Australia is an internationally renowned biological treasure, one of 17 ‘megadiverse’ countries. Our national responsibility for maintaining the planet’s biological diversity is even greater by virtue of the uniqueness of many of our species. Three-quarters of our mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs, about 70% of insects and 86% of plants are found nowhere else.
Yet we also have one of the worst extinction and decline records in the world and our land has suffered extensive degradation. The most recent assessment of our land and biodiversity – the Federal Government’s State of the Environment Report – found that soil health, vegetation condition and biodiversity continue to decline.
Land use is the over-riding influence on the condition of Australia’s soil and vegetation. About 60% of our land area is used for primary production, with less than 14% in conservation reserves and 23% formally owned and managed by Indigenous Australians. The SOE report found that grazing, cropping, residential and mining land uses are all having a high impact on Australia’s environment. Proposed increases in agricultural production and rapid expansion of urban areas and mining are likely to intensify damage. One positive trend is the expansion of areas protected for conservation and areas owned and managed by Indigenous people.
Although decreases in soil health and condition have major environmental and economic costs, there is only a basic understanding of soil condition and current rates of change. Conversion from native vegetation to agriculture reduces soil carbon by 20–70%, affecting soil health and releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases. Soil acidification affects 50 million hectares with an estimated cost of $1.585 billion in lost agricultural production. Current rates of soil erosion by water exceed soil formation by several hundredfold to several thousandfold in large areas. Dryland salinity has affected large areas cleared of native vegetation, and the salinity impacts of recent large-scale clearing in central Queensland have yet to be realised.
The legacy of past land clearing as well as ongoing habitat destruction and fragmentation are the greatest causes of land degradation and biodiversity decline. Habitat loss is a threat to more than 80% of nationally threatened land and freshwater species. Large-scale clearing since European settlement has caused great damage in intensive land-use zones (eastern, south-eastern and south-western Australia). Less than 10% of the original vegetation remains in some parts of southern Australia and south-east Queensland. The greatest conservation success in recent times has been the slowing of land clearing, particularly of broad-scale clearing in Queensland. Nonetheless extensive clearing still occurs, high-value areas continue to be lost and vegetation quality is deteriorating due to fragmentation, climate events such as drought and cyclones, grazing, damaging fire regimes and invasive species.
Our extinction record
Australia has a shocking extinction record, the worst in the world for animals in the past 200 years. Since European colonisation, at least 56 animal and 42 plant species have disappeared, and as of April 2012, 1300 plants, 385 animals and 55 ecological communities were listed as threatened under national laws. Of great concern is that numbers of some previously common and widespread species are sharply declining including mammals and birds in northern Australia and birds in south-eastern Australia, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Invasive species – plants, animals, fungi and microbes spreading outside their natural range – have been a major contributor to the majority of animal extinctions in Australia, and endanger more than 70% of nationally listed threatened species (more than any other threat apart from habitat loss) and more than 80% of threatened ecological communities.
Current fire regimes differ markedly from those under previous Aboriginal occupancy and are having detrimental impacts on biodiversity. Inappropriate fire regimes are a threat for almost half of Australia’s nationally threatened land species, and a problem across 87% of Australia’s land mass.
Livestock grazing, which occupies 55% of Australia’s land area, has major impacts on biodiversity and land condition.
Climate change is the most pervasive, least understood and least predictable of threats to land and biodiversity. Although Australian soils, vegetation and biodiversity have evolved under, and adapted to climate variability, climate change is expected in many cases to exceed adaptive capacity and exacerbate existing pressures such as invasive species and fire.
The required solutions extend into virtually all domains of human activity, but they have already been identified in numerous government plans and strategies. The greatest challenge is to achieve sufficient investment, participation and motivation to take action.
These solutions come from the Federal Government’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030 and most scientists and environment groups agree with the directions.
1. Engaging all Australians
Mainstreaming biodiversity by increasing:
- public awareness of biodiversity
- public participation in conservation activities
- participation by the private and primary industries sectors in biodiversity conservation
- integration of biodiversity conservation in public and private sector planning and management.
Increasing Indigenous engagement by increasing:
- employment and participation of Indigenous peoples in biodiversity conservation activities
- the use of Indigenous knowledge in biodiversity conservation decision-making
- the extent of land managed by Indigenous peoples for biodiversity outcomes.
Enhancing strategic investments and partnerships by increasing:
- the use of markets and other incentives for managing biodiversity and ecosystem services
- private expenditure on biodiversity conservation
- public–private partnerships for biodiversity conservation.
2. Building ecosystem resilience
Protecting diversity by:
- increasing the number, extent and condition of ecosystems protected under secure conservation tenure
- increasing the extent of private land managed for biodiversity conservation
- improving the conservation status of listed threatened species and ecological communities
- increasing the extent and condition of native habitat across land tenures.
Maintaining and re-establishing ecosystem functions by:
- increasing the connectivity of fragmented landscapes and seascapes
- improving the provision of environmental water allocations
- improving the use of ecological fire regimes to conserve biodiversity and protect the public.
Reducing threats to biodiversity by:
- reducing the impacts of priority threatening processes, including habitat loss and climate change
- reducing impacts of significant invasive species on biodiversity
- increasing the use of strategic and early interventions to manage threats to biodiversity including climate change.
3. Getting measurable results
Improving and sharing knowledge by:
- increasing the accessibility of science and knowledge for biodiversity conservation
- improving the alignment of research with biodiversity conservation priorities
- increasing the application of knowledge of biodiversity conservation by all sectors and communities.
Delivering conservation initiatives efficiently by improving the:
- alignment of sectoral, regional and jurisdictional biodiversity conservation approaches
- effectiveness and efficiency of biodiversity programs and investments.
Implementing robust national monitoring, reporting and evaluation by increasing:
- representation of biodiversity and ecosystem services and goods within national accounts
- use of monitoring and reporting in the evaluation and improvement of biodiversity conservation projects, programs and strategies
- use of information from both the private and public sector in the adaptive management of biodiversity conservation.
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