The importance of Biodiversity. Mankind (single species) versus nature (biomes, ecosystems, biodiversity, communities and populations of multiple species); is it a winner-takes-all contest or can we live in sustainable harmony?

Background

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio led to three Conventions a year later on Climate Change, Biological Diversity and Desertification Prevention (UN). Biodiversity can be defined as the variety of life on Earth, from the genes, species, communities, to ecosystems and processes that enable life to persist over time (SANBI). The main objectives of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) were to conserve Biological Diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from commercial and other utilisation of genetic resources (Wikipedia). In 1994 the UK Government published ‘Biodiversity; The UK Action Plan as a wide strategy for habitat and species conservation for the following twenty years (DoE, 1994; Wikipedia). Local action plans (LBAPS) were then developed at regional level to maintain biodiversity through target species such as butterflies like the small blue (Warwickshire butterflies – LBAP species). However, in 2012 the UKBAP was followed by the ‘UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework’ in which the habitats and species identified by UKBAP remained relevant. Since then the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a spin-off from both the Rio and Johannesburg Summits (Rio plus 20) because the biodiversity and health of ecosystems are fundamental for any development to be sustainable. Goal 15 (Life on Land) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was specifically aimed to preserve biodiversity of forest, desert and mountain ecosystems, which are vital for ecosystem services, livelihoods and a thriving green economy, as well as to reverse desertification and halt and reverse land degradation (Wikipedia). In a seminal paper Norman Myer defined a Biodiversity Hotspot as a ‘biogeographic area which has significant levels of biodiversity threatened by humans’. To qualify, the area must have at least 0.5% or 1500 species of vascular plants as endemics and to have lost at least 70% of its vegetation cover (Wikipedia). Worldwide 36 areas qualify and these sites support a whopping 60% of the world’s plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Some of these highly endangered sites have up to 15000 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth, yet have lost 95% of their habitat. In well-established ecosystems like the Amazon which is around 100 million years old, the biodiversity is immense; 2.5 million species of insect have been estimated here or 70000 species per acre, with 700 species of beetle reported in just one tree (Wikipedia). So a single tree is like an mini-ecosystem in itself, as it supports lianas, mosses, ferns, orchids, bromeliads and other epiphytes, a host of insects and all the organisms like birds and lizards that feed, live and nest in them, plus the macrofauna like tree squirrels, bats and monkeys that feed on its fruit and nuts.

Marine reefs

In the tropical oceans coral reefs have been called the rain forests of the ocean. However, these reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef are dying due to marine heat waves associated with global warming as well as ocean acidification, resulting in huge biodiversity losses because creatures from worms, crabs, shrimp and fish depend on the numerous species of corals for their food and shelter (Rice, 2019; Strickland, 2018). This giant organism, which can be seen from space, and is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has had half of its corals die off in two years, which, apart from the biodiversity loss, is of massive concern as it supports 64000 jobs and contributes around $6.4 billion to the Australian economy per annum. Also, almost a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for their main source of protein. In the comparatively warm, clear waters of the west coast of Scotland are maerl beds of coralline algae, which are incredibly biodiverse. They grow extremely slowly and some may be over 1000 years old and support a variety of organisms like worms, anemones, urchins, sea cucumbers and bivalves such as scallops (Marine Scotland; Scottish Natural Heritage). However, dredging for scallops has cause immense damage to this very fragile ecosystem which is also important for carbon storage. Now they are protected under UKBAP Habitats and by a swathe of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) along the west coast. The South Arran MPA invoked a Marine Conservation Order (MCO) to protect their maerl beds from fishing damage (Scotland’s Nature). Flame shell beds often co-occur with the maerl beds and these are equally biodiverse supporting 19 algae species and 265 species of invertebrate (Scottish Natural Heritage). As they are damaged by dredging, they are now also protected by MPA’s as a priority marine feature and OSPAR threatened and declining habitats. These then fall under Goal 14 of the SDG Knowledge Platform, which aims to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’. Clearly these goals are being challenged in many areas of the world. Although most of us are fully aware of the deforestation and loss of biodiversity in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, highlighted by songs and videos like Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ and Rang-tan: the story of dirty palm oil by Greenpeace, some other examples of the complexity of this human-biodiversity struggle is equally informative.

