03 February 2005

Maputaland is under threat - global study

Maputaland has been identified among nine new environmental "hotspots", areas of great ecological diversity that are under threat and together shelter most of the planet's endangered plant and animal species, by a global study.

"Nine new hotspots have been identified, including one that traverses the United States-Mexico border, one in southern Africa, and one that encompasses the entire nation of Japan," said Conservation International, which helped organise the analysis.

The findings bring to 34 the number of hotspots identified by leading scientists.

They are home to 75 percent of the world's most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians, which survive in fragile habitats covering just 2,3 percent of the Earth's surface.

These areas once covered almost 16 percent of the planet, an area the size of Russia and Australia combined, underscoring the threats posed by human encroachment and habitat destruction.

Nearly 400 scientists and other experts contributed to the four-year study, described in a book entitled "Hotspots Revisited" which was launched on Wednesday.

Two key factors are used to designate a hotspot: a high concentration of endemic species - which means they are found nowhere else - and a serious degree of threat.

The Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands hotspot has 24 plant and vertebrate families found nowhere else on Earth.

Some of the hotspots have less than 10 percent of their original habitat left - which means they probably once contained many unidentified species that have been lost forever.

"The biodiversity hotspots are the environmental emergency rooms of our planet... We must now act decisively to avoid losing these irreplaceable storehouses of Earth's life forms," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International.

"We now know that by concentrating on the hotspots, we are not only protecting species, but deep lineages of evolutionary history. These areas capture the uniqueness of life on Earth," Mittermeier said.

Most of the hotspots are in tropical or sub-tropical areas, highlighting the diversity of life found near the equator, where year-round warmth and good rainfalls enable many plants and animals to thrive.

But many are also found in very poor countries or regions, which magnifies the threat as impoverished and swelling rural populations encroach on remaining habitat.

The new hotspots that have been added are:

- The East Melanesian islands which have been degraded dramatically over the last five years;

- the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands on the US-Mexico border.

- Japan

- The Horn of Africa

- Irano-Anatolian

- The mountains of central Asia

- Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany in southern Africa, which includes parts of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland.

- The Himalaya and Eastern Afromontane, which stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe, have also been identified as distinct regional hotspots in their own right.


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