About 10% of the world's known species of higher plants and animals occur in this region; half of these species are found only within the region. About 10% of the region's known species are listed as threatened. In 1995, approximately 2.5% of the land in the region was protected under some conservation status (IUCN categories I-V; Table 7-1).
Some of the countries in the region (particularly Turkey and Tajikistan) are centers of origin for many crop and fruit-tree species; as such, they are important sources of genes for the wild relatives of these species, and even for new varieties that may be resistant to drought or disease. These species also provide a living laboratory for looking at possible new varieties, which may arise in response to climate change (World Bank, 1995b).
There is a general lack of detailed and coordinated information on biodiversity and environment in the region, resulting in temporal and spatial gaps and a lack of quality control in the available information (UNEP, 1997). Most of the available information is on vertebrates, with emphasis on birds and mammals. Some countries of the Middle East are rectifying information gaps by setting up database networks. In addition, the Middle Eastern countries have set up joint programs to protect biodiversity across political boundaries and to carry out biodiversity inventories.
In the Middle East, biodiversity is being lost as a result of development activities; land degradation (especially overgrazing and deforestation, leading to loss of plant cover); marine pollution; overfishing; hunting; and the overuse of freshwater, which affects the plants and animals of oases and wetlands (UNEP, 1997). Factors that are threatening biodiversity in central arid Asia include rapid changes in land use, extensive but poorly managed irrigation, more-intensive use of rangelands, medicinal and food-plant collection, dam building, and fuelwood collection (Bie and Imevbore, 1995; Kharin, 1995; World Bank, 1995b).
Wetlands, especially ephemeral wetlands, are an important part of this region culturally and economically, as well as in terms of its biodiversity (IPCC 1996, WG II, Chapter 3). The importance of particular wetlands to birds in semi-arid areas varies greatly from year to year, depending on local and regional conditions (IPCC 1996, WG II, Section 6.5.2), especially because the source of the water in some wetlands is thousands of kilometers away (e.g., the Tigris and Euphrates). In recent years, irrigation and artificial storage of water has created new habitats for water birds in central Asia, leading to an increase in their population (Bie and Imevbore, 1995). Few data are available to assess the impact of climate change on these systems; because the region has such limited rainfall, however, the wetlands may be among the most sensitive ecosystems to changes in the amount and seasonality of rainfall and evaporation. Such changes may lead to local extinction of some populations (IPCC 1996, WG II, Section 6.5.2).
Many countries (especially in the Middle East) are aware of these pressures and are implementing programs to conserve their biodiversity (UNEP, 1997).
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