The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.
New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.
Describing biological diversity
The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.
Recently, sophisticated models estimated the scale of life, suggesting that multi-cellular life ranges between about five million and nine million species. Microbial life might include millions, billions or even trillions of species.
Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Global decline of wild places
The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.
This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.
By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.
New Zealand: at the bottom of the cliff
In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.
These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.
New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.
As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.
Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.
The way forward
The Living Planet report charts a detailed, aspirational roadmap to reverse the decline in biodiversity. It takes heart from the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It looks ahead to a greatly strengthened Convention on Biological Diversity for 2020.
Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”
The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:
People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.
Microleo attenboroughi. Scaptia beyonceae. Crikey steveirwini. These are the scientific names of just a few of the nearly 25,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms discovered and named in Australia in the past decade.
In each case, the honoured celebrity’s name is Latinised and added to the name of an existing or new genus – a set of closely related species that share common characteristics. In the above examples, Microleo (meaning “tiny lion”) is a genus of extinct carnivorous possums, while Scaptia is a genus of colourful horseflies. And in the case of Crikey steveirwini, a rare snail from northern Queensland, even the genus name honours Irwin, in the form of his favoured colloquialism.
These days, we usually do it to curry short-lived attention from the public by injecting a degree of attention-grabbing frivolity. Scaptia beyonceae is one example – so named because the fly in question has a shiny, golden bum.
But to taxonomists and biosystematists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document the world’s living and fossil species – the naming of organisms is a serious business.
Not just celeb jokes
Consider this. The current best estimate is that Australia, including its shores and surrounding oceans, is home to more than 600,000 species of plants, animals, fungi, microbes and other organisms.
This tally ranks Australia as one of the most biologically rich and diverse nations on Earth. We are “megadiverse” – one of a select handful of nations that together comprise less than 10% of Earth’s surface but are home to more than 70% of its living species.
Now consider this: only 30% of Australia’s living species have been discovered, named and documented so far. That leaves more than 400,000 Australian species that we know absolutely nothing about.
Does this matter? Do organisms need names? The answer is yes, if we want to conserve our biodiversity, keep our native species, agriculture and aquaculture safe from invasive pests and diseases, discover new life-saving drugs, answer some of the greatest scientific questions ever asked, or make full use of the opportunities that nature provides to improve our health, agriculture, industries and economy.
Taxonomists construct the framework that allows us to understand and document species and manage our knowledge of them. Such a framework is essential if we are to sustainably manage life on Earth. At a time when Earth is facing an extinction crisis, brought about by land clearing, pollution and global warming, it is more vital than ever.
Without the understanding provided by taxonomists, we’re like the largest, most complex global corporation imaginable, trying to do business with no stock inventory and no real idea of what most of its products look like or do.
Time for an overhaul
The magnitude of the task seems daunting. At our current rate of progress, it will take more than 400 years even to approach a complete biodiversity inventory of Australia.
Fortunately, we don’t have to continue at our current rate. Taxonomy is in the midst of a technological and scientific revolution.
New methods allow us to cheaply sequence the entire DNA code of any organism. We can extract and identify the minute DNA fragments left in a river when a fish swims past. We are globally connected like never before. And we have supercomputers and smart algorithms that can catalogue and make sense of all the world’s species.
In this context, the release today by the Australian Academy of Science and New Zealand’s Royal Society Te Apārangi of a strategic plan to guide Australian and New Zealand taxonomy and biosystematics for the next decade is a significant step. The new plan outlines how we will rise to the grand challenge of documenting, understanding and conserving all of Australia’s biodiversity.
The plan lays out a blueprint for the strategic investments needed to meet this grand challenge. It envisages a decade of reinvestment, leading to a program of “hyper-taxonomy” – the discovery within a generation of all of Australia’s remaining undiscovered species.
It sets out the ways in which we can use our knowledge of species to benefit society and protect nature, and also the risks involved if we don’t. A small example: there are an estimated 200 unnamed and largely unknown species of native Australian mosquitoes. Mosquitoes cause more human deaths than any other animal on Earth. New mosquito-borne viruses and other parasites are being discovered all the time. It doesn’t take much to put these facts together to see the risks.
