A recent major study (Hoffman et al., 2010) involving NHM amphibian scientists Mark Wilkinson and David Gower has concluded that although 20 per cent of vertebrate species are threatened, the rate of loss would have been one-fifth greater had conservation efforts not been in place. Conservation efforts have an effect, but this is not sufficient to prevent loss and extinction, or to meet ambitious international targets.
Most scientists in the museum study particular groups of organisms. However, the ecosystems in which they live are complex and diverse, containing a multitude of species. If we want to understand patterns of global biodiversity loss, it is essential that many different scientists collaborate, so the paper in Science involved the work of more than 160 internationally expert scientists from many different countries, all specialists in different vertebrate groups: amphibians, fish, mammals, reptiles and birds.
A standard scale for classifying the level of threat to different species has been developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of which the NHM is a member. Threats to particular species are set out in the IUCN Red List, which classifies threat levels from Least Concern, through Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; to Extinct in the Wild. The study considered data for 25,780 species and found that 52 species of vertebrates move one category closer to extinction each year. Forty-one per cent of amphibian species are threatened due to habitat loss and other factors such as disease.
This large-scale work in biodiversity science is essential to enable realistic plans to be drawn up by governments and others to combat biodiversity loss. 2010 was the UN International Year of Biodiversity, the target year for international commitments to slow the rate of biodiversity loss. These targets were not met and we are now, until 2020, in the International Decade of Biodiversity, for the end of which there are new and demanding targets for slowing loss.
The science done by the NHM and its many international partners will be an essential element in taking effective action.
Hoffmann, M. et al. 2010 The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates Science 10 December 2010: 330 (6010), 1503-1509.Published online 26 October 2010 [DOI:10.1126/science.1194442]