Extinction rate hits 65M-year high: report

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The number of species becoming extinct has risen to a level not seen since the dinosaurs died out, according to a United Nations report ahead of International Biodiversity Day on Saturday.

Researchers warned that the alarming rate of decline could have major implications for current and future human generations.

"The news is not good," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity. "We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history. Extinction rates may be up to 1,000 times higher than the historical background rate."

Amphibians in particular are in serious danger, while the number of vertebrate species fell by about 33 percent between 1970 and 2006, says the report.

Scientists say that the last time anything comparable happened was 65 million years ago, when a third of all species, including the dinosaurs, vanished.

Biodiversity, a word coined in the 1980s, is a concept difficult to define, and still widely misunderstood and misused. The team means more than just wildlife or wild places. It encompasses the full variety of genes, species and ecosystems on the planet.

The crops we eat, the insects that pollinate them, the plants we use for medicines, the bacteria that helps create soil for farming and the microscopic plankton at the foot of the food chain are all included in biodiversity. The concept also includes ecosystems, such as forests that regulate water supplies and climate.

Provision of food, fiber, medicines and fresh water, pollination of crops and protection from natural disasters are among the ecosystem services potentially threatened by declines and changes in biodiversity.

The economic value of biodiversity in China is estimated at about 3.1 trillion yuan ($453 billion), which is about the same as the country's GDP last year, said Zhang Fengchun, a policy adviser with China-EU Biodiversity Program.

The UN Convention on Biodiversity came into force in 1995 and set 2010 as a deadline for both a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss and a global agreement to ensure fair distribution of benefits arising from access to genetic resources. However, neither goal seems reachable.

"Our data shows that 2010 will not be the year that biodiversity loss was halted," said Stuart Butchart, lead author of the UN report. "But it needs to be the year in which we start taking the issue seriously and substantially increase our efforts to take care of what is left of our planet."

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