‘Biodiversity’ is a rather lifeless word to describe the wondrous diversity of life on Earth. The myriad species with which we share this planet enrich our lives aesthetically and spiritually, are a vital source of food and medicines, and maintain the intricate web of life on which our own survival depends. Without bees, much of our food supply would collapse. Our grandchildren’s lives will be poorer if they grow up in a world without polar bears, blue whales, condors and mahogany trees. Yet these species are endangered, along with thousands of others.

Populations of vertebrate species show a persistent downward trend, declining by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.  The primary cause of extinction is habitat loss and fragmentation, resulting from developments such as land clearance, deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric dams. Other factors driving extinction include urbanisation, pollution, hunting, over-fishing and pesticide use. Global warming will greatly compound the problem because it is likely to disrupt – and in some cases obliterate – entire ecosystems. Extinction is a natural process, but the current rate is up to 10,000 times the natural rate as a result of human activity.

To preserve biodiversity it isn’t enough to keep animals in zoos or genetic material in laboratory freezers – although that may be necessary as a last resort. Scientists are planning to ‘resurrect’ extinct species, but the resources would be better spent protecting species that still have a fighting chance of survival. To achieve this we need to protect entire habitats and minimise our impact on the planet’s biosphere.

See also Oceans, Forests and Protected areas.