Population density, growth threaten species-rich "hotspots"

Slower population growth could ease conservation challenge.

provided by Population Action International

ore than 1.1 billion people live within the 25 most species-rich and environmentally threatened areas of the world, according to a new report released by Population Action International (PAI). The report documents, for the first time, the historical impact of population growth on biological diversity on a global scale, with special attention to the current situation in these 25 "biodiversity hotspots."

"We found that human population density levels and growth rates in the hotspots significantly exceed those of the world as a whole, a potentially alarming finding for environmental conservation," reports lead author Richard Cincotta, PhD, ecologist and PAI senior researcher. "However, the current slowing of world population growth offers hope for easing the pressure of human activities on these ecologically valuable, yet fragile areas."

Nature's Place: Human Population and the Future of Biological Diversity reveals that, while the hotspots cover less than an eighth of the Earth's land surface, they are now home to one-fifth of the world's population. In 19 of the 25 hotspots, population is growing faster than in the world as a whole. In 16 of the 25, population densities are at or above the average density of the world as a whole. Today, each hotspot retains no more than 25 percent of its original natural vegetation -- and most hotspots contain much less than that.

The report finds that the human population of 6 billion -- our geographic range, demand for natural resources and ways of disposing of waste -- underlies and fuels the more direct causes of recent and current plant and animal extinctions. These extinctions are proceeding at least a thousand times faster today than in the prehuman past. And this rate is expected to accelerate in the 21st century.

PAI's findings are in keeping with those of the scientific community. A 1998 Harris poll found that nearly 70 percent of biologists polled believe that a mass extinction is already underway, and that one-fifth of all living species could disappear within the next 30 years.

Among the regions covered by the PAI report, population density is highest in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Caribbean. Population is growing fastest in Choco-Darien in Western Ecuador, the Tropical Andes and Madagascar.

Three species-rich hotspots cross US soil: the California Floristic Province hot-spot, the Caribbean hotspot (south Florida and the Everglades), and the Polynesia/Micronesia hotspot (Hawaii). In each of these areas, migration and related population growth have contributed to an advance of suburban sprawl and rapid breakdown of species-rich biological communities. Today, roughly 90 percent of the US plant species listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service are found in these three "hotspot" states.

PAI offers a plan of action to help save a critical mass of the earth's remaining biological diversity, including steps to ensure that people everywhere can determine for themselves the timing of childbirth and the size of their families. This would strengthen the trend toward slower population growth and, in turn, benefit the environment. Among PAI's recommendations are that:


  • The US Congress ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement to save the planet's biodiversity and equitably share its benefits;
  • Governments, donors and individual communities elevate the priority of biological diversity and invest in its conservation; and
  • Donor and developing countries increase their financial and policy commitments to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, to ensure that family planning services are available to all who want them by 2015.

"If we act now, we can still conserve the majority of the species and ecosystems with which we share the planet. The impact of human population within the biodiversity hotspots is another powerful example of why we must strive to protect each and every piece of what still remains within these incredibly important fragments of biodiversity-rich real estate," says Russell A. Mittermeier, President of Conservation International (CI). CI recently released the most current data on the global biodiversity hotspots, a concept pioneered by British ecologist Norman Myers in the early 1980s.

"The surest way to preserve our natural heritage is to invest in meeting the needs of people," says Amy Coen, President of PAI. "That is why family planning and conservation advocates in the United States support the Administration's budget request of $542 million for international family planning programs in fiscal 2001. This amount is just a few hundredths of one percent of the US budget, but the only way to support the current positive trend of slowing population growth. It's an investment we can't afford not to make."

Contact: Leslie Isom Raabe 202-659-1833 ext. 141