With such a weighty challenge and such important goals, it’s hardly surprising that taxonomists sometimes indulge in a little quirky name-calling. Names like Draculoides bramstokeri, a cave-dwelling relative of spiders; or the tiny, harmless pseudo-scorpion Tyrannochthonius rex; or Hebejeebie, the name that botanists simply couldn’t resist when a new genus was separated from Hebe.
One of the greatest celebrities of all, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, has more than a dozen species named in his honour. No fewer than five of them are Australian. These include the brightly coloured slug-snail Attenborougharion rubicundus, and the fossil of the first known organism to give birth to live young, Materpiscis attenboroughi.
As Sir David puts the case in endorsing the plan, discovering and naming species is vitally important, not only for the future of taxonomy and biosystematics, but for the future of our living planet.
Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature.
The researchers examined the conservation status of species in 109 countries and compared that to conservation funding. Australia ranks as the second worst of the group, with a biodiversity loss of 5-10%.
The study clearly linked adequate conservation funding to better species survival, which makes it all the more concerning that one of Australia’s most valuable national environmental monitoring programs will lose funding next month.
Read more: We need our country; our country needs us
Established in 2011, the long-term ecological research network (LTERN) monitors alpine grasslands, tall wet forests, temperate woodlands, heathlands, tropical savannas, rainforests and deserts. It coordinates 1,100 monitoring sites run by numerous researchers, bringing together decades of experience. There’s nothing else like it in Australia, and at an annual cost of A$1.5 million it delivers extraordinary value for money.
The value of long-term research
In the battle to manage and predict the future of our ecosystems, the LTERN punches above its weight.
In the Northern Territory it was long thought that the ecosystems centred on Kakadu National Park were intact. But instead, long-term monitoring showed alarming and unexpected crashes towards extinction of native mammals of the region since the 1990s, driven by fire regime changes, feral animals, disease, cane toads, climate change and grazing.
Likewise, the 70-year-old network of monitoring sites in Australia’s alpine regions revealed the impact of climate change on flowering pollination, and the fact that livestock grazing actually increases fire risk. Without these insights it would not be possible to manage these ecosystems sustainably.
In the Simpson Desert – the only LTERN site that captures the remote outback – the dynamic of boom and bust has been monitored since 1990. It reveals a long-running and cyclical explosion of life. Intermittent downpours support flushes of wildflowers, booming marsupial populations and flocks of budgerigars, which are then ravaged by feral foxes and cats. Spending only one year in the desert would mean missing this dynamic, which has driven dozens of native species to extinction.
Several of these monitoring sites are likely to close when funding stops next month, as alternative support is not available. Without the network, coordination among the remaining sites will become much harder.
We should be able to predict environmental changes
The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, which ultimately funds the LTERN, has called for the development of a national environmental prediction system to forecast ecosystem changes.
But without long-term data, the development of a reliable and accurate environmental prediction system is impossible, particularly for biodiversity.
The journal Science reported in August that researchers working with LTERN are trying to find alternative funding, possibly for a more comprehensive network. But with limited funding commitment and opaque long-term plans from government, this seems ambitious.
After 40 years working in Australian ecosystem management, assessment, investigation and research, I am deeply concerned about terminating the existing system and starting again. It takes time to understand ecosystems, and the accumulated knowledge of up to 70 years of monitoring is invaluable. It risks destroying one of the few successes in long-term monitoring of our ecosystems and species.
Australia is infamous for commencing new initiatives and then stopping them. Australia’s surveillance and monitoring efforts are already recognised as inadequate. Breaks in continuity of long-term ecological datasets significantly reduce their value and disrupt key information on environmental and ecosystem change.
Out of step with the world
In a letter to Science, 69 Australian scientists described the decision to defund the LTERN as “totally out of step with international trends and national imperatives”. Indeed, the United States has recently expanded its long-term monitoring network, which has been running for nearly 30 years.
Not only is Australia’s decision against the international trend, it also defies Australia’s own stated goals. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy explicitly commits to establishing a national long-term biodiversity monitoring system. The strategy’s five-year review admits to failing to achieve this outcome.
