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Why bother saving nature?

September 11, 2012

A list of the world’s 100 most threatened species was released during the final day of the IUCN congress forum. Of these, 29 were freshwater species. Biodiversity contributes directly to local livelihoods and economic development, but what happens in cases where it doesn’t? Why should we bother saving nature? 

The Luristan Newt, one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Photo: Creative Commons.

This question was the theme of the final day of the congress forum. The role of biodiversity was a major focus with a session on engaging business for biodiversity conservation to the announcement of a partnership between Microsoft and IUCN to further strengthen the information available on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN argues that whether it’s through enacting laws and policies, implementing species recovery programmes, establishing protected areas or restoring ecosystems, conserving nature works.

But why bother conserving nature? The protection of biodiversity in watersheds can literally have downstream benefits such as providing clean water to cities, over half of all modern medicines are made from chemicals that have been synthesised from natural sources, and, according to the World Bank, 70% of the world’s poor depend directly on biodiversity for their survival.

Red River giant softshell turtle. Photo: Conservation International

But is there another side to the story? A list of the world’s 100 most threatened species was released today that raised just this question. The thought-provoking title to the report, ‘Priceless or Worthless?’, showed some of the world’s rarest, most unknown and intriguing creatures. Do we really need an economic reason to save these species?

Of these 100 critically endangered species, 29 live in freshwater ecosystems. There were 9 amphibians, 8 freshwater fish, 3 damselflies, 2 river turtles, 2 waterbirds, 2 freshwater molluscs, 2 aquatic plants and 1 freshwater crab featured in this list.

Red-finned blue-eye. Photo: Adam Kerezsy

Some of the most amazing creatures threatened are the Luristan Newt, a strikingly coloured, Iranian amphibian under threat from illegal collection for the pet trade, the red-finned blue-eye, a fish found only in a group of springs on an old cattle station in the outback of Australia that faces threat from an invasive fish species (Gambusia), and the Red River giant softshell turtle, the largest freshwater turtle in the world and also the most endangered – just 4 individuals are left!

Sakhalin taimen. Photo: The Guardian

Other fascinating freshwater species on the list included the Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad and Hula painted frog, two frogs previously thought to be extinct but found during the ‘search for the lost frogs’ campaign, an aquatic plant (Callitriche pulchra) that exists only in a 2m x 1m pool on a Greek island, a beautiful and previously thought to be extinct damselfly (Cebu frill-wing), the Singapore freshwater crab, a tiny crab surviving in two or three streams in the middle of the heavily urbanised island-state,  and the Sakhalin taimen, one of the biggest, most ancient species of salmon with some known to grow to nearly 2 metres in length!

The discussion on the value of conserving nature marked the end of the five-day congress forum with now just 4 days of debate in the member’s assembly left of the congress. Reflecting on the messages of the previous five days, the IUCN Director of Global Policy, Cyriaque Sendashonga, was not so much concerned with definitions of ‘green growth’ or ‘biodiversity’. As long as we know what the vision is, such as “providing opportunities for economic activity, which does not undermine the environment and, of course, leads to well-being for everybody”, we can take action, she said. “That’s the vision, let’s just do it.”

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