Peter Seligmann, Chairman and CEO of Conservation International.
You may have read last week's news of a ‘lost world' harboring scores of rare and previously unknown animals and plants, unearthed in a remote Indonesian rainforest, or the recent announcement of exciting undersea discoveries in the Caribbean off the Saba Bank. They reinforce the fact that while pristine regions on our increasingly crowded and exploited planet are becoming a true rarity, much of our world remains to be explored, and amazing new creatures are waiting to be found.
This rare feat of unearthing an uncharted pocket of wilderness and a trove of natural treasures captures the public's imagination. The hunger for discovering and crossing new frontiers is an elemental force that has driven humans for centuries. In the quest for new discoveries, the first place we often look to is space, which is why the Bush administration wants to send Americans back to the moon.
But it's time to concentrate on our own Earth more closely. Unknown places and creatures are still being found to remind us how little we really know about the biodiversity that shares the planet with us. Last year, for example, Africa's first new species of monkey in 20 years was found in Tanzania . The American ivory-billed woodpecker – last spotted 60 years ago and thought to be extinct – turned up in an Arkansas swamp.
This week comes news of fascinating new marine discoveries at Saba Bank Atoll, a coral-crowned undersea mountain peak in the Caribbean . In a short, two-week scientific survey, divers found scores more fish species than were previously known in the area, including two believed to be new to science, and vast, luxurious “seaweed cities” containing at least a dozen new algae species.
Yet these exciting discoveries are tempered with regret. We are losing ‘lost worlds' before they are even surveyed. Rainforests in the Amazon, Central Africa, and Asia harbor the greatest varieties of plant and animal species. They may contain the next miracle drug, the next agricultural wonder. Yet they are being destroyed and developed for short-term economic gain from timber, minerals, and other natural resources before their long-term value can be recognized.
The same is true for our oceans. In fact, we've never made a serious effort to learn about the 95 percent of Earth that we've never seen, the world beneath the waves. We owe our very existence to the ocean, yet our knowledge of the deep seas is scant at best.
The earth's oceans, covering more than 97 percent of the planet, drive climate and weather, generate more than 70 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, absorb carbon dioxide, and replenish our fresh water through the clouds. Yet oceans are vulnerable and in deep trouble.
Each year, close to 100 million tons of fish and other marine wildlife are caught by industrial fleets. Ninety percent of large predators like swordfish, tuna, and sharks have been wiped out by over-fishing. Three-fourths of all commercial fisheries are exploited to capacity, or beyond.
Ancient deep ocean habitats are scraped and ruined by the heavy gear of bottom trawls. Coral reefs and coastal mangrove forests, vital nurseries for young fish and natural buffers to flooding and tsunamis, are destroyed to build shrimp farms or commercial development.
Over the decades, we've released billions of tons of noxious materials into the seas. Dozens of massive “dead zones” blight coastal areas. Gigantic swaths of toxic algae are fueled by high levels of nitrates and phosphates from fertilizer and animal-waste runoff from farms.
Indonesia 's ‘lost world' and the Caribbean 's undersea mountain teeming with new discoveries is big news around the globe. These remnants of Eden remind us of what Earth used to be before humans began exploiting the lands and the seas with little thought of the consequences for this exceptional place we call home. Do we not owe our future generations the legacy of a natural world that we have explored, understood, and protected -- above and beneath the oceans?