Philippines biodiversity: Going, going, gone?

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    "We are losing biological diversity at an unprecedented rate," decried the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations during the World Food Day celebration more than two decades ago. Today, the predicament continues.

    Biological diversity (biodiversity) is made up of all species of plants and animals, their genetic material and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Species diversity refers to the variety of species within a given area. Genetic diversity, on the other hand, refers to the variation of genes and genotypes between and within species.

    Plant and animal species provide genetic materials for improved varieties or breeds. High-yielding varieties rice developed at the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute, for instance, is a cross between a Chinese dwarf strain and a tall, traditional plant from Indonesia.

    Two of the most important anti-cancer drugs in the world come from the rosy periwinkle, found in Asia’s tropical rainforests. Taxol, the only drug that shows promise against breast cancer and ovarian cancer, was initially found in the western yew. Asian cattle have been crossed with dairy breed of Europe to boost their milk and meat output.

    Unfortunately, the world’s biodiversity is collapsing at nothing less than mind-boggling rates. "Difficult as it is to accept, mass extinction has already begun," deplores Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.

    The Geneva-based Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates there are on earth at least 30 million species, of which "all but a few thousand are at risk." Less than two million species have been studied by man. Yet, over a thousand, maybe 10,000 more, are being lost each year, mostly unseen and unrecorded.

    Wilson estimates that, at a minimum, 50,000 invertebrates species per year – nearly 140 each day – are condemned to extinction.

    "Of all the global problems that confront us, species extinction is the one that is moving the most rapidly and the one that will have the most serious consequences," contends Dr. Peter Raven, another noted American biologist.

    Unlike other global ecological problems, he stressed, the crisis is completely irreversible. "Extinction is forever," said the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

    The Philippines, with more than seven thousands islands, is considered by respected scientists as one of the countries with the highest degree of biodiversity in the world.

    Out of the 500 known coral species worldwide, about 488 coral species in 78 genera are found in the Philippines. There are only about 50 species of seagrasses in the world. A total of 16 species can be found in the country, and this is the second highest diversity that exist in one country; only Western Australia has more with 17 species. At least 2,000 fish species are found in the Philippines.

    About 98 of mammal species are endemic to the Philippines. In the last seven years, experts have discovered 12 mammal species in the country seen nowhere else on the planet.

    "The number compares with other countries like Brazil," says Philippine fauna specialist Dr. Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. "But compare their sizes. For such a small area, the Philippine rockets ahead."

    Brazil has a total land area of 3,286,488 square kilometers while the Philippines has a total land area of 115,800 square kilometers. Indonesia, another biodiversity-rich country, has a total land area of 741,101 square kilometers.

    While its diversity is among the highest, the Philippines’ ecosystems are among the most threatened. The US National Cancer Institute, which has worked with the National Museum to find genes from the country’s wild species that may help in the development of new anti-cancer drugs, lists the entire Philippine archipelago as among five biogeographical areas in the world considered the "hottest of the hot spots," a hot spot being an area whose high biodiversity is gravely threatened.

    Filipino scientist Dr. Lee Talbot agreed: "A few decades ago, the wildlife of the Philippines was notable for its abundance; now, it is notable for its variety; if present trend of destruction continues, Philippine wildlife will be notable for its absence."

    Although no endemic species yet in the Philippines are reported to have been extinct, several made it to the list of rare, threatened and endangered species compiled by the Conven­tion for International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), of which the country is a signatory.

    Among these are the Philippine eagle, tamaraw, pangolin, Philippine tarsier, Philip­pine palm civet, calamanian deer and fruit bats. All the marine turtles found in the Philippines – the green sea turtle, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback turtle – are considered threatened reptiles, along with Philip­pine and estuarine crocodiles, lizards and phytons.

    The following plants are listed by CITES as rare, threatened and endangered species: sander’s alocasia, striped alocasia, pitcher plant, orchids, "bungang ipot," lady’s slipper, cycas or "pitogo," all species of ferns, and cactus.

    "Once these species are gone, they are gone forever, leaving behind an imbalance in ecology and beauty difficult to determine and restore," said a Filipino environmentalist.

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