Museums are key to saving biodiversity

The good news: the UN has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Next October, scientists and politicians meet in Japan to assess progress towards the targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, confirmed at the 2002 Johannesburg summit in South Africa. The bad news is that the chances of meeting those targets are extremely low. Most indicators suggest that the rate of biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing. It is clear that we need to redouble our efforts.

This has to be done in two ways: by improving scientific understanding of what is happening to the world's biodiversity, and by ensuring that this understanding is conveyed to as wide an audience as possible. Both are difficult but essential - and fortunately both are doable.

On the first front, we need to know in as much detail as possible what has happened to biodiversity over the recent past (the 300 or so years since the revolutions in industrialisation and agriculture had a major impact on the world) so we can better measure current rates of biodiversity loss. Only when we have a validated rate of past decline can we assess the effects of conservation efforts.

We also need to be creative about where we look for that evidence. Monitoring programmes show evidence of changes in one place over a few years or decades, but they are already being made more difficult by the impact climate change is having on the distribution of organisms - and thus on biodiversity - at any particular place on the planet.

When it comes to longer-term changes, monitoring clearly cannot help. This is where scientific collections such as those in natural history museums and herbaria can make a unique contribution. These vast, painstakingly assembled collections of animals and plants are more than mere relics: they offer snapshots of past biodiversity. The collections held in institutions like the Natural History Museum in London can make an important contribution by providing data that will help us all to assess long-term changes in biodiversity.

But assessing the changes is clearly not enough on its own. Action to foster biodiversity is urgently needed, and that requires politicians - and thus the wider public - to understand the significance of the changes taking place. This can be a complex message to communicate. The issue is not whether it is worth conserving a charismatic mammal or whether it matters if a few nematodes become extinct: it needs to be far more widely understood that declines in individual species herald the decline of diversity in whole ecosystems, which, in turn, has implications for human survival.

Here, too, museums can play a crucial role by helping to engage people's interest. The International Year of Biodiversity offers an unmissable opportunity to encourage broader understanding about the threats facing biodiversity and encourage action to solve them.


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