Far too many of the world's plants and animals — and the wild places that support them — are at risk of collapse, despite a global goal set in 2002 for major improvement by this year, the UN reports.
Frogs and other amphibians are most at risk of extinction, coral reefs are the species deteriorating most rapidly and the survival of nearly a quarter of all plant species is threatened, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity said Monday in a report issued every four years.
The outlook on the planet's ecological diversity and health is produced under a 1993 treaty, since joined by most of the world's nations. It says the planet is falling short of its goal to achieve "a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national levels."
Pollution, climate change, drought, deforestation, illegal poaching and overfishing are among the many culprits named.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warns in the report that the consequences of "this collective failure" will be severe for everyone on the planet if it is not quickly corrected.
"We must give it higher priority in all areas of decision-making and in all economic sectors," he said. "Conserving biodiversity cannot be an afterthought once other objectives are addressed — it is the foundation on which many of these objectives are built."
The UN had declared 2010 would be the International Year of Biodiversity, seeking to raise awareness.
But the report provides extremely dire projections of the state of biodiversity globally, such as the loss of huge areas of the Amazon rainforest and many freshwater lakes.
The report is based on a survey of some 500 peer-reviewed scientific articles and intergovernmental assessments, and was financed by Canada, the European Union, Germany, Japan, Spain and Britain, along with the UN Environment Program.
Among the biggest problems is that species are being lost even before scientists can properly study them.
"That's the tragedy of biodiversity loss," said Delfin Ganapin, a senior manager for the UN Environment Program's Global Environment Facility that provides financing for the treaty's goals. "Before you've read the book in a library, you've already lost the books."
Competition for jobs and economic growth, rather than lack of planning, is seen as the biggest hindrance, particularly in the least developed nations of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the world's most impoverished people live.
Africa, for example, is home to a quarter of the world's mammal species and a fifth of all bird species. Forty-nine of the African Union's 53 nations have strategies for saving imperilled species.
But none of the 110 nations that submitted reports to the treaty claimed to have met their individual targets for improving biodiversity.
Still, many of these problems "could be solved with urgent action," Ganapin told a news conference at UN headquarters.
"If we can only summon even a fraction of the money that was put in to solve the financial crisis, we would have been able to avoid very much more serious and fundamental breakdowns in the Earth's life-support ecosystems," he said.
The report does contain a few slivers of hope: It says, for example, that measures to control the spread of so-called alien invasive species have resulted in the rescue of at least 31 bird species during the past century.