Cash call for dying species

August 30, 1996

Many natural history collections, especially in the tropics, will soon be lost forever unless money is made available for developing countries to preserve them.

Richard Leakey, wildlife biologist and writer now turned politician, speaking at the Second World Congress on the Preservation and Conservation of Natural History Collections in Cambridge last week, asked: "Can we really expect a country like Kenya with a population of 20 million and rising, high infant mortality and decreasing life expectancy, to bear the costs of maintaining a museum?" Sir Robert May, chair of the board of trustees for the Natural History Museum, London, and the Government's chief scientific adviser, warned of the urgent need to set global priorities.

"Sixty per cent of the world's threatened species are in countries with a GNP of less than $600 per person per year," he said. Natural history collections play a vital role in enabling scientists to research and protect endangered species.

Dr Leakey, former director of the National Museums of Kenya, highlighted the harsh realities of maintaining collections in developing countries. The status of curators of natural history collections in Kenya is extremely low despite their high qualifications. "A palaentologist in the United States can earn 20 times what he earns in Nairobi for the same job, said Dr Leakey. The result - 80 per cent of PhD students from Kenya are now working abroad," He said that small sums of money now would make a big difference and called for partnerships between museums in developed and developing countries.

Joseph Mutangah, coordinator of the Plant Conservation Programme at the National Museums of Kenya, said: "International partnerships would raise the profile of museums within the country and train our staff in modern techniques of collection conservation."

In return, scientists in developed countries would see vital collections both preserved and made available to the west.

Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum, London, said: "It is no longer sufficient for us to simply assert our importance, we have to prove it by our actions."

The presence of reference collections, expertise and technology under one roof enables the museum to play a unique role in research into the use of micro-organisms in water purification and control of diseases like malaria. "This is one way in which we are addressing society's needs," he said.

The congress is the second in a series. The first was held in Madrid in 1992 and the next is planned for the year 2000 in Kenya.

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