PARIS  - A prominent Malaysian biologist on Saturday was named first chief of a UN scientific panel which aims to turn the world’s spotlight on species loss, as a Nobel-winning counterpart has done for climate change. In their first plenary meeting, members of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, chose Zakri Abdul Hamid as chairman, a spokeswoman for IPBES told AFP. Zakri, 64, will serve for three years under the decision, reached in tough overnight discussions in the former West German capital of Bonn, a European delegate added. 

The idea of IPBES was floated in January 2005 by the then French president, Jacques Chirac, but took five years to be approved, and two more years to reach organisational status. It has 102 nations as members, according to its website.  Its goal is to emulate the success of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which thousands of scientists draw up an assessment of global warming to help policymakers. IPBES will also quantify damage inflicted on life-sustaining ecosystems long taken for granted, from depleted water tables to deracinated mangroves to rivers and air poisoned by pesticides and pollution. Some biologists say that Earth is in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction, a man-made phenomenon driven by habitat loss, hunting, introduced species and climate damage. The current pace of species die-off is 100 to 1,000 times higher than average. According to a June 2012 update of the “Red List” compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), out of 63,837 species that have been assessed, 19,817 are threatened with extinction. They include 41 per cent of amphibians, 33 per cent of reef-building corals, 25 per cent of mammals, 13 per cent of birds and 30 per cent of conifers. The six-day meeting of IPBES focused on nuts-and-bolts organisational matters, such as the election of officers and the establishment of a work programme.  It ran a day into overtime in order to settle the chairmanship issue.