By Dinali Devasagayam
“Not caring about the biodiversity is like not caring that you are sawing off the branch of the tree you are standing on” – Paul Ehrlich
Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth. It refers to the wide variety of ecosystems and living organisms: animals, plants, their habitats and their genes. This diversity of species work together to create functional and habitable ecosystems. Each species has a role to play in an ecosystem – much like each part of our body has its own function. Often several species may fulfil a similar role in a particular ecosystem. This ensures if one species is lost the ecosystem as a whole will continue functioning. However if too many species are lost then the system starts to break down and that is exactly what is happening on a global scale. This alarmingly high rates of species going extinct is being called the Sixth Mass Extinction. The last mass extinction being when the dinosaurs died out – an event thought to be caused by a massive asteroid hitting Earth. This time is it us humans that are driving this “great dying”.
So why should we care? Does it matter for instance that 40 years ago there were 200,000 lions in the wild and now there are only 32,000 and at the current rate of decline lions will be extinct in just another 40 years; or that all the world’s biggest fish – tuna, cod, swordfish, sharks and so on, have reduced to an estimated 10% of past abundance and these severe reductions in numbers is seen across most of the big animal species. Our nearest relatives, the great apes (Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Orangutans) are all headed towards extinction in the next couple of decades unless we make some drastic changes.
I would hate to think of my nieces and nephew growing up to a world where Tigers, Tasmanian Devils, Giraffes and Elephants only exist in pictures. Such a world would be so much poorer for the loss the wildness and wonder these creatures embody. If that doesn’t move you, then the research from groups such as the Stockholm Resilience Centre might. They posit that the loss of biodiversity is a major trigger that, like global warming, that could shift the planetary conditions towards one that are not favourable to human beings.
The critical role non-human species play in maintaining healthy environments is exemplified by the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The return of the wolves led to a cascade of changes that resulted in the regeneration of the entire river ecosystem. Imagine that an entire system returned to life due to the return of an animal that is too often seen by humans as a threat to life.
Another amazing example is how whales, a top-order predator, effects both the abundance of fish and other marine species as well as regulating the climate. Basically the presence of whales actually increases the number of fish and plankton. Plankton has the ability to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere and is of interest to scientists looking at ways to mitigate effects of global warming.
Wolves breathing life back into a river system and whales reducing the affects of global warming are powerful reasons why we can no longer allow the extermination of so many other species to keep occurring. We need to shift out of our anthropocentric world view and begin to see the interconnections that make life on this planet possible and so just so wondrous. Accordingly we need to take responsibility for our impact on our home planet and finding ways to live that respect and make room for diversity of lifeforms to flourish in our local environment. Just imagine a world where bandicoots, bettongs and wallabies forage for food and quolls stalk their prey in a neighbourhood park? Thats the sort of world I would like to live in and pass on to my nieces and nephew.
There is a need for each and everyone of us to take part in creating a more diverse and wild world. It could be through supporting one of the many wonderful initiatives that are working to halt the loss of species and/or to return species to areas they once called home. It can also be something as simple as maintaining or restoring the biodiversity in your own garden or local park. Planting native plants in you garden helps conserve native plants and provide shelter and food for other native species. Some native plants can also be a healthy source of food for humans. The Muntrie, for example, makes a great groundcover, has very tasty, nutritious berries (4 times more antioxidants than blueberries!) for humans and blue-tongue lizards. And don’t forget to get outside with your friends and family and enjoy the more than human world.
I highly recommend the online article Back to Nature by George Monbiot (published by BBC). It is a beautifully presented and eloquent call for the rewilding of our world.
A good summary of our biodiversity crisis is the “Sixth Great Extinction” – Time Magazine
The Conservation Council SA, Trees for Life and the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board are good starting points for information on local conservation initiatives.