On the 15th of April 2008, the International Conference Centre of Geneva hosted a lively youth debate on animal conservation, organised by the Earth Focus Foundation and ICVolunteers. Students from public and private schools in Geneva were invited to the debate. In addition, 10 students from the Aga Khan Academy from Mombassa, Kenya, also participated. ICV volunteers took care of contacts and liaising with schools, onsite logistics and reporting.
How can we understand better what threats endangered species are facing? Why is it important to protect them? These were the principal issues at stake during the conference.
Mr Jean-Christophe ViÃ©, Deputy Head of the Species Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), explained that the IUCN's mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature. "Biodiversity is crucial," he pointed out. "Diversity is vital to maintain healthy populations; it underpins all life and makes things more interesting". Part of the mission of the Species Conservation Programme is to compile a Red List of Threatened Species. The first Red List was compiled in the early 1960s and contained about 6000 species. Roughly 1.9 million threatened species have been described so far, but it is estimated there are between 10 to 100 million. According to the IUCN Red List, there were 16,306 species that were threatened with extinction in 2007. Among them are African vultures, Sumatran Orang-utans, Western Lowland Gorillas and Yangtze River Dolphins.
But what is a species? "The most basic definition is that it is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring", explained Mr ViÃ©. Species are an easily understood unit, even for national legislations, and that makes it possible to talk about their relation to us. One could ask if all species are equally important. "If not, how do we decide which ones to save first?", continued Mr ViÃ©. The Red List deals with the species that are 'endangered' and 'critically endangered'. The levels above this are 'extinct in the wild' and 'extinct'. A fluctuating and declining population size and a small area of distribution represent the major risks factors, while over-exploitation, invasive alien species and habitat loss or degradation are some examples of the causes for a decline in a species. Species can be most successfully pulled back from the brink of extinction if the threat is very well understood and the intervention targeted. Most public attention is on so-called 'flagship species', such as polar bears and tigers, which speak to people's imagination. When there is a focus on an animal, the ecosystem in which they operate will also benefit.