[Taxacom] [TAXACOM] COP-9

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Mon Jun 2 18:44:50 CDT 2008

Dear Donat,

Your frustration is understandable, and your suggestions to make
taxonomy more open and more efficient are good ones.

Unfortunately, the story is a familiar one: countries get together under
the UN umbrella and agree to do something important cooperatively, but
after 10-20 years little has been done. It is unwise to expect diplomats
and bureaucrats to *lead* reform. More can be expected from bilateral
initiatives at the institutional level, like the PBIs and the many
partnerships between agencies and institutions in the South and
particular museums in the North.

I wrote to the UNEP-WMC director in January arguing that COP-9 needed to
discuss biodiversity salvage. I had a polite reply, but salvage, if it
ever gets on the conservation agenda, will be something for a vague
future. It isn't urgent.

The problem is that the biota you and I would like to see documented is
in two conceptual compartments: the OK box and the extinction box.
Conservation action is solely aimed at reducing the flow from OK to
extinction. Documentation by taxonomists can assist this effort, if only
(as you suggest) by 'monitoring' how fast the extinction box is filling

>From a broader perspective this is not the best thing taxonomists can
do. We study life, and the conservation status of that life is only
relevant to what we do if it won't be there tomorrow. In that case we
should give our highest priority to studying the life heading *now* from
the OK box to the extinction box.

This prioritisation is missing from every conservation agenda I've
looked at. Taxonomists by and large have accepted the conservationist
stance, which is to work hard keeping OK species OK, and to wring hands
helplessly as species go extinct.

IMO, the best and most appropriate action taxonomists can take, in the
face of COP-9 inertia, is to work at the edge of extinction, documenting
life before it disappears.

I'm not convinced that the conservation bureaucrats need our help. They
will ask for it, but only to produce ever-more sophisticated taxonomic
arguments for why one natural *area* or one *taxon* should have a higher
priority for conservation than another. It would be more sensible to
prioritise candidate areas on how easily they can be managed as natural
areas for the next 1000 years. That's practical conservation.

Practical taxonomy in an era of extinction is probably better focused on
biodiversity salvage. Two separate questions are whether it is possible
to organise the global taxonomic enterprise to achieve this, or whether
it is more efficiently done by individuals and small teams acting where
the need is greatest.

My two cents.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195

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