Importance of biodiversity

2016

Biodiversity is important to humans for many reasons. Biodiversity is also considered by many to have intrinsic value—that is, each species has a value and a right to exist, whether or not it is known to have value to humans. The biodiversity book by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO; Morton & Hill 2014) describes 5 core (and interacting) values that humans place on biodiversity:

  • Economic—biodiversity provides humans with raw materials for consumption and production. Many livelihoods, such as those of farmers, fishers and timber workers, are dependent on biodiversity.
  • Ecological life support—biodiversity provides functioning ecosystems that supply oxygen, clean air and water, pollination of plants, pest control, wastewater treatment and many ecosystem services.
  • Recreation—many recreational pursuits rely on our unique biodiversity, such as birdwatching, hiking, camping and fishing. Our tourism industry also depends on biodiversity.
  • Cultural—the Australian culture is closely connected to biodiversity through the expression of identity, through spirituality and through aesthetic appreciation. Indigenous Australians have strong connections and obligations to biodiversity arising from spiritual beliefs about animals and plants.
  • Scientific—biodiversity represents a wealth of systematic ecological data that help us to understand the natural world and its origins.

Any loss or deterioration in the condition of biodiversity can compromise all the values outlined above and affect human wellbeing. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 was the first global effort to examine links between human wellbeing and biodiversity. The assessment found benefits to societies from biodiversity in material welfare, security of communities, resilience of local economies, relations among groups in communities, and human health. It also emphasised the term ‘ecosystem services’ under 4 broad categories (Morton & Hill 2014):

  • provisioning services—the production of food, fibre and water
  • regulating services—the control of climate and diseases
  • supporting services—nutrient cycling and crop pollination
  • cultural services—such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

Global importance

Australia is renowned for its globally distinct ecosystems, made up of diverse flora and fauna. Around 150,000 species have been formally described in Australia, but this is only about 25 per cent of the total number present. Many species, such as insects, remain largely undiscovered. Australia is considered one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, which together account for 70 per cent of the world’s biological diversity across less than 10 per cent of the world’s surface. Scientifically, our biodiversity is highly regarded for its diversity, endemism and evolutionary adaptations, but it is also an inseparable part of our Indigenous culture and how we identify as Australians.

Australia has an evolutionarily distinct flora and fauna, including many palaeoendemics, which have ancient lineages associated with the Australian continent. Some of these are the few remaining species surviving from ancient times (e.g. gymnosperms such as the pencil pine—Athrotaxis cupressoides and the Wollemi pine—Wollemia nobilis).

When compared with other countries, Australia has very high levels of endemism (i.e. species found only in Australia): 46 per cent of our birds, 69 per cent of mammals (including marine mammals), 94 per cent of amphibians, 93 per cent of flowering plants and 93 per cent of reptiles. Other groups, such as the eucalypts, are mostly found in Australia or nearby.

In 2015, Australia had 19 sites on the World Heritage List (Figure BIO1). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization considers World Heritage sites to have ‘outstanding universal value’, and to meet at least 1 of 10 cultural or natural criteria. Of the 19 Australian sites, 12 are listed for natural values, 3 for cultural values, and 4 for both natural and cultural values. The Great Barrier Reef, the Tasmanian Wilderness, the Wet Tropics of Queensland and Shark Bay meet all 4 World Heritage criteria for natural heritage; Kakadu National Park, Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, Willandra Lakes Region and the Tasmanian Wilderness are listed for both natural and cultural criteria. The Ningaloo Coast in Western Australia was inscribed on the World Heritage List for its natural beauty and biological diversity in 2011. The Ningaloo–Shark Bay National Landscape now boasts 2 World Heritage Areas at its northern and southern ends. The 1.3 million hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was inscribed in 1982, and extended in 2010, 2012 and 2013. It meets 7 of the 10 criteria—more than anywhere else on Earth.

Wetlands of International Importance in Australia are designated under the Ramsar Convention; these wetlands are representative, rare or unique sites that are important for conserving biodiversity. In designating a wetland as a Ramsar site, countries agree to establish and oversee a management framework to conserve the wetland and ensure its wise use. Australia currently has 65 Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, covering more than 8.3 million hectares.

Conservation International identifies ‘global biodiversity hotspots’ to highlight where exceptional concentrations of endemic species exist and to promote actions to stem biodiversity loss. Biodiversity hotspots were first identified by the British ecologist Norman Myers in 1988 (Myers 1988). Conservation International adopted Myers’s hotspots as its institutional blueprint in 1989 and, afterwards, worked with him in a first systematic update of the global hotspots. Myers, Conservation International and collaborators later revised estimates of remaining primary habitat, and defined the hotspots formally as biogeographic regions with more than 1500 endemic vascular plant species and less than 30 per cent of original primary habitat (Myers et al. 2000). A new hotspot in Australia was agreed to in 2011 (Williams et al. 2011): the 35th global biodiversity hotspot (Australia’s second following the South-west Australia Ecoregion) is the ‘Forests of East Australia’, which includes the Eastern Australian Temperate Forests and Queensland Tropical Rainforests (Figure BIO1). This region, spanning 20 degrees of latitude and more than 250,000 square kilometres, contains more than 2100 endemic vascular plants, but more than 70 per cent of the area has been cleared or degraded. Conservation efforts in the past 30 years mean that around 18 per cent of the area is under formal protection (Williams et al. 2011).

National importance

Biodiversity plays a key role in providing numerous irreplaceable services to the Australian community. Yet these remain poorly measured and demonstrated, with many changes occurring subtly on timescales that are not immediately evident to the vast majority of Australians. What was once common in our grandparents’ time is now absent in many places across Australia. Understanding the state and trend of biodiversity is crucial to what we leave behind for our grandchildren.

The importance of biodiversity for numerous industries across Australia has not been quantified, but recent issues exemplify our ongoing reliance on functioning ecosystems to maintain key processes that, in the past, may have been taken for granted. For instance, the role of native insects in pollination, which is critical for agriculture, has been highlighted in recent years. There are more than 1500 species of Australian native bee, and very few of these are well known to ecologists or agricultural scientists. Tourism is one of Australia’s most important industries, which continues to grow, and has a well-established reliance on iconic natural assets and destinations. The latest Australian tourism campaign relies heavily on multiple iconic wild places throughout Australia to lure increased numbers of tourists to Australia at a time of a global downturn in the tourism market. Any major impact on our biodiversity, such as the massive coral bleaching event that occurred on the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef in 2016, can adversely affect our vibrant and growing tourism sector.

The Australian national outlook 2015 (CSIRO 2015) demonstrates several future scenarios for Australia in which policy settings that give market value to ecosystem services deliver substantial environmental benefits (including habitat restoration, improved biodiversity and carbon sequestration). These are at little or no cost to government, while boosting and diversifying landholder incomes, and creating new areas of national economic advantage. The analysis found that stronger support for ecosystem services would provide multiple benefits and, together with improvements in resource efficiency, could lead to new sources of economic opportunity and growth, enhancing economic performance, while restoring and protecting natural assets that are essential to long-term wellbeing.

Golden-tailed gecko (Strophurus taenicauda). Photo by Eric Vanderduys

Golden-tailed gecko (Strophurus taenicauda)

Photo by Eric Vanderduys

Cresswell ID, Murphy H (2016). Biodiversity: Importance of biodiversity. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/biodiversity/topic/2016/importance-biodiversity, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812