What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the variety of life forms: the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, the genes they contain and the ecosystems they form. Biodiversity is often considered at three levels: genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity.
Genetic diversity refers to the combination of different genes found within a population of a single species and the pattern of variation found within different populations of the same species.
Species diversity refers to the variety and abundance of different types of organisms which inhabit an area.
Ecosystem diversity refers to all the different habitats, biological communities and ecological processes as well as variation within individual ecosystems.
Western Australia is home to some of the most unique biodiversity on earth. Our rich biodiversity can be attributed to the State's size spanning across a range of geographical, soil and climatic conditions. Terrestrial ecosystems range from rainforest, savanna woodlands, grasslands, shrublands, heathlands, tall forests and woodlands. Inland water environments including permanent and seasonal waterways and wetlands and marine environments including coral reefs, intertidal mangrove forests, seagrass beds, sandy beaches, coastal salt marshes, rocky shores, algal reefs and kelp forests.
Why protect biodiversity?
Biodiversity is important to humans for many reasons in that it provides many services which we often take for granted, for example, providing drinkable water, clean air and fertile soils. A loss of biodiversity; populations, species, or groups of species from an ecosystem can upset its normal function and disrupt these ecological services.
Biodiversity performs a range of vital functions for humans. Plant ecosystems extract carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere and produce the oxygen we breathe. Plants also purify our water, control water tables, stabilise soils, extract excess nutrients and provide habitats for pollinators, seed dispersers and the predators and parasites that control pests and maintain ecosystem stability. This is what is referred to as ecosystem services.
Biodiversity provides all of our plant and animal foods and many of the medicines we use. Maintenance of biodiversity is crucial to the development of new foods, drugs and materials in a rapidly changing world.
The study of animals enables us to understand our own origins, our biology, ecology and behaviour. The study of ecosystems provides models for new approaches to meeting our needs, regulating our impacts and developing sustainable economies.
Cultural diversity is based on biodiversity. Biodiversity provides the natural surroundings in which we live and recreate and the natural beauty we enjoy. From Aboriginal creation stories to the myths of ancient religions, the art, music and literature of civilizations is based on the planets biodiversity.
The need and the desire to protect and maintain biodiversity arises from the knowledge that the forms of life on earth first evolved millions of years ago and the belief that they have the right to continue to exist and evolve into the future, quite apart from their actual or potential usefulness to humans. People living today do not have the right to put millions of years of evolution at risk. Rather we have a duty to protect and conserve our biodiversity.
Western Australia's biodiversity
Based on its natural richness in endemic plant and amphibian species and the significant threats that exist to its ecosystems, the Southwest Australia Ecoregion is recognised as one of the planets ‘biodiversity hotspots’. It is one of only five Mediterranean systems to be listed as globally significant (Myers, 1990) and the only Australian hotspot to be recognised globally. 5 of 15 nationally recognised hotspots are located in south-western Western Australia.
In Western Australia’s North West Shelf, more marine biodiversity has been documented than in any other region in the world. The Ningaloo Reef is crowded with Indo-Pacific reef species and the southern waters of the State are rich in endemic species. The transitional zone of central Western Australia has mixed assemblages of tropical and temperate species and also supports a range of endemic taxa. Collectively the marine waters off Western Australia are of global biodiversity significance.
Threats to biodiversity
With increasing world population and consumption, human demand for fresh water and energy are having unprecedented impacts on our global and local biodiversity. Western Australia is facing ongoing biodiversity loss and continuing decline.
There are numerous threats to biodiversity, both biological and physical, such that we may be faced with one of the most significant extinction periods ever experienced. The principal attacks in WA terrestrial ecosystems have been identified as direct habitat loss from vegetation clearing, changed fire regimes, plant diseases such as Phytophthora or dieback, salinity, introduced weeds, introduced feral animals, overgrazing of rangelands and climate change.
In the marine environment; overfishing, bycatch and ecological changes from fishing all pose threats to marine biodiversity. Knowledge about many species and ecosystems as well as the threats they are faced with is inadequate.
Maintaining Western Australia’s plant, animal and micro-organism populations in viable habitats within landscapes or seascapes and as functioning parts of ecosystems is the main objective of biodiversity conservation. Current approaches to biodiversity conservation are strongly skewed towards the just in time recovery of species rather than ensuring the health of ecosystems. Such an approach will ultimately see our conservation resources overwhelmed by an accelerating inventory of threatened species
Limited knowledge in relation to biodiversity combined with the failure to adequately value biodiversity in decision making and making any commitment to manage ongoing threats is one of the biggest challenges to biodiversity conservation.
The Conservation Council of WA seeks to improve understanding of biodiversity in WA as well as improve the capacity to manage and protect future generations of Western Australians.
