Monday, November 1, 2010

Amphibian declines, a clear sign of an imperiled planet

I’m not trying to be doomy and gloomy, even though the current juncture is intrinsically so. I just would like to point out a worldwide environmental problem that clearly illustrates how beaten the planet we live in is. Forty-one percent of amphibian species are currently threatened by our own species. Mass extinctions like the ones we are causing only happened millions of years ago as a result of cataclysmic natural phenomena like meteorite crashes and things of such caliber! Not only that, other facts prove that I’m not just being histrionic: glaciers melting, the current drought in the Amazon rainforest, crazy weather patterns around the globe that are threatening our own species, one fifth of the world’s animal and plant species are threatened, half of the world’s major rivers are being seriously depleted and polluted, this is just out of control!

But, let’s go back to the amphibians. There are more than 6,300 amphibian species on earth that rely mostly on their highly vascularized skin to breath, and, to a lesser degree in their rather undeveloped lungs. A group of salamanders even lack lungs ( and conduct respiration solely through their skin! Amphibians need to be moist in order to carry out proper gas exchange. This means that they depend on that vital element we call water and a clean and healthy environment in order to survive. As a matter of fact, they have been long considered bioindicators because of these traits.

The way we have been managing our lands and waters has proven to be extremely pernicious to the biosphere, and now even to our own species, indeed. All those amazing slimy and primeval creatures we call amphibians are paying the price of our feeble environmental stewardship and our neglect. With 41% of the species in jeopardy, amphibians are considered the most endangered group of animals in the world. That’s something that should worry everybody!

The economic system we use to run our planet is just a careless one! The laissez-faire fashion particularly, has proven to be dreadful for people, decency and our planet. Its premise of making a profit out of everything, doing whatever it takes to make it happen, to satisfy the demands –many of them frivolous and unnecessary demands-- of an ever growing (over) population. With our illusion-driven mind set of an inexhaustible planet we have been over using and abusing our natural resources without any consideration of the environmental, cultural and social consequences.

Most of the major civilizations in human history, remarkably the one we live in, have used natural resources as if they were infinite, in doing so they have collapsed as a result. We have been cutting down forests, overexploiting ocean fisheries, draining and wiping out entire wetlands, paving the land and making it impervious, and so on. The outcome: thousands of species affected to the point that they have gone extinct and/or are threatened or rare. Again, amphibians are a good example of the effects of this conservation catastrophe. Nearly 32% (1,856 species) of the world’s amphibian species are threatened, 168 species have virtually gone extinct. Habitat destruction, invasive species, overexploitation, climate change, UV-B radiation (which directly kills them), pollutants, chytridiomycosis (aninfectious fungal disease that affects their skin), and rather a synergy of all these factors is wreaking havoc on these animals around the globe.

As I write these words, the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), is taking place in Nagoya, Japan ( Some of the accurate words of Mr. Ryu Matsumoto , Japan’s Minister of the Environment, caught my attention: "We are now close to a 'tipping point' - that is, we are about to reach a threshold beyond which biodiversity loss will become irreversible, and may cross that threshold in the next 10 years if we do not make proactive efforts for conserving biodiversity." We are certainly undergoing a serious environmental crisis that is having dreadful consequences on our precious biodiversity, and actually our very existence and survival in this planet.

The purpose of the international meeting of the CBD was to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss and set new goals for conservation. Although a good international platform for biodiversity conservation, it has failed to meet its goals. In 2002 the parties set a goal of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Guess what? The real outcome is that the problem has gotten even worse. Governments have simply failed to take action, mostly because of the immense lack of political will and/or resources. Among some of the main limitations of the Convention is that it lacks a dispute resolution process. Moreover, it lacks enforcement mechanisms and only provides a framework of goals and policies rather than real regulations. Most of the countries that have signed and ratified the convention have put off the issue, especially the developing countries which have “bigger fish to fry”, or, other urgent social, political and economic matters to deal with. George H. W. Bush’s administration refused to ratify the convention because of its concerns of possible restrictions on the biotechnology industry, intellectual property rights and other concerns congruent with the slipshod capitalism its administration praised for. Anyway, the Nagoya convention ended with a general dissatisfaction by the conservation community as a result of the slack targets set forth by it.

Even though scientists have rediscovered some of the amphibian species thought to be extinct (, the group is evidently imperiled worldwide. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (, there are 56 threatened species of amphibians in the United States and 60 in Costa Rica. At least three species of amphibians have gone extinct in Costa Rica ( The complex factors and stressors impacting amphibians have consequences on not just one species but entire assemblages of species. Species have been affected regardless if they live in protected areas or not.

Use material goods made with renewable resources, plant a native plant garden, at least drive a more fuel efficient car! save energy, reuse, recycle… A healthy environment means clean waters, clean air to breath every day, good quality soils to produce our foods, pollinated crops to feed our species, life-saving pharmaceuticals, flood protection, beautiful natural scenery that soothes and helps our minds and psyches, carbon sequestration, and on and on.

A sound environmental stewardship of our planet should be our first priority, and now! A sustainable economy that uses renewable energy, good environmental legislation that is actually enforced, a sound management of natural resources (always with the future generations in mind), stormwater management systems everywhere, a fair and just global economy, a system that cares about the importance of water quality and the availability of water for all. A society with this and all those environmental technologies and systems out there is the global society we need now if we want to avoid a near future of doom and gloom. For survival and ethical reasons this obliteration needs to stop now. To start a change we need both top-down and bottom-up solutions. We really need to do whatever we can, little by little; even in our essentially unsustainable modern lifestyle we should really start changing things in our lifestyles before this global change endangers us!!