By Gerard Wynn
Thu Nov 16, 12:36 PM ET
Herds of wildebeest thundering across the Serengeti and swallows flying south for the winter could all become a thing of the past if global warming is not stopped, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) said on Thursday.
Speaking at U.N. climate talks in Kenya, UNEP chief Achim Steiner said the threat to animals which roam the planet to breed or find food in favorable climes should prod delegates to extend the Kyoto Protocol on global warming beyond 2012.
"Humanity has opened a Pandora's box on climate change," said Steiner.
The U.N. convention on migratory species Web site said a wide variety of animals including gorillas, whales, leopards, turtles and even bats are vulnerable to global warming.
"That is why there is so much pressure on negotiators here to send a signal that we are making progress."
A major tourism draw in conference host Kenya is the annual migration of herds of zebras and wildebeest, chased by lions. Steiner said these could be at risk in a world where weather is changing and natural resources are shrinking.
"Migratory species may very well be affected by the simple fact of water availability," he told reporters.
"In future, you may have to provide artificial water sources to enable animals to make these migratory routes."
The first phase of the Kyoto protocol, which sets limits for participating countries on the amount of environmentally unfriendly gas they can emit, is due to end in 2012.
The protocol is intended as a first step to avert what many scientists say will be a hotter world with more extreme weather, brought on in part by decades of people pumping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels in electricity plants, factories, cars and homes.
Launching a report, "Threats and Challenges to Long Distance Travelers," UNEP's Paola Deda said difficulty in adapting to climate change may benefit some smarter creatures.
"It is creating a sort of confusion, and it's always in these situations that some are faster at benefiting," she said.
"Big migratory animals like whales follow their prey. Sometimes they don't know they can find prey somewhere else, but there are smarter or faster animals that identify that their prey has moved and they follow it."