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World's first country-wide biodiversity survey

Tuesday 19 May I enjoyed attending the Chiba University Science Lectureship Award lecture and award ceremony for Professor Jose Sarukhán (Instituto de Ecologa-UNAM, Mexico). Prof. Sarukhán has been leading a remarkable project to investigate the biodiversity of megadiverse Mexico (www.conabio.gob.mx; Spanish only). The organization coordinating this project Conabio is publishing the first country-wide ecosystem of any country in the world : "The Natural Capital of Mexico". This assessment is being published in 3 volumes: Present day knowledge of  biodiversity, Conservation status and trends of change, and Public policies and sustainability perspectives. There is also a summary for policymakers. [Makes me wish I could read Spanish.] This achievement is all the more remarkable because Mexico is a large developing country with huge coastlines on the Caribbean Sea (Gulf of Mexico) and the Pacific Ocean. Conabio categorised the assessment into 96 terrestrial and 24 marine ecoregions. Of course Prof. Sarukhán's 75 minute lecture (in English) covered only a brief survey of the huge amount information made accessible by this project. The information is certainly actionable and Mexico is making great efforts to preserve its natural heritage. I would like to hear more about how the Conabio information is being converted into action.

During the reception that followed I asked Prof. Sarukhán whether he is an optimist about Mexico's biodiversity. Though alarmed by current trends, he is cautiously optimistic that with concerted effort, we can at least slow the loss of species and ecosystem services. Prof. Sarukhán and I share the view that these losses of species are essentially permanent and that the problems for humans that will arise as biodiversity is depleted may be the most serious environmental challenges facing us.

This event and the reception was ably organized by biology department students. The selection of Prof. Sarukhán was influenced by the 400th anniversary of the initial contact between Mexico and Japan, which is an interesting story in itself. In 1609 the Spanish galleon San Francisco was carrying Don Rodrigo de Vivero (the former governor of the Philippines) to another Spanish colony Mexico on his way home to Spain. In a storm, the ship was wrecked off the coast of what is now Chiba Prefecture near the town of Onjuku. Fifty-six of those on the ship died, but the Onjuku villagers rescued the other 317. At least some of the survivors were warmed by the body heat of Onjuka ama (female shellfish divers). The survivors were treated very well and eventually returned home with the blessing of the shoguns. You can read more about this fascinating story here. The lecture and reception were also attended by the Mexican ambassador Miguel Ruiz-Cabanas.