Fynbos

As one of the six major floral kingdoms of the world, Fynbos at the southern tip of Africa is one of the most biodiverse biomes in the world, with over 9600 species of which 70% are only found there (SANBI; WWF). Because of changes through urbanisation, agriculture, fragmentation, resort development and climate change, this Noah’s Ark is now severely threatened with 1736 fynbos plants on the critical endangered list. This is also a very old system that has evolved over millions of years so the plants are intimately enmeshed with other organisms such as insects and birds that are critical for their continued survival through mechanisms of pollination, seed dispersal and nutrient recycling. The Brenton Blue butterfly, Orachrysops niobe is a good example. This red listed and critically endangered butterfly is endemic to the coastal fynbos. Although extinct at one site, a small colony was found at Brenton near Knysna, which was threatened by a housing development. After an intense publicity drive, the South African government saved the site and this species, and it was proclaimed a special nature reserve in 2003 (Wikipedia). This butterfly species is especially vulnerable as it only lays its eggs on a specific type of plant, Indigofera erecta, and their larvae are looked after by special ants, Camponotus baynei, so any interference to either species, destroys the butterfly’s life cycle and consequently its very survival. Six million people live within this fynbos zone with many employed in the red bush (rooibos) tea, flower (proteas, bulbs and Erica’s), buchu and medicinal plant and Restio’s (for thatching) industries, so that development has to be sustainable and fulfil SDG goals. With resident involvement many different sustainable initiatives have been developed locally, such as whale watching trips, ecotours, mountain biking, wild honey production and wild flower cropping.

Colombia

Colombia for example is one of the most biodiverse nation on Earth. It has more species per square kilometre than Brazil, with more amphibian, bird and butterfly species than most other counties (Taylor, 2019). This is because of its unique geographic location between the Atlantic and the Pacific, with landscapes varying from Andean icefields, through high moorland, rain forest, savannah and boglands down to coastal mangroves. Ironically, this biodiversity has been preserved by decades of conflict with the FARC rebels who enforced strict environmental policies. However, since the peace agreement of 2016 and demobilisation, deforestation has leapt by 44% within a year with cattle farming and mafia style slash and burn techniques to claim land ownership, and with it, the obvious threat of losing this wonderful biodiverse mosaic, with exotic species like the Upper Orinocco tree frog, the olive-green forest stubfoot toad or the blind cave-dwelling catfish. If the forest is chopped down, Colombia could lose 90% of its amphibians and 70% of its reptiles (Taylor, 2019).

Ecuador

The story of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is interesting. This equatorial rainforest between the Amazon basin and the Andean foothills contains one of the most biodiverse ecosystem on earth with a single hectare having more than 655 different species of tree (more than the whole of North America). Around 4000 species of plant, 500 species of fish and 600 species of bird live in Yasuni, together with a number of endangered mammals like the white-bellied spider monkey and golden mantled tamarind monkey. It is also home to three indigenous tribes, the Huaorani, Tagaeri and Taromenane who rely exclusively on the forest (Goldman, 2017). However, under this Park lies nearly a billion barrels of oil, which is worth a fortune, and although initially asking other countries to contribute so that this reserve did not have to be tapped, Ecuador defaulted on $3 billion worth of debt in 2008. This international call for cash failed so an oil-for-cash deal with China was signed a year later. The indigenous people were then sold a promise by the oil companies that they could get electricity, jobs and medical facilities in exchange for the right to mine. In 2016 the first oil was shipped out of the park. Is this the end of paradise? According to Finer et al. (2008) these oil and gas projects pose an immediate threat to the fate of biodiversity, wilderness and indigenous people.

