental Institute, explained that the Species Ability to Forestall Extinction index — or SAFE — showed how close species were to the minimum number needed to survive in the wild.

If populations were lower than about 5,000 individuals, there is a heightened risk of extinction. This is because the whole populations can be wiped out in chance events like natural disasters.

Bradshaw, with scientists from James Cook University, found of 95 species of mammals they studied, nearly 20% were at risk of being extinct. And sadly, Australia epitomises the trend.

But some conservationists fear species index may actually lead to extinctions because some efforts will be deemed not cost effective (and possibly no longer funded).

Patrick Medway, secretary of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia said on ABC’s PM:“We could not accept that even any or some of these species should be allowed to become extinct. It would be against the grain of our members and our organisation who have worked so hard to save and conserve Australia’s wildlife for the next generation.”

Endangered animal species have also made the news in America this week.

Last week, when I saw The New York Times tweet ‘Congress, in a First, Removes an Animal From the Endangered Species List’, I assumed it was a positive story of conservation methods saving a species from the threat of extinction.

But, the article instead reports that the Congress ceded to political and economic pressures, and agreed to take the Rocky Mountain Wolf off the endangered species list.

It will now be managed by state wildlife agencies, which it seems, could cull it or at least allow it to be hunted. According to the article:

“While the language on the Rocky Mountain wolves was a tiny item in budgetary terms, environmental groups said it set an unnerving precedent by letting Congress, rather than a science-based federal agency, remove endangered species protections.”

It was the first known instance of Congress’ directly intervening in the list of endangered animals in the United States. The Endangered Species list is still, at least nominally, managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is no mention of the Congress intervention on its website.

The website does, however, explain that “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service summary of endangered and threatened species, 580 animals are listed in the US (including 84 mammals and 139 fish species) and 792 plant species.

Globally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) manages the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. This organisation was founded in 1948 as the world’s first global environmental organisation and is an official observer at the United Nations General Assembly.

Its summary table, which groups critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable species as ‘threatened’, shows that the number of species listed has dramatically increased since 1996/8 (10,533) to last year (18,351) — although, a much larger number of species overall have been recorded.

Such statistics have prompted talk of another period of mass extinction.

Palaeontologists define mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval. A study published in the journal Nature shows that current extinction rates (including those of the last centuries and millennia) are much higher than would be expected from the fossil record.

The rates of extinction now are between 100 to 1,000 times faster than normal, and between a third and a half of species could be lost by the end of this century.

Dr Brad Cardinale, Associate Professor of the University of Michigan, while not involved in that particular study, sees little doubt that this extinction crisis has already begun. He attributes it largely to habitat destruction.

“It’s not necessarily how much we’ve lost already,” Cardinale was quoted as saying, “It’s that the rate of extinction is so outrageously high compared to what we know is normal.”

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