Australia’s biodiversity record is poor, reflected in the world’s greatest mammalian extinction rate, and was recently identified as being one of five countries that are home to 70 per cent of the world’s remaining wilderness areas, putting us in a position of global responsibility. Overseas, it has been found that biodiversity loss is slowed down by directing more government money into conservation spending.
It’s not a sexy topic, but it is an important one. Biodiversity is a shortened form of ‘biological diversity’. It was a term coined in 1985, at a time when advances were being made in the study of ecology.
Loss of biodiversity around the world is increasingly considered to be a crisis on a par with climate change. Similar to climate change it is one that poses a threat to the human race. Scientists are starting to abandon their customary cautious measured language, and see their role more as sounding an alarm. Yet this urgency does not guarantee that the biodiversity crisis will receive its deserved attention in the mass media. It also doesn’t guarantee that decision-makers will take the appropriate action.
Media coverage is required to educate the public.
A deeper and more challenging question is whether sufficient people care and feel willing to help make a difference
We are living through what has been referred to as the ‘sixth mass extinction’, which ties in with the concept of the ‘anthropocene’, a name for the present era in which Earth’s ecology is being significantly shaped by humans. To put this into perspective, the fifth mass extinction was around 66 million years ago, and caused the die-off of the dinosaurs.
According to the figures, about 60 per cent of the world’s wild animal populations have been lost since 1970. Since the start of human civilisation, mammals have experienced an 83 per cent drop in numbers. Unless this trend is stopped, our children and grandchildren may miss out on seeing animals in the wild that earlier generations took for granted.
One example is the giraffe, whose decline has been occurring largely under the radar, even though numbers are down by about 40 per cent over the past 30 years. Today there are fewer giraffes in Africa than there are elephants, and factors include poaching and loss of habitat. In 2016, the giraffe was added to the IUCN Vulnerable list.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has been ratified by 195 countries and the EU. One of the high profile non-signatories was the US. In 2018, the UN issued its strongest warning yet on the erosion of nature. Biodiversity head Cristiana Pașca Palmer stated that the world needs its own Paris-style biodiversity agreement within two years. There are hopes that this will be signed in China in 2020. Links between climate change and biodiversity are underscored by a common means of tackling them both; protection of the world’s remaining high-conservation-value forests is a top priority.
To be successful, this will have to involve the world’s remaining indigenous peoples. Although they number less than five per cent of the world’s population, they are effectively the custodians for 80 per cent of its biodiversity. In the past, the establishment of some national parks has involved the removal of indigenous tribes from their borders, but now it is increasingly recognised that such tribal groups can serve as important stakeholders with a long-term interest in the sustainable management of protected areas.
Inevitably, biodiversity is a global issue
What a country does to nature within its own borders is a concern for the world community.
As a result, the trend towards electing far-right populist governments risks setting back progress, and could have major repercussions for listed species. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party government was challenged by the EU for felling trees in the World Heritage Białowieża Forest. In Brazil, newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has plans to open up the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness and mining. This would be a huge disaster for the planet’s biodiversity and, alone, could create a climate change tipping point.
Tackling the causes
Globally, key factors behind biodiversity loss include habitat loss, invasive species, over-hunting, human population increase, and climate change. As with climate change, saving biodiversity involves trusting independent scientists, and acting on their advice. This is inevitably problematic when the science conflicts with political and economic agendas.
Biodiversity (and correspondingly the scope for biodiversity loss) is greatest in the tropics. For tropical regions, the four big deforestation-linked industrial commodities are palm oil, soya, beef, and timber/paper. Where information is available, it is worth avoiding deforestation-linked products originating from biodiversity hotspots.
Despite their good intentions, some sustainable certification schemes are having a limited positive effect
They may also not be sufficient for the challenges that they aim to address. According to a 2018 study, buying certified palm oil results in marginally lower deforestation rates than those associated with the regular supply that threatens the survival of the orangutan in Malaysia and Indonesia. Perversely, the high yield of palm oil plantations means that switching to other oils can multiply the demand for land, causing other pressures and impacts. This conundrum encapsulates why for some types of commodity the solution has to involve cutting back on consumption.
Ultimately, the largest culprit behind deforestation is consumer pressure in affluent countries, which is compounded by population growth. Consumption of resources is a core factor: unless economic growth is successfully decoupled from resource use, it will continue to drive the degradation of nature. The best available measure of these pressures is the ecological footprint, which globally stands at 1.6 Earths, while Australia has one of the world’s highest ecological footprints, equivalent to 4.1 Earths.
Unfortunately, Australia’s biodiversity record is poor, reflected in the world’s greatest mammalian extinction rate. Primary causes are considered to be habitat loss, feral cats, and foxes. Between 1996 and 2008, Australia was one of seven countries most responsible for biodiversity loss. This was measured by an upgraded status in the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Overseas, it has been found that this trend is typically slowed down by directing more government money into conservation spending. Recently Australia was identified as being one of five countries that are home to 70 per cent of the world’s remaining wilderness areas, putting us in a position of global responsibility.
Threats to Australia’s biodiversity include cutting ‘red tape’, if this involves loosening nature protection. 2018 has seen mixed fortunes, with unrestricted land clearing in Queensland reined in. Fairly strong rules have weakened in New South Wales. Logging of native forests is frequently criticised by environmental groups for its biodiversity impacts, and being uneconomic. It frequently relies on government subsidies for its continued existence. A survey carried out in November 2018 revealed a broad lack of support for Australian native forest logging. This was among those consulted in both rural and urban areas.
A problematic aspect of the rules surrounding development applications is offsetting. This is where the loss of an area of mature nature is offset by conservation actions in another area. This is given that the new project may require decades to reach an equivalent level of ecological complexity.
For some species, numerous small development approvals chip away at their habitat
Individually they are usually not a threat, but when taken as a whole they may be.
For the koala, a recent analysis by conservation biologist Martin Taylor looked at land clearing in northern NSW, and concluded that the state’s koala population is at risk of becoming extinct in the wild by 2050. Human population growth in koala areas such as the Gold and Sunshine Coasts is a key driver of koala loss.
Turning back the tide
Actions that people can take may be as simple as avoiding poisons for rodents and using humane traps instead. This avoids unintentionally poisoning predators such as birds of prey. Drive slowly in rural areas at dusk and dawn, when animals are more likely to be active. It is always helpful to have the number for the local wildlife rescue service saved into a phone in case you come across an injured animal on the road. As cats kill large numbers of native animals, think about not owning a cat that is allowed to roam outside.
At an activist level, get involved with groups that are directly or indirectly working to protect wildlife,. This is useful even if this just involves signing up to receive their emails. Some political parties such as the Greens have strong biodiversity policies. Ultimately, cutting back on consumption may have the biggest positive impact, although this has problematic consequences for a growth-based economy if followed en masse.
On a wider scale, planetary regeneration and reforestation are needed
Rewilding is a broadscale conservation strategy that involves protection of large wilderness areas and connecting them up via migration corridors. It also involves reintroducing apex predators (operating at the top of a food chain) and keystone species (those that play a critical role in an ecological community).
In 2017, fifty conservation scientists proposed a ‘Global Deal for Nature’ that is bold in concept. It involves a third of the planet’s oceans and land mass being set aside for wildlife in protected areas by 2030. This allocation will then be ramped up to half by 2050. The plan recently received a boost when it was promoted by the influential international activist group Avaaz. Despite seeming overly ambitious and unrealistic at first glance, it is perhaps just the type of vision that is necessary to protect the planet’s remaining diversity.
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