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Jeju, Korea

Lack of taxonomists hinders biodiversity protection

A reported lack of local taxonomists in the Pacific region is hindering efforts to reverse trends towards species extinction, conservationists say.

There are 5000 species in the Pacific on the ‘red list’ of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Of this total, 500 are under threat of extinction. The IUCN recently held its World Conservation Congress, the biggest grouping of conservation organizations in the world, in Jeju, South Korea.

A taxonomist is a biologist who specializes in the classification of organisms.

IUCN Oceania’s species officer Helen Pippard told the Congress that lack of research on pacific species meant that most on the list have not been full studied and many more species are still to be documented.

The South Pacific Regional Environment Program reports that only 3720 species have been described in Vanuatu. From this total only 622 have been assessed and 24 of them are endemic to Vanuatu with the majority being palms and birds. However the data is limited in accuracy and scope, out of date or poorly documented. Often the taxonomist is a foreigner and data collected is taken away and does not come back.

This means that species that make up the Pacific’s unique biodiversity continue to disappear – and without our knowledge – due to increased population pressure, climate change, competition from alien invasive species, development and human impacts such as habitat destruction, over-harvesting of species and pollution.

“We need taxonomists who can work with governments and communities to identify what species are in danger because some species are not on the red list because they are not charismatic or endemic, but are disappearing because their habitats are being destroyed,” said Professor Randy Thaman of the Faculty of Science at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji (USP). He said there is an inherent need to protect ecological, economic and culturally significant species that are important to the wellbeing and livelihood of pacific people before they disappear.

Medicinal plants and culturally important plants used for building materials are under threat due to destruction of habitat as well as over-harvesting for building materials. Trees such as the Intsia bijuga, the bark of which is used as medicine for asthma and diabetes and also used for carving and canoes in Vanuatu, are disappearing due to rising sea levels and because there is no urgent drive to protect or replant them from the government and community levels. Other endangered species of bats are under threat of extinction because their habitats have been destroyed.

SPREP reported the absence of taxonomic expertise in the region creates a huge gap in the knowledge on species in Vanuatu and the region with no resources to document which species exist and or, are threatened.

Pippard said proper research studies need to be done on all species to determine their geographic range, population, habitat and ecology and to identify what the different threats are to the species in order to help identify species or ecosystems under threat, and assist in conservation plans, priority settings, and raising awareness of threatened species in the country.

The up-to-date collated information on species for Vanuatu – the 2008 ‘red list’ – is out of date, conservationists said. So far only mammals, amphibians and birds have been documented. All plants, reptiles, fishes and invertebrates, fresh water and marine species are not covered well.

Taholo Kami, regional director of IUCN Oceania, said Vanuatu and Melanesia still had high dependence on species, which means the need for conservation and political agreement that species do matter to the welfare and livelihood of the people are important issues.

Vanuatu and Melanesia in general are biodiversity hotspots in the region. Therefore it is vital that its governments recognize that species matter to the economy as well as the people’s livelihood and wellbeing, Kami said.

Kami said emerging issues from the Pacific Islands Species Forum this year in the Solomons identified logging, mining and population pressures as some of the issues that Pacific people and states wrestle with when it comes to the importance of preserving species and the need to increase GDP.

He said the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) has already signed a terrestrial commitment that put species conservation as a priority. The IUCN Oceania office is currently working on the details of the agreement that will also include marine species.

The IUCN is also collaborating with the USP to organize another species forum. However, each Pacific government must see that species protection is important enough to offer incentives that will encourage students to take up the studies in the taxonomic field of science.

Vanuatu is the latest Pacific island nation to join the IUCN. The IUCN has been working with Vanuatu under its energy program, looking at alternate renewable energy resources and the mangrove ecosystems for climate change adaptation and livelihoods projects which aim to safeguard and manage mangrove ecosystems.