Author: Dr Janet Berry Phd BVMS, VfCA Volunteer
Climate change is a primary driver of biodiversity loss. And climate change
depends on biodiversity as part of the solution. So clearly the two are linked,
and cannot be separated.¹Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity
Biodiversity is the variety of all life forms on earth: animals, plants and microorganisms. It includes the diversity of genes within a species, species within ecosystems, and ecosystems in the biosphere.
Is biodiversity necessary?
Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including human life². Without the range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have the healthy ecosystems that we depend upon.
Trees and other plants clean the air we breathe and help us tackle the global challenge of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. They also naturally slow down the movement of water, and help the soil to retain moisture, thereby reducing the risk of flooding.
Soil is inhabited by microbes and invertebrates that are vital for liberating nutrients that plants need to grow, which are then also passed to us when we eat them.
Pollinators such as birds, bees and other insects are essential for the production of the crops, vegetables and fruit that provide our food.
Coral reefs and mangrove forests act as natural defences protecting coastlines from waves and storms.
Many of our medicines, along with other complex chemicals that we use in our daily lives such as latex and rubber, originate from plants.
Spending time in nature leads to improvements in people’s physical and mental health³
Do we value biodiversity?
The First Peoples of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have established and maintained a shared living culture with their environment since time immemorial.
Country is not only the Land and People, but is also the Entities of Waterways, Animals, Plants, Climate, Skies and Spirits. Within this, one Entity should not be raised above another, as these live in close relationship with one another. So People are no more or less important than the other Entities.⁴
In contrast, the rapid growth in world population has led to the alteration of a large proportion of the surface of the earth, with associated degradation of ecosystems and loss of species. About one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.⁵ The threats to species are so severe that there is growing scientific consensus that we are entering the sixth mass extinction—the fifth being the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago that eliminated all non-avian dinosaurs.⁶
The main drivers of biodiversity loss
There are five main drivers of biodiversity loss⁷:
1. Changes in land and sea use
Increasing human population leads to the spread of urbanisation and industrialisation with the loss of natural habitats. The increased need for food has resulted in the clearing of large areas of land, often with unrestrained use of agricultural chemicals, destroying habitats and native life.
2. Climate change
The rising global temperature is causing environmental degradation and severe weather events. Approximately 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the 2019-20 bushfires, hundreds of thousands were killed by the floods in NSW during 2022, and increasingly severe heatwaves are responsible for further losses.
3. Direct exploitation of natural resources
We rely on groundwater supplies for our drinking water and food production as well as the protection of river wetland ecosystems – commercial over-extraction of water may lead to sinking water tables. The logging of native forests destroys their role as a carbon sink, and their value as home for many endangered species of birds, mammals, and invertebrates. Disruption of habitats can result in humans coming into closer contact with native wildlife, resulting in greater potential for the spread of zoonotic diseases.⁸
The introduction of harmful materials into the environment, whether chemicals, plastics or electronic waste is an increasing threat. Rodenticides have been found in birds of prey at the top of the food chain, including the Southern Boobook⁹ and Wedge-tailed eagles¹⁰. Plastics and fishing debris are a danger to many marine animals, including whales, dolphins and turtles; soft plastics can block their gastrointestinal system, causing a long, slow death from starvation¹¹.
5. Invasive species
The harm caused by invasive species is extensive. Examples are the introduced carp that compete with native fish for food and habitat, the wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park that damage the alpine ecosystem and feral cats that are a widespread risk to endangered species of birds, marsupials and rodents.
How can we save biodiversity?
By keeping records
The collection and retention of biodiversity data regarding individual species and their habitats is essential if we are to know whether the efforts to protect and conserve biodiversity are successful or failing.
The Atlas of Living Australia¹² is the national biodiversity database that holds almost 95 million records associated with more than 111,000 species.
By restoring ecosystems and native species
Many projects are underway in Australia to avoid species extinction. Here are some examples:
- The Great Barrier Reef has undergone successive bleaching events that destroy the coral. Researchers have captured the coral eggs and sperm from healthy reefs to rear millions of baby corals before delivering them onto small areas of damaged reefs to restore and repopulate them¹³.
- Tasmania’s iconic giant kelp forests have almost disappeared over recent decades due to ocean warming. The identification of individual giant kelp plants that may be genetically better adapted to warmer sea temperatures may help to restore this marine ecosystem¹⁴.
- The sex of a sea turtle is determined by the temperature of the sand incubating the eggs. Increasing temperatures as a result of climate change mean more females are born and fewer males. Work to provide shading and irrigation has proved successful in cooling nests and producing more male hatchlings¹⁵.
- Captive breeding programs help to increase the size of a threatened species population by providing birds or animals with a safe space to breed and allowing young animals to become strong and resilient, before releasing them into the wild. Perth Zoo has many such programs for endangered species, including the Numbat, Dibbler, Western swamp turtle and Western ground parrot¹⁶.
By changing human behaviour
Recognising and valuing biodiversity must become an integral part of all social, economic and political decision-making, as is starting to happen with carbon and climate change. Governments, private businesses, and all of us as individuals have a role. However, the human impact on any individual native species comes about through an array of decisions and actions, undertaken by different people in different roles, including consumers, producers and policymakers.
For example, the decline in numbers of the iconic Australian koala is the combined result of home-owners who choose to live in known koala habitats, construction companies who build houses and roads, and governments who are keen to see the population increase and businesses succeed in order to raise more taxes.
Reversing current trends and social behaviours will involve profound and persistent changes to human behaviour across all sectors of society. Research is underway into creating change and it acknowledges the complexity of the task¹⁷.
And not to forget. . . .
The Australian Government has committed to reforming the national environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999¹⁸. We must closely watch their work to make sure the amended legislation truly protects the environment and prevents further extinctions of fauna and flora in the future.
- Elizabeth Mrema: Protecting the world’s biodiversity | United Nations
- Why is biodiversity important? | Royal Society
- Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing | Scientific Reports
- UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ – United Nations Sustainable Development
- 5 key drivers of the nature crisis
- How Habitat Destruction Enables the Spread of Diseases Like COVID-19 | College of Natural Resources News
- Anticoagulant rodenticide exposure in an Australian predatory bird increases with proximity to developed habitat – ScienceDirect
- Endangered Australian top predator is frequently exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides – ScienceDirect
- Atlas of Living Australia
- Coral IVF – Great Barrier Reef Foundation
- Restoring Tasmania’s giant kelp forests the focus of new research project
- Green turtles and climate change | WWF Australia
- Breeding for Conservation | Perth Zoo
- Biodiversity conservation as a promising frontier for behavioural science | Nature Human Behaviour
- EPBC Act reform – DCCEEW.