The loss of the LTERN will undermine assessments of the sustainability of key industries such as grazing and forestry. Without it, we can’t robustly evaluate the success of taxpayer-funded environmental management.
A$1.5 million a year is a very small price to pay for crucial insights into our continent’s changing environments and biodiversity. But reinstating this paltry sum will not solve the very real crisis in Australian ecosystem knowledge.
We urgently need a comprehensive national strategy, as pledged in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. The evidence is in: investment in biodiversity conservation pays off.
It is too late for the more than 50 species that are already extinct, including bettongs, various wallabies, and many others. Despite international commitments, policies and projects, Australia’s biodiversity outcomes remain unsatisfactory.
A 2015 review of Australia’s 2010-2050 Biodiversity Conservation Strategy found that it has failed to “effectively guide the efforts of governments, other organisations or individuals”.
Insufficient resourcing is one cause of biodiversity loss. The challenge is impressive. Australia must tackle degradation and fragmentation of habitat, invasive species, unsustainable use of resources, the deterioration of the aquatic environment and water flows, increased fire events, and climate change.
This all requires money to support private landholders conducting conservation activities, to fund research, to manage public lands, and to support other conservation activities conducted by governments, industry, and individuals.
So where can we find the funds?
How much money is needed?
Of course, such estimates are up for debate given that how much money is required depends on what we want the environment to look like, which methods we use, and how well they work. Other studies (see also here and here point to a similar conclusion: far more money is needed to achieve significantly better outcomes.
Apart from government funding, private landholders, businesses, communities, Indigenous Australians, and non-government organisations contribute significantly to natural resource management. We were unable to quantify their collective cash and in-kind contributions, as the information is not available. But we do know that farmers spend around A$3 billion each year on natural resource management.
Nonetheless, the erosion of environmental values indicates that the level of spending required to sufficiently meet conservation targets far exceeds the amount currently being spent. The investment required is similar to value of agriculture in Australia.
Unfortunately, the concentration of wealth and labour sets a limit to what any given community can pay.
Despite a high GDP per person and very wealthy cities, Australia has fewer than 0.1 people per hectare and a wealth intensity (GDP per hectare) of less than US$2,000 due to the sparse population and income of rural Australia.
Australia’s rural population has declined sharply, from over 18% in 1960 to around 10% today. Other countries (for example in Europe) are not limited to the same degree. Even China has a greater rural resource intensity than Australia.
Rural incomes are often volatile, but environmental investments need to be sustained. The history of Landcare highlights that private landholders have struggled to secure a reliable investment basis for sustainably managing the environment.
Can government pay what is required?
If Australia is serious about the environment, we need to know who will pay for biodiversity protection (a public good). This is especially true given that it is not feasible for rural (particularly Indigenous) landholders and communities to invest the required amount.
Will government be the underpinning investor? The federal government’s current spending program on natural resource management was initiated in 2014 with an allocation of A$2 billion over four years.
This was split between the second National Landcare Program, the (now-defunded) Green Army, the Working on Country program, the Land Sector Package, the Reef 2050 plan, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and the Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan.
As well as federal funding, the state, territory, and local governments invest in public lands, bushfire mitigation, waste management, water management, environmental research and development, biodiversity programs, and environmental policies. Local and state government departments together spend around A$4.9 billion each year on natural resource management.
The problem is that government spending on natural resource management can not be significantly increased in the near future due to fiscal pressures and the focus on reducing budget deficits.
Show us the money
At a time when Australia is reconsidering many aspects of its environmental policies, we should address the strategy for funding natural resource management.
It should be possible to leverage more private spending on the environment preferably as part of a coordinated strategy. Diverse, market-based approaches are being used around the world.
For example, we could use market instruments such as biodiversity banking to support landholders in protecting biodiversity.
Taxation incentives, such as a generous tax offset for landholders who spend money on improving the environment, can be a very powerful catalyst and could be crucial for meeting environmental investment needs.
Evidence suggests that integrating a variety of mechanisms into a coordinated business model for the environment is likely to be the most efficient and effective approach. But this will not happen unless Australia faces the fiscal challenge of sustainability head-on.
