The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity to promote conservation and sustainable biodiversity. In October, Japan will host the 10th U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, an event held every two years.

Biodiversity is defined as the “variability among living organisms from all sources, including diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems,” according to the U.N. Convention, which was first signed in 1992.

Environmentalists say the loss of biodiversity is not just about losing the richness of the natural environment but will negatively effect the ecological processes the planet depends on.

The situation is serious. According to the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature released last month, 17,291 out of 47,677 assessed species globally are threatened with extinction. Another 363 were added to the endangered group compared with a year earlier. Various fauna and flora are also facing extinction in Japan.

Following are questions regarding the situation here and preventive measures:

What is currently counted among the Japanese Red List of Threatened Species?

According to the latest list compiled by the Environment Ministry released in August 2007, 3,155 species were identified as at risk of extinction, reflecting an increase of 461 from the previous list, which was released in 2000.

The ministry’s list does not include ocean fish, as they are under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Agency.

Prefectural governments also compile their own Red Lists, often based on the criteria used by the national government. WWF Japan, a nongovernmental organization, says the prefectural lists provide more detail because they focus on local-level wildlife.

What causes species to become extinct?

There are multiple reasons, but deforestation and land reclamation for development are major destroyers of wildlife habitats. Alien species brought to Japan can upset ecosystems. Rare insects and plants are under threat because people illegally collect them from their breeding grounds.

Climate change is another factor that affects vulnerable species such as coral and alpine plants, observers say.

In some cases, a lack of human activity can lead to the destruction of nature. For example, thinning out trees maintains healthy mountain and forest ecosystems. But there is a shortage of loggers who can pursue this activity.

The government has been aware of the issues and has introduced several laws with the aim of conserving wildlife. But according to the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, another NGO, the legislation has been ineffective because the government has not prioritized biodiversity conservation.

What listed species are deemed “the most endangered”?

As of this month, 82 species ranging from birds, mammals, insects and plants are on the critical list. They include the albatross, Japanese crane, Okinawa rail, Amami rabbit, Iriomote cat and Abe’s salamander.

What protective measures have been taken?

Being on the Red List does not automatically lead to actual protection, but the species designated as the most critically endangered are under legal protection.

Once so designated, a species is subject to a concrete Environment Ministry plan to preserve, protect and increase its numbers. As of last January, 26 animals and 12 plants out of the 82 on the critical list fall under protection and breeding plans, the ministry said.

One notable example is the preservation of Japanese crested ibises. They were once widespread in the nation’s pine forests and wetlands but were hunted to the brink of extinction by the late 1920s, and development damaged their breeding grounds and finished them off.

In 1981, all surviving ibises were at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center in Niigata Prefecture. Kin, the last crested ibis born in Japan, died in 2003.

In 1999, a pair of male and female Japanese ibises were given as gifts from China, where the species is also regarded as critically endangered. They were brought to the Sado center for breeding. More ibises were later loaned from China to the center for breeding.

In September 2008, 10 crested ibises were released from Sado to the wild for the first time in 27 years, after the birds had undergone an acclimation program and fitted with GPS tracking devices. Another 20 ibises were released into the wild from Sado last September.

The Environment Ministry plans to release 60 ibises into the wild by 2015. Meanwhile, 10 crested ibises born in Japan have been returned to China as part of a bilateral agreement.

Protection activities also include monitoring critically endangered species, a role performed by both the ministry and local governments and NGOs.

Are environment impact assessments performed before a development project takes place to protect biodiversity?

All major development projects, ranging from highways to airports to residential tracts have faced mandatory environmental impact assessments since 1999.

The assessments must be publicized, and, if deemed necessary, measures to mitigate environmental impact are enforced, including revising project plans. Local governments have similar regulations.

The Nature Conservation Society of Japan says the current environment assessment criteria are not strict enough to ensure that planned development projects do not threaten biodiversity. The group also says the assessment process needs to start before the project planning phase instead of when the preliminary plan is drawn.

How is the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity expected to play out in 2010?

The convention recognizes that biological diversity is not just about fauna, flora and ecosystems but also food security, freshwater and air, and a clean and healthy environment for all life forms.

Japan signed the convention in 1993. Currently, 192 countries have signed.

At next year’s meeting in Nagoya, the attending parties are likely to deliver progress reports on the 2010 biodiversity target. In April 2002, parties to the convention committed to achieving by 2010 a “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level.” But the latest IUCN Red List showed the 2010 international target will not be met.

The meeting is also expected to consider updating and revising the convention’s strategic plan for beyond 2010.

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