The Conservation Council supports the following principles adopted as a basis for the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity objectives and actions and that these should be used as a guide for implementation:
- Biological diversity is best conserved in-situ.
- Although all levels of government have clear responsibility, the cooperation of conservation groups, resource users, indigenous peoples, and the community in general is critical to the conservation of biological diversity.
- It is vital to anticipate, prevent and attack at source the causes of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity.
- Processes for and decisions about the allocation and use of Australia's resources should be efficient, equitable and transparent.
- Lack of full knowledge should not be an excuse for postponing action to conserve biological diversity.
- The conservation of Australia's biological diversity is affected by international activities and requires actions extending beyond Australia's national jurisdiction.
- Australians operating beyond our national jurisdiction should respect the principles of conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biological diversity and act in accordance with any relevant national or international laws.
- Central to the conservation of Australia's biological diversity is the establishment of a comprehensive, representative and adequate system of ecologically viable protected areas integrated with the sympathetic management of all other areas, including agricultural and other resource production systems.
- The close, traditional association of Australia's indigenous peoples with components of biological diversity should be recognised, as should the desirability of sharing equitably the benefits arising from the innovative use of traditional knowledge of biological diversity.
How is biodiversity protected in Western Australia?
Western Australia’s principal biodiversity conservation legislation is the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950. Under the Act, individual species of plants and animals are protected, with the level of protection varying depending on whether the species is rare or endangered. This legislation is extremely outdated and no longer provides an adequate legislative basis for biodiversity conservation in this State. The State Government introduced a Draft Biodiversity Conservation Bill to replace the Act in late 2002, however, more than 5 years later the Bill has yet to be introduced into Parliament. The Council is actively lobbying the State Government to introduce this Bill immediately.
What can you do?
There are limited opportunities for public involvement under Western Australia’s current biodiversity laws. However, there are things you can do if you are concerned about a particular activity or the status of a particular species:
- any person can nominate a species to be listed under Wildlife Conservation Act. Nominations should be sent to Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
- comment on DEC and the Conservation Commission’s management plans for CALM managed land;
- report possible illegal taking of flora or fauna to DEC;
- report possible illegal clearing to DEC;
- refer development proposals that are likely to have a significant impact on the environment to the Environmental Protection Authority and/or Environment Australia
You can also do your bit to maintaining biodiversity at home and in your local community.
In your backyard:
- Create native habitats – use bird baths, hollow logs, rocks and nesting boxes to improve available habitat for fauna.
- Use plants grown from seed gathered from local remnant. Native gardens are also cheaper because they are much hardier and need less water, pesticides and fertilisers.
- Remove environmental weeds
- Design a frog-friendly habitat. An ideal place for a frog pond is part sunny, part shady, but not directly under trees. Native plants will attract insects for frogs to eat, but remember not to use chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilisers near your frog pond.
- Wherever possible, leave dead trees where they are. Whether fallen or standing, dead trees and branches provide perfect habitat for native animals.
- Keep your pets inside at night; cats are natural predators so by keeping them inside at night you will reduce the predation on birds, lizards, small mammals and insects that they prey on
- Use a compost bin for all of your organic matter and use rather than fertilizers (using excess fertilizers can enter waterways causing algal blooms and death to fish and aquatic species)
In your local community:
- Biodiversity resides in many unexpected places, such as roadside verges, nature strips, small parks and open spaces in your neighbourhood. Keep these spaces weed-free and encourage local native plants to grow there.
- Object to any development that threatens remnant bushland. Land clearing and suburban sprawl is the single biggest cause of biodiversity loss in Australia.
- Join a community conservation group.
Native Vegetation Clearing
Western Australia is home to eight of Australia’s fifteen national biodiversity hotpots and Australia’s only international biodiversity hotspot (download pdf on the Southwest Eco Region). Most of WA’s biodiversity values are in the incredible number of species of plants found nowhere else on earth, but these plant communities also support an impressive array of unique mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates.
Native Vegetation is currently protected by law in Western Australia under Part V of the Environmental Protection (EP) Act. Mining Companies have to apply for a special permit to clear vegetation, except when clearing is for exploration outside of Environmentally sensitive areas which is exempt.
Native vegetation clearing permits for mining are handled by the Department of Industry and Resources (DoIR) under a delegation for the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). All permits are subject to a consultation period and can be appealed. Permits are advertised each Monday in The West Australian newspaper, and online. Click here for a link to the online advertisements.
The Conservation Council is currently campaigning to have the Banded Ironstone Formation Ranges listed as Environmentally Sensitive Areas in order to give some protection against the damaging impacts of iron ore exploration.
If you would like to find out more about WA’s unique biodiversity contact Dr Nic Dunlop, CCWA’s Biodiversity Conservation Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 9420 7266.