United Kingdom

The history of this country has been punctuated by biodiversity loss, brought about by wars, development, climate change and widespread pesticide/herbicide use. During the Napolean Wars with France, for example, when wood was needed for warships, most of the ancient Caledonian Forest, was chopped down resulting in moorland. Sometimes called the ‘rainforest of Scotland’ this mighty forest once covered 1.5 million hectares, so with it went all its biodiversity. Iconic species like bear, wolf, northern lynx, wild boar, beaver, white-tailed eagle and red kite were shot out. This has resulted in an ecological imbalance as many were apex predators, like the wolf, so that deer populations soared without this check, resulting in browsing damage to young forest trees and upsetting forest structure in a ‘trophic cascade’ (Munro, 2016). However, some of these species, like the beaver, are being re-introduced in an attempt to re-balance the ecosystem. But there have been biodiversity losses in the smaller species, particularly butterflies. Many species, like the peacock butterfly have declined in number (Barkham, 2016). In farmed land in England, there has been a 58% drop in butterfly species between 2000 and 2009 and this has been put down to insecticide use (Dreier, 2019). Arable farming and rising temperatures associated with climate change are also affecting birds as species are disappearing from our shores (Carrington, 2017). Meadow pipits, willow tits and willow warblers are vanishing from SE England where crops are intensively farmed. There is an undisputed link between pesticide use and a biodiversity decrease (Isenring, 2010).

Agro-chemical use

The widespread use of Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ weed killer (active ingredient glyphosate, plus so called ‘inerts’ like POEA) has been linked to birth defects and cancers in Argentina, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (cancer) in Sweden and is known to poison aquatic organisms (Gammon, 2009; Sarich, 20145. Amphibians like frogs and most insects spend part of their life cycle in water so are exposed to glyphosate. The widespread use of neonicotinoids is also killing bees (Wong, 2017; EFSA, 2018). In England the decline of wild bee species has been linked to pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids (Khaleeq, 2016). Although there is a partial ban on neonicotinoids, a quarter of honey sampled still contained traces of this pesticide (Carrington, 2018). There is a parallel here with the widespread use of DDT back in the 1940’s and 1950’s which led to population crashes in apex predators like eagles (DDT weakened the egg shells, so birds were unable to hatch their chicks, which lead to trophic cascades; Wikipedia). This led to the publication of the book ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson in 1962, which slated the indiscriminate use of pesticides. DDT was eventually banned in the 1970’s, but it still has a lingering effect on the environment as it has a long life and accumulates in fat.

Insects as indicator species?

A study of insects in nature reserves in Germany showed a 75% drop in insect numbers over the past 27 years, which was blamed on industrial scale pesticide use and habitat destruction (Carrington, 2017). Similarly 50% of European grassland butterflies have disappeared over the last couple of decades (Carrington, 2019). In Puerto Rico a recent study showed a 98% decline in ground insects over 35 years, and as many fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds eat insects, this loss will cascade through the food webs. In the US, half of the bumblebee species have been lost since 1949. The finger has been pointed at neonicotinoid and fipronil insecticides. Organic farms with no insecticide or herbicide have higher insect numbers, which shows that we need to change we farm. A review of 73 long term insect surveys has shown an annual 2.5% loss in biomass and the authors concluded an extinction rate of 40% of the world insect species over the next couple of decades (Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019; Wikipedia). It has been estimated that the present extinction rates are between 1000 and 10000 times the ‘background’ extinction rate of 1-10 species extinctions per annum due to forest fragmentation and habitat loss (Mongabay), so we could be losing between 2000 to 10000 species per year (WWF)!. As amphibians like frogs are regarded as indicator species (a species which, by its presence or absence indicates environmental damage) as they are all predators, higher up the food chain and thus more prone to perturbation, so insects could also be used as indicators, as although mostly herbivore/detritivores, their absence or change in abundance would indicate a change to their environment (da Rocha et al., 2010).

