Some 11,046 plants and animals risk disappearing forever, according to the most comprehensive analysis of global conservation ever undertaken, the World Conservation Union's 2000 Red List of Threatened Species. The report, released Thursday, examined some 18,000 species and subspecies around the globe.
But scientists acknowledge that even a study of this magnitude only scratches the surface. Earth is home to an estimated 14 million speciesand only 1.75 million have been documented.
Many may become extinct before they are even identified, much less assessed by scientists.
"Global society would be horrified if someone set fire to the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or if someone blew up the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal," said Russell Mittermeier, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. "Yet every time a forest is burned to the ground in Madagascar or the Philippines, the loss to global society is at least as great, yet no one pays very much attentionand sadly it happens every day."
Conservationists estimate that the current extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it should be under natural conditions. That means that in the first decades of the 21st century, many creaturesfrom a majestic Albatross to Asian freshwater turtlesmay join the ranks of the flightless Dodo bird.
The primary reason: humans. Everything from expanding cities to deforestation, agriculture and fishing pose a significant threat to the planet's biodiversity. In the last 500 years, some 816 species have disappearedsome permanently, while others exist only in artificial settings, such as zoos.
With 11,046 more at significant risk of being confined to the history books, and 4,595 on the brink of being declared threatened, conservationists are gloomy.
"The extinction crisis that we've all been talking about for a long time looks as if it is fast becoming a reality," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, of the World Conservation Union's British branch. "And it is a far more serious problem than ever anticipated."
Since the last assessment, carried out in 1996, the number of mammals identified as critically endangeredthose closest to extinctionincreased from 169 to 180. The number of birds rose from 168 to 182.
According to the 2000 Red List, one in every four mammals and one in every eight birds is at risk.
Statistics for plants are more difficult to assess because so many are yet to be analyzed. But conifers, the most studied group, suggest a depressing trendsome 16 percent are at risk, according to the report.
"This time we were scared by our own results," Maritta Koch-Weser, director-general othe World Conservation Union, said in an interview from her office outside Geneva. "Our world is a result of evolution over 3.5 billion years and we are able in just four years to do away with so much. The magnitude of what we've done is philosophically hard to understand."
The Red List is produced by the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission, a network of some 7,000 species experts working in almost every country in the world.
The conservationists assign each species to one of eight categories, depending on such factors as the rate of decline, population numbers and the size of the geographic area where it is found.
Species facing a significant threat of extinction are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. Examples range from the Iberian lynx, of which only 600 remain, to the Brazilian Guitar Fish, whose numbers declined by 96 percent due to overfishing.
Indonesia, India, Brazil and China are among the countries with the most threatened mammals and birds, according to the 2000 report. The United States fell out of the top 20 list, replaced this time by Cameroon and Russia.
However, the United States did rank top of the chart for the most threatened species of fish and invertebrates. But experts said that is slightly misleading because the status of these creatures has been more closely analyzed in the United States than elsewhere.
Malaysia, which has lost a significant proportion of its tropical timber trees tops the list for endangered plant species.
Conservationists said the latest report can be used to educate governments and people worldwide. Ultimately, they are seeking more legal protection for at-risk animals and habitats, the creation of conservation "hot spots" to protect areas facing grave danger and a massive increase in spending above the estimated $6 billion currently spent worldwide.
"As a society we don't care what are we going to leave behind for people that come after us," said Koch-Weser. "In many cases, we don't even know what we are losing."
By Mara Bellaby © 2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed