Press Releases

    2 August 2002


    LONDON/NAIROBI, 1 August (UN Information Service) -- Experts estimate that, at current extinction rates of plants and animals, the Earth is losing one major drug every two years. It is estimated that less than 1 per cent of the world's 250,000 tropical plants has been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications.

    The first "World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth's Living Resources for the 21st Century", launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), shows how humankind is dependent on healthy ecosystems for all its needs.

    Eighty per cent of people in developing countries rely on medicines based largely on plants and animals. In the United States alone, 56 per cent of the top 150 prescribed drugs, with an economic value of $80 billion, is linked with discoveries made in the wild.

    The Atlas is the first comprehensive map-based view of global biodiversity. It provides a wealth of facts and figures on the importance of forests, wetlands, marine and coastal environments and other key ecosystems. It is the best current synthesis of the latest research and analysis by UNEP-WCMC and the conservation community worldwide -- providing a comprehensive and accessible view of key global issues in biodiversity.

    It also highlights humankind's impact on the natural world. During the past 150 years, humans have directly impacted and altered close to 47 per cent of the global land area, it is reported in the Atlas.

    Under one bleak scenario, biodiversity will be threatened on almost 72 per cent of the land area by 2032. The Atlas reveals losses of biodiversity are likely to be particularly severe in South-East Asia, the Congo basin and parts of the Amazon. As much as 48 per cent of these areas will become converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas, compared with 22 per cent today, suggesting wide depletions of biodiversity.

    Klaus Töpfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said wise use of the Earth's natural resources was at the heart of sustainable development and a key issue for world leaders attending the crucial World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 26 August.

    "Humankind now diverts about 40 per cent of the Earth's productivity to its own ends, and much of this is being carried out in a destructive and unsustainable way. It is vital that we reverse these unsustainable practices while, at the same time, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the planet's natural capital, its natural wealth", he said. Mr. Töpfer said the value of wild resources to the pharmaceutical industry alone highlighted the pressing need for new and more imaginative ways of exploiting plants and animals so that the benefits were shared by all.

    "We must address the issue of genetic resource sharing by giving developing countries, where the majority of biodiversity remains, an economic incentive to protect wildlife by paying them properly for the plants and animals whose genes get used in new drugs or crops", he added.

    Mr. Töpfer said the proper and responsible use of the Earth's natural treasures could play a key role in reducing poverty and thus should be seen by world leaders at the World Summit as a key area to address. Biodiversity is, along with water, energy, health and agriculture, one of the five priority areas for the United Nations, as outlined by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

    "Biodiversity should be one of the key issues underpinning all decisions taken at the Johannesburg Summit", said Mr. Töpfer. "You cannot tackle water, energy, health, agriculture, and ultimately poverty without the conservation, wise use and proper distribution of the many benefits arising from the living world."

    The new Atlas outlines some of the broad ecological relationships between humans and the rest of the material world and summarizes information on the health of the planet. More specifically, it shows how "wilderness areas" are on the retreat as roads and urban centres spread into places like the Amazon basin, the Arctic and desert zones.

    "There is little true wilderness left to support the expansion of the human population on this planet", says Brian Groombridge, co-author of the Atlas. "Over the last decade, food supply has increased to meet the growing population through higher productivity (about 69 per cent) and exploitation of wilderness (31 per cent). But, with little wilderness area left, where will the additional capacity come from?"

    "Globalization and the pace of technological development are outstripping our understanding of the impacts we are having on ecosystems -- putting many basic services at risk, particularly for the poor", says Mr. Groombridge. "At the same, there is now enough evidence to show that we should take the precautionary approach and not interfere with the global processes that maintain our fishing, forestry, agriculture, health and climate."

    By using maps to show the location of biodiversity, UNEP-WCMC draws together the work of researchers across the world who have identified particularly rich or vulnerable areas, including "hot spots" and "eco-regions". These are regions where it is particularly important to identify development paths that can serve humankind without reducing nature's capital.

    Mark Collins, UNEP-WCMC Director, stressed the vital role of ecosystems and how they interact to provide vital resources. As an example, he cited the essential role of mountain regions as providers of freshwater. "If water sources are jeopardized, then this impacts human activity downstream – people will not have clean water to drink or enough to water their crops", said Mr. Collins. "Fish supplies diminish or become extinct, affecting the food supply chain and trading opportunities", he said. "Further down in the cities, power from hydroelectricity would be reduced, as would supplies of water for industrial washing, cooling and the production of products. The net result is business failure, job losses and economic disaster."

    "We know enough about the distribution of species and ecosystems to ensure that the world's biodiversity is managed effectively", said Mr. Collins. "Give nature half a chance and it will take care of itself."

    For more information, please contact: Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, Nairobi,
    on +254-2-623084, mobile: +254-733-632755, e-mail:; or Robert Bisset, UNEP Press Officer and Spokesperson in Europe, in Paris, on +33-1-4437-7613,
    mobile +66-6-2272-5842, e-mail:

    At UNEP-WCMC, please contact: Will Rogowski, Head of Marketing, Cambridge, United Kingdom,
    +44-1223-277314, fax: +44-1223-277136, e-mail:,
    Web site:

    Media contact: Rachel Holdsworth/Gayle Nicol, PR consultant UNEP-WCMC,
    tel: +44-1954-202789, mobile: +44-7931-561956,

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