Mankind’s ‘need’ or greed for Resources affecting Biodiversity

Man, as a species, is degrading natural resources and the environment at a prodigious and unsustainable rate due to ever increasing demands by burgeoning populations for food and other resources like timber and minerals such as oil, coal, gas, uranium, copper and iron. Some minerals like tantalum, which is used in smartphones and laptops, gold and diamonds, depending on where they are sourced, can be regarded as conflict minerals (Jurisprudence, 2013). Blood diamonds mined and controlled by warlords or regimes in Angola, the Congo, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Zimbabwe help fund wars and insurgencies (Wikipedia) and wreak damage to the environment and biodiversity. Ironically the fabrication of new electric vehicles (EV) to replace fossil fuel ones could now be restricted by the availability of lithium, nobelium and cobalt worldwide, as most occur in conflict areas in central Africa like the Katanga Province of the Congo. Sixty percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo, most of which is mined artisinally by child labourers, and between six and twelve kilogrammes are needed per electric vehicle (Autoexpress). Elon Musk of Tesla has stated that the new generation of EV’s will be cobalt free. Questions are also being asked about whether there is enough lithium for the growth of the Li-ion battery market as each battery needs ten kilograms of Lithium. (Green Tech Media). Furthermore, these concerns about the supply and sourcing of these strategic metals is pushing up prices, with traders already openly talking about ‘Peak Lithium’, much like ‘Peak Oil’ (Mombiot, 2012). Mining or drilling in any shape or form, is always exploitative and inevitably causes environmental damage leading to biodiversity losses. We have already seen enormous environmental damage with oil spills in the Niger delta by Shell, which will take 30 years and 1 billion dollars to clean up (Vidal, 2011) and the Gulf of Mexico by BP (Wikipedia). This was the largest oil spill ever, resulting in the loss of eleven lives and costing around 60 billion dollars in fines and settlements, as well as huge environmental damage affecting fish, water birds, dolphins, turtles, shrimp, crabs and deep water corals (Wikipedia). Another example is the mercury poisoning in the dirty artisanal gold mines in Peru and Indonesia where people as well as aquatic organisms like fish are poisoned (Physorg, 2016; Pressly, 2013).

Yet, we depend on biodiversity, especially in rain forests, for not only items like brazil nuts, quinine and cocoa, but for a wide range of pharmaceutical products. Around half of all prescription drugs in the US are derived from either plants, animals or micro-organisms and is worth billions of dollars per annum. So nature supports both our health and our economies (Rain Forest Trust). Three quarters of anti-cancer drugs are derived from these sources. The ACE inhibitor Captopril for blood pressure is based on venom from the tropical viper Bothrops jararaca, and is used by millions of people world-wide saving countless lives from hypertension, which is a killer. A derivative from the Madagascan periwinkle Catharanus roseus, vincristine, is used to successfully treat acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL); 100000 children in the US alone have been saved by this drug alone. A very rare tree from Borneo, Calophyllum lanigerum, now completely chopped down in Bornea, but still surviving in the Singapore Botanic Garden, has yielded Calanolide A which is used in anti-retrovirals against HIV and AIDS. Of the seventy percent of 3000 plant identified by the US National Cancer Institute for potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest (Adventure Life). The poisonous bark from curare lianas containing the alkaloid d-turbocuarine is used to treat multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease and has been used by indigenous forest communities for generations, so indigenous knowledge is absolutely vital. Some other medicinal plants from the Amazon include wasai, lapacho, cordoncillo, tawari tree bark, sodo, pusengade motelo, cola de raton, canelilla, suma and shapomvilla (Rainforest Cruises). A survey in an Ecuadorian forest ridge revealed 90 new unknown endemic plant species; but a return visit to the site yielded no plants; the whole ridge had been deforested. How much biological and medical knowledge is being lost on a daily basis throughout the world and at what cost to us as a species (Chivian and Bernstein, 2009)? How many more species are we losing before they are even known to science?

