Home>Dimensions of Diversity> What do we know about biodiversity?

What do we know about Biodiversity?

The answer to this question is surprisingly little. More accurately western scientists know surprisingly little about biodiversity. Indeed, as one noted commentator on biodiversity has remarked, the western world invests more in the exploration of distant planets than it does on the exploration of the diversity of life on this planet. [1]

This is reflected in the fact that western science does not even posses a clear idea of how many species there are in the world. Thus, estimates for the diversity of species presently range from 10 to 100 million species, and any given figure on numbers of species is likely to be contested. [2] The figure of 12.5 million species may ultimately prove more realistic. [3] However, as of 1997 only 1.7 million species had been described by western scientists. This demonstrates just how poor western knowledge of biodiversity truly is. Over the last 230 years, western scientists have described new species at the rate of between 6,000 to 8,000 per year. [4] This has recently increased to approximately 15,000 species per year. [5] Assuming that an estimate of a total of 14 million species is reasonable, and subtracting the 1.7 million species that are thought to have been described, this means that at the present rate of progress it will take western taxonomists somewhere in the region of 820 years to describe the diversity of life on this planet. [6]

This extremely crude estimate serves to reveal the poverty of western scientific knowledge of global biodiversity. This is further reinforced by the sobering fact that with the exception of birds, large mammals, and other species of particular interest to human beings, we know virtually nothing about the majority of the 1.7 million species that have been described by western taxonomists, beyond their names and the places they were collected. [7]

While this situation is improving, and is marked by an increasing understanding of the ecology of tropical forests, there are still enormous gaps in western scientific knowledge of global biodiversity and the ecological processes that shape our world. Furthermore, we do know that global biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate. Indeed, global biodiversity is being lost at such a rate that it is quite conceivable that many species will become extinct before they can be collected and described by western taxonomists. [8]

Estimates of the status and trends in the conservation and loss of biodiversity vary considerably and it is important to recognise that any given figures on issues such as deforestation and the extinction of species are likely to be contested. What is beyond doubt is that the destruction of biodiversity in the form of tropical deforestation and other ecosystems around the world poses a serious threat to the future well being of humanity.

As this makes clear, at the heart of the issue of the conservation of biodiversity is knowledge; knowledge of the diversity of species, their ecology, behaviour and of management practices which might enable humankind to establish and maintain a sustainable relationship with the environment upon which we all ultimately depend for our welfare. It is here that indigenous peoples and local communities have a vital role to play.



Entire report (in
Word 319 kb)


Download this section (in Word)

Dimensions of Diversity

| Acknowledgements | About the Authors | Introduction | Dimensions of Diversity | Indigenous Peoples.. |
| From Policy to Implementation? | Executive Summary COP5 | Executive Summary COP6 |References |