Australia needs an innovative investment plan for the environment. By combining known funding methods and investment innovation, Australia can reduce the gap between what we currently spend and what the environment needs.
Without a more sophisticated investment strategy, it is likely that Australia will continue on the trajectory of decline.
Paul Martin, Director, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England; Amy Cosby, Researcher, Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England, and Kip Werren, Lecturer in Law, University of New England
As urban populations around the globe skyrocket and the demand for housing grows, space is increasingly at a premium in cities. Unfortunately, despite some notable efforts to include green space in cities, native wildlife is not often a priority for urban planners, despite research showing the benefits it brings to both people and ecosystems.
It may seem that bringing biodiversity back into cities would require large areas of land set aside for habitat restoration. But it is possible to use relatively small spaces such as transport corridors, verges and the edges of sporting grounds. Think of it as “land sharing” rather than “land sparing”“.
The idea of transforming public areas in cities into green space is not a new one. Allotment vegetable gardens, which have long been a staple of British suburban life, are enjoying a revival, as are community gardens in Australia.
These gardens are obviously great for sustainable food production and community engagement. But we think similar efforts should be directed towards creating green spaces filled with native vegetation, so that local wildlife might thrive too.
Benefits for biodiversity
Cities can be hostile environments for wildlife, and although some rare species are still present in some cities, the destruction of habitats and growth of built-up areas has led to many localised extinctions. Often, species are left clinging on in particular reserves or habitat remnants. “Green corridors” through the built environment can link these habitat fragments together and help stop urban species from being marooned in small patches – and this is where native gardens can help.
Cities are often built in fertile areas on coasts, and because of their fertility are often home to large numbers of species, which means that planting native vegetation in public spaces can potentially help a wide range of different species.
A study in Melbourne found that native vegetation in urban green space is essential for conservation of native pollinators, as introduced plants only benefit introduced bees. But with the right habitat, even small mammals such as bandicoots can survive in urban areas.
Benefits for people
Native green space in cities can also be used to educate communities about their wildlife. Community gardens can be a very effective way to bring people together and create a sense of identity and cohesion within a community.
Many people in cities have little or no contact with nature, and this “extinction of experience” can make them feel apathetic about conservation. Green space lets city dwellers connect with nature, and if these spaces contain native rather than introduced plants, they have the added benefit of familiarising people with their native flora, creating a stronger sense of cultural identity.
Where to share
There are many places in urban areas that can be tinkered with to encourage native species, with little or no disruption to their intended use. Picture the typical Australian park, for example: large expanses of grass and some isolated gum trees. Biodiverse systems are more complex, featuring tall trees, smaller ones, shrubs, herbs and grasses, which together create diverse habitat for a range of species. So by building native garden beds around single trees, at the park’s edges, or within designated areas (even among playgrounds!), we can gain complex layers of habitats for our native animals without losing too much picnic space.
We think of verges as places to park our cars or wheelie bins, but these grass borders are another underused area where we could plant native gardens. This not only improves the aesthetics of the streetscape but also reduces water use and the need to mow.
Australia is a sporting nation and our sports grounds are cherished features of the urban landscape, yet there are plenty of opportunities here for native vegetation. The average golf course, for instance, only uses two-thirds of its area for actual golf (unless you’re a very bad shot). The out-of-bounds areas nestled between the fairways offer plenty of space for native biodiversity. Likewise, the boundaries of sporting ovals are ideal locations for native vegetation borders.
Even infrastructure corridors such as train lines, electricity corridors, and the edges of highways have the potential to contribute to the functioning of local ecosystems.
Making it happen
As the existence of community gardens and Landcare groups shows, there is already a drive within local communities to make these ideas a reality. In fact, some groups of “guerrilla gardeners” are so passionate about urban greening that they dedicate their own time and resources towards creating green public space, often without permission.
But urban gardening doesn’t need to be illegal. Many councils in Australia have policies that encourage the planting of native plants in private gardens, with some even offering rebates for native landscaping projects.
Ultimately we need to both share and spare urban landscapes. By conserving habitat fragments and planting native gardens to connect these patches, we can bring native plants and animals back into our cities.