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Monitoring the World's Ecosystems
by Richard Ellis
LPS Special Correspondent

In a world in which destruction of the environment seems to threaten the future of the planet, the quiet work of a group of Cambridge scientists assumes increasing importance. For the past 15 years the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) has, in its own words, provided "information on the conservation and sustainable use of species and ecosystems."

The WCMC, based in eastern England, was founded by the IUCN (the World conservation union), the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Every year the centre completes about 30 projects within a total portfolio of more than a hundred. Every conceivable area of concern from Siberia to the Antarctic is studied by the centre's biologists.

Rapid Response
One of the most recent incidents which brought a rapid response from WCMC was the grounding of the oil tanker Sea Empress off the west coast of Britain in February this year. Thousands of tons of oil threatened a national park and national nature reserves in an area famous for its spectacular coastline, sandy beaches and seabird nesting sites.

WCMC was able to gather the exact details of the vulnerable areas and nesting sites and put the information on the Internet by the afternoon of the day the ship went aground.

When the Maersk Navigator foundered and began to spill oil north of Sumatra in 1993, the WCMC was able to provide, within a few hours, a coastal sensitivity report and map showing locations of threatened areas of mangroves, coral reefs and the nesting sites of four species of turtle.

The report also detailed protected areas and gave information on the incidence of whales, dolphins, seabirds and the rare and vulnerable dugong or sea cow. The information was immediately available to the media and interested organisations and scientists.

Bio-map Library
One of WCMC's most important projects has been the development of its Biodiversity Map Library (BML), a large and rapidly growing collection of mapped information on the world's biological resources, accessible through an interface which allows even inexperienced users to access complex information quickly and easily.

The BML information covers the whole world and contains a database that currently exceeds for gigabytes. For large countries such as Russia and Brazil a scale of 1:4 million is used. For a small country like Antigua the mapping is at 1:50,000. The BML database is divided into five themes - a natural ecosystems, protected areas, threatened species, sensitive marine and coastal sites and topography and human infrastructure.

Because of its size and complexity the BML is designed to run on a computer workstation under the UNIX operating system. A PC version now being developed will allow the database to be viewed but not edited. There are plans for some of the data to be made available on the Internet.

An important event this year will be the publication of the IUCN "red list" of threatened plants, based on information compiled by WCMC. This will be a comprehensive survey of threatened plants on a global scale, giving the full scientific names, down to the level of subspecies, as well as common names and author names.

"Long Overdue"
Jo Taylor, WCMC's information officer, says the publication of the plants red list is long overdue. "It will complement the now famous red list of threatened animals and the United Nations list of national parks and protected areas, both of which are now available on the Internet as a result of generous funding by British Telecom."

WCMC is also engaged in a major scheme to map the world's coral reefs in digital form. The initiative is part of a collaborative venture with the Philippines-based International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management. Detailed maps have already been prepared for more than 25 countries.

"Coral reefs are the rainforests of the marine world," says Ms. Taylor. "Coral reefs are very sensitive ecosystems and any threat to their survival has serious implications for local populations and for the many kinds of wildlife that depend on them.

"Oil is a very serious threat. There is strong evidence that petroleum hydrocarbons seriously damage coral reproduction and, if crude oil is present at low tides, the result can be massive morality. That was a serious concern at the time of the Maersk Navigator incident. Coral reefs abound in the Nicobar Islands, as do mangroves, and it was feared that both these important kinds of habitats would be badly damaged."

In 1986, in collaboration with IUCN and with funding from British Petroleum, WCMC began work on mapping the distribution of the world's tropical forests. In addition there has been a move lately to help local decision makers to form forest policy in the light of knowledge about forest conditions and vulnerability.

"We must consider the lives of local people and the pressure from developers to be able to present a realistic picture of these areas and their problems. Two of our most important studies are being done in Uganda and Sri Lanka and we are also exchanging information with a team pursuing a similar project at the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia.

WCMC has also embarked on a study of tropical montane cloud forests, the first phase of which has been funded by the government of the Netherlands. Tropical montane cloud forests have important hydrological and socio-economic functions and are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Following an international symposium in Puerto Rico in 1993, WCMC is compiling a world inventory of these areas.

In fulfilling its role as a global conservation agency, WCMC is attracting funds from an increasing range of sources. For the Arctic alone it is now involved in several large projects. They include an environmental database for the Russian Arctic and a directory of protected areas.

The Centre is also working with the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and the UK's National Remote Sensing Centre to investigate the possibility of using satellite imagery to detect and monitor oil spills in the Russian region.

For more information contact:
World Conservation Monitoring Centre
219 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, United Kingdom, CB3 ODL
Tel: +44 1223 277314 | Fax: +44 1223 277136
E-mail:      Copyright ©1999, LLC