Biodiversity Boost: How To Strengthen Our Natural World’s Fragile Future

7 mins

As wildlife populations plummet by 70 per cent and one in five plants are at risk from vanishing forever, plans to put the brakes on biodiversity declines are more important than ever

Biodiversity is all around us. From microscopic algae to mega swathes of tropical forest, it encompasses the variety and variability of life as we know it.

Biodiversity is also about our interaction with the wider environment, in which plants and animals have evolved over millions of years to interconnect in unique and vital ways. 

Now, humans risk unravelling this delicate balance in a matter of decades. ‘Right now our natural world is under greater pressure than at any time in human history,’ British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough is quoted as saying.

According to WWF, wildlife populations have plummeted by nearly 70 per cent since 1970. Some scientists believe we’re already in the throes of a sixth mass extinction event. Kew Botanical Gardens, which is also a scientific institution, has found one in five plant species are at risk of vanishing forever. Meanwhile, the IUCN’s ever growing Red List – an important indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity – totals 150,000 species.

‘Right now our natural world is under greater pressure than at any time in human history’

David Attenborough

The question is: Is it too late to save some of the one million plant and animal species that The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have earmarked for extinction? And can we put the brakes on biodiversity declines and revive the planet’s complex life-support system?

Painful Reality

aerial shot of forest

Essential for the health and resilience of earth’s ecosystems, biodiversity supports life as we know it, including ourselves! It provides us with food, fresh air, clean water and medicine including cancer-fighting fungi and pain-relieving morphine, sourced from the seeds of the opium poppy. 

A staggering 25 per cent of drugs used in modern medicine are sourced from rainforest plants.A study published by the British Science journal Nature exposed an unsettling truth: that biodiversity loss is the single biggest environmental cause of infectious disease outbreaks. It’s not just pharmaceuticals that rely on our planet being brilliantly biodiverse, but industries like tourism, too. 

Its critical role in combating climate change can’t be understated either. Paradoxically, human-caused climate change is set to be the main driver of biodiversity loss by 2050 according to research by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). 

Also piling the pressure on is overfishing, deforestation – from intensive farming–, hunting, invasive species and pollution. In one of its bleakest forecasts yet, The United Nations warns that the continued loss of biodiversity can only lead to one outcome: our own extinction.

Hidden Worlds

ladybird and insects in microhabitat

We all depend one way or another on ecosystems thriving on a macro and microscopic level. Microhabitats – a specialised habitat in which an organism lives in a much more localised environment – are critical in sustaining biodiversity. 

These hidden worlds – which can include fallen logs, rock pools, kerbside crevices and even rotten apples – provide shelter, food and breeding space at different stages of a species life cycle. By creating more niches for organisms to adapt to and flourish in, they are able to prop up a complex food chain.

It’s thought up to a third of all European forest species depend on deadwood for their survival. A decomposing log can support species of fungi, lichens and invertebrates, whilst also providing a home for mammals such as foxes and squirrels. Life in the leaf litter, meanwhile, can be wriggling with worms, earwigs and overwintering bugs like woolly bear caterpillars

It isn’t the only place that nature blossoms underfoot. Cracks and crevices in our cities’ streets and suburban pavements can be a haven for urban wild flowers and grasses, but risk being snuffed out by overzealous weed killing by local councils. Bent on scaling back pesticide use in urban areas is Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN-UK), a charity who’ve recently published‘Greener Cities: A guide to the plants on our pavements

Another microhabitat that’s often overlooked for its ecosystem services are pondscapes, which can nurture a wide range of living things from bats to diving beetles. ‘Ponds are absolute biodiversity hotspots – in terms of both the range and density of species that use them,’ author of Gardening for Wildlife Adrian Thomas told The Guardian.

Biodiversity Boost 

rewinding European bison is good for biodiversity

One of the planet’s most biodiverse, yet fragile and threatened ecosystems are forests. Mounting evidence reveals that when forests are managed by the people who live in them, they fare much better, with community-conserved forests sucking up more CO2 than privately-owned ones.

In Southern Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley, indigenous-controlled pine-oak forests have successfully stabilised wildfires since 2012 through sustainable logging practices and ecotourism initiatives. More than 8,500 miles away in one of the planet’s largest forest ecosystems, indigenous women are taking control of the Congo Basin’s fate and future. Despite constituting just six per cent of the global population, indigenous people protect 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity according to the World Bank. 

mangrove forests aid biodiversity

Another solution to healing an entire ecosystem and reversing biodiversity losses is rewilding, which involves reintroducing a missing species – usually keystone ones like lynx or European bison – and letting nature take the lead. 

One of the most remarkable successes in recent history has been the return of grey wolves to America’s Yellowstone National Park, which caused a ripple effect through the ecosystem. As well as giving rise to the re-emergence of beaver colonies, songbirds, eagles and antelope, the wolves helped recover the vegetation and even changed the way rivers flowed, for the better! 

A study published by the journal Ecography revealed that reintroducing 20 large mammal species to their original habitat has the potential to boost biodiversity across a whopping one-quarter of our earth’s lands.

A healthy natural world also relies on conserving our marine environments, since every ecosystem on earth depends on a healthy ocean. In an ambitious attempt to restore one million hectares of ocean biodiversity by 2040, Netherlands-based social enterprise: Sea Ranger Service(SRS) is training 20,000 young people between the ages of 18 to 29 to monitor, research and protect life in the world’s waters.

Green Technology

healthy ocean showing biodiversity

When it comes to deploying species-saving tech, it seems no ocean is too deep or too wide. In the North Sea, jacuzzi-like ‘bubble curtains’ – designed to contain offshore oil spills – are now helping protect porpoises and seals from underwater wind farm construction noise. 

Back on dry land, one of Britain’s largest landowners: the National Highways, is using satellite imaging and AI to ‘read’ roadside biodiversity levels. Recently launched, its Green Mapping Project will survey grassland, wetland and woodland habitat bordering the UK’s major A-roadsand 4,300 miles of motorways.

Despite our planet experiencing the largest loss of life since the dinosaurs, there are green shoots of hope that suggest biodiversity could bounce back. 

London’s Natural History Museum has recorded 815 new-to-science species in 2023, including a snail-eating snake in Colombia and a type of hairy hedgehog in the Philippines. And this January saw the identification of four new species of octopus off Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. 

Perhaps COP15’s landmark biodiversity agreement to protect 30 per cent of the planet and 30per cent of degraded ecosystems by 2030 isn’t such an impossible task after all.

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