Sun, Feb 07, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Saving endangered species: It’s all about the economy

In 2010 — the International Year of Biodiversity — the UN wants efforts to slow the accelerating pace of extinctions to reach beyond nature lovers, to companies and economists

By Alister Doyle  /  REUTERS , PLAYA GRANDE, COSTA RICA

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“Forty-nine.”

On a Pacific beach in Costa Rica, a researcher whispers the number after counting the slimy, round white eggs just laid by a rare leatherback turtle in a hole dug in the sand under bright moonlight.

Turtles like this 1.5m-long female have probably been struggling out of the surf at night since before the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. The region is the main nesting site in the east Pacific for the critically endangered species.

Numbers of leatherbacks emerging onto this Costa Rican beach fell to 32 in the 2008 to 2009 season from 1,500 two decades ago — because of factors such as nearby hotels, poaching of eggs, accidental snaring in fishermen’s nets and global warming. Arrivals so far this season are slightly up.

Far from the beach, other experts may give a new argument for conserving the turtles by studying whether their fast-clotting blood can give clues to aiding humans, or if the way they regulate buoyancy can inform submarine design.

In 2010 — the International Year of Biodiversity — the UN wants efforts to slow the accelerating pace of extinctions to reach beyond nature lovers, to companies and economists.

Shifting emphasis from emotional images of polar bears, pandas or leatherbacks that stress the fragility and beauty of nature, the focus is on a harder-headed assessment of how the natural world is a key to economic growth and new products.

“Boosting biodiversity can boost the global economy,” the UN Environment Program said in a headline over a statement launching the theme. Natural services by coral reefs, forests or wetlands are too often undervalued, it said.

But profits from imitating nature have often been elusive. By some UN estimates, three species an hour are going extinct, most of them before they have even been identified.

“It’s like we have a house full of wedding presents,” said James Spotila, a professor of environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “And we’re throwing them out of the window before we even open them.”

EXTINCTION CRISIS

UN reports say the world is facing the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished, because of factors such as expanding cities, forest clearance, overfishing, climate change and species disrupting new habitats.

Yet a hectare of intact coral reef, for instance, can be worth up to US$1 million a year for tourism, up to US$189,000 for protecting coasts from storms, up to US$57,000 as a source of genetic materials and up to US$3,818 for fisheries, according to a preliminary UN-backed study late last year.

The problem is translating such estimates into cash.

“I always ask: ‘Where’s the business proposal?’” said Gunter Pauli, head of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, which looks for opportunities in nature.

Many pharmaceutical firms rely on nature. Among recent examples, scientists developed the malaria drug artemisinin from sweet wormwood, while the Madagascan periwinkle and Pacific yew tree have both yielded treatments for cancer.

Beyond medicines, firms are looking to “biomimicry,” tricks evolved by nature such as adhesives inspired by the feet of gecko lizards that can walk on ceilings, or cellphone screens imitating iridescent butterfly wings to generate colors.

Companies including Royal Dutch Shell, Dupont and Nike work with the Montana-based Biomimicry Guild, which seeks to identify new ideas.

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