Natural Venezuelan beauty

Columbia’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation hosted an eight-hour symposium yesterday on biodiversity. Planet Earth enthusiast Mahima Chablani stopped by one of the afternoon lectures, named “Conserving the World’s Biodiversity: Global and Local Perspectives.” You can read about the full program here. Five working in the environmental sciences spoke in turn on their professional experiences, adressing preserving biodiversity–surprise–globally and locally.

Focusing on the present:
Maria Uriarte, a forest ecologist and Assistant Professor at Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, discussed how biodiversity is affected at several different spatial and temporal scales. She noted that the debate within her field is centered on evolutionary history, and more specifically, the question of whether we are “losing the way nature devised to make a living.” Instead of obsessing about the past, Uriarte stressed, “The actions that need to be taken to restore biodiversity deal with people.”

Understanding endangered species: Jon Paul Rodríguez, is an Associate Professor of Econology the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations and the President of Provita, a Venezuelan conservation NGO founded in 1987.  In the 1980s, Rodríguez and his team compiled a list of threatened Venezuelan species, modeled after the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, a global inventory that provides taxonomic and conservation information on plant and animal species with the risk of extinction.  First published in 1995, Libro Rojo de la Fauna Venezolano (The Red Book of Venezuelan Fauna) was a tremendous success. It’s accessibility brought awareness of species to the “consciousness of people.” The book’s three subsequent editions rapidly sold out, and in 2008, the government of Venezuela photocopied illustrations from the book and placed them on bills!  Rodríguez is currently trying to link national and global Red Lists by creating a forum for countries to publish their national inventories.  His ultimate aim is to integrate and apply the methods used to study species towards the assessment of ecosystems.

Germs! They’re everywhere: Alonso Aguirre, the Senior Vice President for the Conservation Medicine Program and a member of EcoHealth Alliance. His remarks adressed “extinction by infection.”  Stressing how biodiversity affects health, Aguirre cited several cases of “pathogen pollution,” which occurs when pathogens spread to areas where they never used to exist.  For all those who praise your toilet-trained cats, think again: the death of hundreds of sea otters on the coast of California was recently linked to the flushing of cat feces down the toilet. Apparently, cat feces can contain the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which travels through sewage outflows and spreads to near-shore waters, where the parasite infects sea otters’ prey.  According to Aguirre, we are aware of only two percent of the planet’s viruses, and there are “more viruses killing the planet than stars in the universe.”

The urban landscape: Matthew Palmer is a Lecturer in Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. Palmer focuses his research on the “broader footprints” caused by urbanization, considering that urban areas make up only two percent of the Earth’s surface, but use seventy-five percent of the world’s resources. Palmer, like Uriarte, stressed the importance of public activism, as well as the need to change attitudes towards the “urban weeds” we encounter, such as nature growing out of cracks in the sidewalks and abandoned corners.  Palmer concluded by listing the many projects that encourage public involvement in the city, such as the NYC Urban Tree Canopy and NYC Wildflower Week.

The business of biodiversity: Helen Crowley, the Associate Director of Market-based Conservation Initiatives for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who discussed conservation through the lens of business.  Crowley focuses on community enterprises in isolated communities, like Caiman skins from Bolivia or Ibis Rice from Cambodia.  Crowley remarked, “The intersection of corporate sustainability and conservation enterprises…is having a positive biodiversity impact.”  Such intersection is manifested by ways like high-end hotels serving Ibis rice, or General Mills showing support for Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), a non-profit aimed at decreasing human poverty and restoring ecosystems.

Q&A: The short Q & A session that followed the panelists generated a lot of interesting discussion, from the potential worth of creating a local Red List for NYC to the danger of our excessive use of palm oil. Each speaker agreed that reaching success at the local level does not guarantee  that the methods and strategies can be “scaled up” to attain success the global level.  As emphasized by the moderator, going global “is not always the answer.”  Noting that human communication is essential to the growth of biodiversity conservation, Crowley capped the discussion well by underscoring the importance of “having a story to inspire people.”

Note to future lecturehoppers: Mahima adds that the delicious free food and sophisticated Faculty House aura nicely complimented the rich dialogue and diversity of thought.

Foliage via wikimedia