Biodiversity is the complete variety of life on Earth, in all its forms. Biodiversity is without doubt the most complex feature of our planet and it is also the most vital. Professor David Macdonald from Oxford University states “Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity”.
The term was coined in 1985 as a contraction of “biological diversity” but the huge global biodiversity losses now becoming apparent represent a crisis equalling or quite possibly surpassing climate change.
More formally, biodiversity is comprised of several levels, starting with genes, then individual species, then communities of creatures and finally entire ecosystems such as forests or coral reefs. These myriad interactions have made Earth habitable for billions of years.
A more philosophical way of viewing biodiversity is that it represents the knowledge learned by evolving species over millions of years about how to survive through the varying environmental conditions Earth has experienced. Seen like that, experts warn, humanity is currently burning the library of life.
Do bugs and animals really matter to us?
For many people who live in towns and cities around the world, wildlife is often only something you see on television. However, the reality is that the air you breathe, the food you eat and the water you drink all ultimately rely on biodiversity.
Some examples are obvious, without plants there would be no oxygen and without bees to pollinate there would no fruit or nuts.
Others are less obvious, coral reefs and mangrove swamps provide invaluable protection from cyclones and tsunamis for those living on coasts, while tress absorb air pollution in urban areas.
Others just seem bizarre, tropical tortoises and spider monkeys for example appear to have nothing to do with maintaining a stable climate. However, the dense hardwood trees that are the most effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere heavily rely on their seeds being dispersed by these large fruit-eaters.
Scientists keenly exploring each individual ecosystem find countless such interactions, all honed by millions of years of evolution. If undamaged, this produces an extremely finely balanced healthy system which contributes to a healthy sustainable planet.
The richness of biodiversity also has human benefits. Many new medicines are harvested from nature, such as a fungi that grows on the fur of sloths and can fight cancer.
What’s destroying biodiversity?
We are! Particularly as the human population rises and wild areas are used to create housing, farmland and industrial sites. The felling of forests is often the first step and 30m hectares equivalent to the area of Britain and Ireland were lost globally in 2016 alone.
Poaching and unsustainable hunting for food is another major factor. More than 300 mammal species, from chimpanzees to hippos to bats are being eaten into extinction.
Pollution is a killer too, with orcas and dolphins being seriously harmed by long lived industrial pollutants. Global trade contributes to further harm: amphibians have suffered one of the greatest declines of all animals due to fungal disease thought to be spread around the world by the pet trade. Global shipping has also spread highly damaging invasive species around the planet particularly rats.
The hardest hit of all habitats may well be rivers and lakes, with freshwater animal populations in these collapsing by 81% since 1970. This follows huge water extraction for farms and people, plus pollution and dams.
What can be done about it?
The only true answer to this question is to give nature the space and protection it needs. Wildlife reserves are an obvious solution, and the world does currently protect 15% of land and 7% of the oceans. However, some argue, maybe rightly, that half of all the land surface needs to be set aside for nature.
The human population is rising and wildlife reserves don’t work if they hinder local people making a living. The poaching crisis for elephants and rhinos in Africa is an extreme example. Making the animals worth more alive than dead is the key, for example by supporting tourism or compensating farmers for livestock killed by wild predators.
We can all help in lots of ways. Most wildlife is destroyed by land being cleared for cattle, soy, palm oil, leather and timber. Generally, most of us consume these products on a daily basis. Palm oil for example is found in many foods and toiletries. By changing what you buy and going for sustainable options it WILL make a difference. The same goes for eating less conventional meat, particularly beef which has an outsized environmental hoofprint.
Check labels on everything you buy and see how many small changes you can make in your daily life to start to make a difference for our planet and our future.