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The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international agreement under the UN umbrella that focuses on biodiversity information, conservation and sustainable use. Most of the World's countries have signed up to the CBD since it was initiated in 1992. It represents a common understanding of what biodiversity is; who owns and controls genetic resources; what information is needed to protect biodiversity and make decisions about its use; and how countries work together on all sorts of issues.


Dr Chris Lyal of the NHM has developed a lot of expertise on policy,  collaboration and capacity building under the CBD.  He is the focal  point for the UK for the Global Taxonomy Initative, a CBD programme that  aims to share taxonomic information and expertise. As a scientist, Chris is an expert on the taxonomy of weevils, a group of beetles that are significant crop pests - this involves deep knowledge of classification, naming and description of new species from around the world.


The Conference of the Parties to CBD (COP) is held every couple of years and COP 11 is currently being held in Hyderabad in central India.  Chris is there on behalf of the  NHM and has been in discussion with delegates from governments and other organisations on the science behind biodiversity and CBD initiatives.


One of the foci for CBD is invasive species.  There have always been natural patterns of change in the distribution of plants and animals. However, when humans cause species to be introduced - by accident or design - to new areas of the World they can cause major impacts.  They may become pests on crops or cause unexpected declines in natural biodiversity, for example, and can have huge economic costs. 


A new Global Invasive Alien Species Information Partnership has been formed to share and develop information on invasive species and to support development of expertise. Chris Lyal attended the inaugural signing of the partnership agreement and will be leading the NHM's contribution.


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Chris (standing) signing the GIASIP agreement on behalf of the NHM


David Gower and Mark Wilkinson, NHM Zoology

It is well known that global diversity is generally under threat from factors such as habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, hunting, invasive species and disease. It takes very large collaborative efforts in order to be able to quantify an accurate overview of the latest situation, but this is needed because donors, policy makers and managers want to know to what extent conservation efforts can make a positive impact.

As part of just such an effort we contributed to an article published in the journal Science (Hoffman, M. et al. (2010) Science 330: 1503-1509).The article reported that although an increasing number of the World’s vertebrate species are threatened by extinction, the deterioration would have been at least one-fifth again as much in the absence of conservation efforts.

The Science study analysed up-to-date conservation assessments for nearly 26,000 of the World’s approximately 63,000 named species of vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). The assessments are in the form of formal categorizations on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” ( - the widely accepted 'standard’ for determining species’ risk of extinction.

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Balebreviceps hillmani, a threatened amphibian from the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. [photo by DJ Gower]

Analyses of the Red List data revealed that 20% of vertebrates are classified as Threatened, with this percentage increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction every year (there are eight categories in all). However, of the 1,000 or so species that had undergone a change in their categorization in recent years, about 7% underwent an improvement in status, and almost all of these are part of conservation projects. Thus, in the absence of conservation effort, many more vertebrates would have slipped closer to extinction. Most of these improving vertebrate species are birds and mammals – those groups most often targeted by conservation projects. Only four species of amphibians have improved in status, and more than 40% of this group is threatened; so much remains to be done.

Vertebrates are generally very visible, often charismatic (and vital) components of ecosystems, and they commonly comprise conservation ‘flagship’ species, frequently with high cultural value. However, vertebrates comprise only 3% or so of known organismal species. The conservation status of many non-vertebrates has yet to be determined based on Red List criteria.

The Science paper was authored by a whopping 174 scientists. Like many of these researchers, we played a primary coordinating role that facilitated completion of the dataset. In particular, we finalized Red List assessments for all species of caecilian amphibians (in a workshop held at the NHM), and for some burrowing snakes. Museum science is essential for understanding species’ conservation status because its core business is the taxonomic and ecological work that underpins all other studies of life.

The Science paper was announced in a press release to coincide with the release of the latest Red List update at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Nagoya, Japan, October 2010. The paper ends with the following statements: “The 2010 biodiversity target may not have been met, but conservation efforts have not been a failure. The challenge is to remedy the current shortfall in conservation action to halt the attrition of global biodiversity.”

David Gower and Mark Wilkinson are Researchers in the Herpetology Research Group, NHM Department of Zoology


Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum (NHM), and Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have just signed an agreement on the NHM joining the CBD's Consortium of Scientific Partners on Biodiversity.


The CBD is the focus in the UN system for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, first agreed in 1992.  It has made a major difference to the way in which biodiversity is monitored, conserved and used in many parts of the world since then. 192 countries are parties to the CBD, and they held their tenth conference in Nagoya, Japan at the end of 2010.


This meeting reviewed progress in reaching the 2010 targets for conserving biodiversity, but it is clear that there is no slowing of the rate of biodiversity loss on a global scale.  Biodiversity is not only valuable in its own right, but provides essential services in terms of food, environment, medicine and other human needs, so substantial long-term loss is of major concern.


There is an increasing sense of urgency to address threats to biodiversity and the Nagoya meeting secured agreement on a new strategy looking foward to 2020, and on a number of other issues.   One of these was a new protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources, which will be important in influencing the development and collaborative use of museum collections such as the NHM.


The Consortium is a group of major biodiversity institutions that are committed to collaborate with the CBD.  Its purpose is to mobilise "the expertise and experience of these institutions in order to  implement education and training activities to support developing  countries that are building scientific, technical and policy skills in  the area of biodiversity"


Current members are


  • The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  • The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de France
  • The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
  • The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation
  • The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
  • The National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
  • The Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources
  • The Higashiyama Botanical Gardens, City of Nagoya
  • Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh
  • The National Institute of Biological Resources
  • The Missouri Botanical Gardens
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee
  • The Natural History Museum of the United Kingdom
  • The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity