Hotspots

(This column was first published in the August 7, 2000 Buffalo News.)

Clearly different habitats can support different numbers of wildlife species. We need only compare an asphalt-paved parking lot with an open meadow to appreciate this. To some conservationists this difference in biotic richness -- obviously oversimplified in my example -- has a significant planetary application.

Most of us have come to appreciate the need for conserving greenspace and I salute those local politicians who address this cause. However, such piecemeal solutions, good as they are locally, contribute very little to solving the wrenching biological problems faced by our planet Earth.

You've all heard the dreary but deeply affecting litany of worldwide losses: the extinction of a quarter of our mammal species and a tenth of our birds, the destruction of our coral beds and our tropical rain forests. Because fragile species are being lost and the aggressive remain, we are moving toward a future biota that David Quammen calls a Planet of Weeds, in the process destroying ecosystems worth twice our global Gross National Product, literally tens of trillions of dollars.

Some people accept a scenario of irreversible future decline. Thankfully, others are more optimistic and are addressing these problems. One that they have identified is that our $3-4 billion dollar investment in biodiversity-related concerns is wasteful and ineffective. One solution they propose is to focus this money -- and hopefully more -- where it does the most good, on what they identify as world hotspots.

A wonderful new book rehearses this solution in some detail. Written by Russell and Christina Mittermeier, Norman Myers and Patricio Gill, Hotspots: Earth's Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions is distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

This book describes 25 regions worldwide that:

Although the area of these regions is only 1.4% of the Earth's surface, they harbor 60% of our plant and animal species. These are, the conservationists argue, the best targets at which to aim our limited resources.

Seven of the regions are in Asia and the East Indies, five each in Africa and South America, three in Australia and New Zealand, one in the Mediterranean, one in Central America and one encompasses all of Polynesia. A few are "good news" areas, major tropical wildernesses with three-fourths of their original vegetation and with low human density, less than three people per square mile -- like Buffalo with a population of well under 100. Others are, of course, seriously threatened -- mostly by human depredations.

Only two regions overlap with the United States. The Caribbean Zone includes Florida south of Lake Okeechobee and the California Floristic Province incorporates 70% of California as well as extensions into southern Oregon and northwest Mexico. These are the lands with what these authors call "flagship species" like grizzly bear, California condor, spotted owl and giant sequoia; Florida panther, key deer and American alligator. They are also lands stressed by terrific pressures. In Florida, for example, population increases (900 per day added), water shortages (those 900 use 200,000 additional gallons per day) and invasive animals and plants further stress a seriously depleted environment.

Identification is, of course, only a necessary first step in addressing the problems of our planet. Now that we know where our resources will best serve us, we should seek ways to halt or even reverse our current destructive trends.

Among the beautiful pictures of threatened exotics in this book are compelling shots of human devastation. Their powerful message: We must become good stewards. And we must do so now.-- Gerry Rising