By definition, biodiversity hotspots are threatened and we often only see the iconic species like the orangutan disappearing, but thousands of other species from trees like vines, mosses to invertebrates (insects, worms) and vertebrates like frogs, reptiles and birds are also disappearing. Orangutans are important agents in scattering fruit tree seeds in the forest, so the loss of 50000 of these apes in the past two decades is changing the forest ecology as birds, bats and other primates feed on fruit (One Green Planet). Massive deforestation for palm oil in Indonesia or for soya and rubber plantations in the Amazon are prime examples. Palm oil is in half of all the items sold in supermarkets and around half of the palm oil imported into the EU goes into biofuel, with plantations now covering 27m hectares (Rain forest Rescue). So we are literally driving the rain forests to extinction. This deforestation is also a major driver of climate change and atmospheric pollution through burning (Coconuts, Sumatra burning). Similarly soya bean cultivation in the Amazon is a major driver of deforestation, carbon emissions and climate change. Brazil alone has 25m hectares under this monoculture (Global Forest Atlas). These forests are biodiversity hotspots and are important in climate regulation (Greenpeace). It is incredible to think that these ‘biodiverse lungs of the planet’ are being trashed for these palm oil, soya bean and cattle monocultures; and worse still, that we as consumers are driving this destruction. By eating a biscuit that has palm oil as an ingredient or eating a beef burger where the cow has been fed on soya grown on deforested land makes us implicit in this biodiversity collapse.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2018 Living Planet Report and the Living Planet Index have shown a 60% decline in vertebrate populations between 1070 and 2014. A recent study of all 27600 vertebrate species on the IUCN decreasing Red List showed declines and losses. Nearly a third showed significant population declines and losses, all of which will have a significant effect on ecosystem functioning and services (Ceballos et al., 2017; Today’s Environmentalist). In many cases this perturbation of the food web has had a cascading effect through ecosystems and is contributing to the sixth mass extinction, which is anthropogenically driven (European Commission). Nearly half of the 177 mammal species surveyed lost in excess of 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015 (Guardian). According to Paul Ehlich in his book The Population Bomb, wildlife is disappearing due to overhunting, habitat destruction, pollution, alien species invasions and climate change where the drivers are population expansion and overconsumption. Habitat loss is largely driven by big infrastructure projects like new roads, mines, dams and agricultural expansion. So ‘progress’ comes at a price as mankind is dependent on resilient landscapes and healthy ecosystems. Ecosystem services losses impact on the continued and sustainable supply of clean air and water, pollination, and food (Guardian, Carrington, 2017).

In order to counter losses in biodiversity in the UK, net gain was introduced to try and equalise biodiversity losses through development, but to improve it and leave it in a better state than before (CIEEM; IEMA). A recent Country File programme explained the dilemma we are facing here on our small group of islands off the west coast of Europe. With the housing shortfall, Britain is having to build 300000 new homes per annum (Guardian), which means eroding into green space, which will in turn impact biodiversity. Developers are now obliged to minimise the environmental damage on housing sites, preserving features like ponds and streams and build around large trees instead of chopping them down for instance. In terms of net gain, if they cannot restore the biodiversity to what it was before development started, then they must pay for offsets where low biodiversity in degraded areas can be upgraded. Net gain and ecological accounting versus green space housing development; does to the equation balance up or are we heading towards the sixth extinction (Kolbert, 2014)?

SUMMARY

Mankind’s rapidly expanding population, now standing at 7.7 billion and counting (Worldometers), and need of enormous resources including food, clothing, transport, infrastructure, housing and energy, is stretching the earth’s ability to sustain and support this rapid expansion. These requirements are having massive effects on global warming due to carbon emissions and the ability to provide enough food, energy and natural resources. This in turn is affecting everyone and everything in terms of biodiversity, from the poles to the tropics. There is an inverse correlation between human numbers and biodiversity loss, so we have to stabilise populations at sustainable levels and change the way we live, farm, eat and transport ourselves. There is only this one fragile, blue planet with all its amazing biodiversity floating in the vastness of space, so we have to nuture it; we are tampering with it at our own peril. Sir David Attenborough recently gave a chilling warning at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity stating that the biodiversity crisis is the greatest threat to humanity (Birdlife International). Nations and individuals could change this through positive action, by lowering our collective carbon footprints, but this needs also new technologies (hydrogen economy, electric vehicles). Until such time, the very biodiversity which we love and need for survival will be lost, forever. In terms of the question posed at the beginning, can mankind and nature live sustainably together? Well this seems increasingly less plausible by the day, especially with the rise of populist governments like Bolsonaro in Brazil (also Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, Australia and the US) who back agribusiness and mining, which will inevitably lead to more deforestation and exploitation of the Amazon Basin (Stronberg, 2018; Watts, 2018). Did Milton envisage such an apocalypse when he wrote his Paradise Lost all those millennia ago?

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