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Why biodiversity matters

For humans to thrive, nature must thrive. Here’s why we need intact and healthy ecosystems.

© Nick Hawkins/WWF
Zebra bromeliads growing in canopy at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador.
The thrush in the boardroom

One morning at work, I found an olive thrush perched on an indoor pot plant – the only bit of greenery in the room that it was instinctively drawn to. Fortunately, one of my colleagues (appropriately from the wildlife team) helped to usher it out of the window and it found its way back to the garden area outside.

It set me thinking, though, how hard we have made it for other living creatures to survive in our world which we have adapted to suit ourselves above all else. For the thrush, that little fragment of greenery was all that it recognised as natural in the room.

© David Cook on Flickr
The olive thrush likes to forage for grubs in leaf litter in your garden (so don’t be too quick to clear it away!).
A global crisis

In his foreword to “The Economics of Biodiversity: the Dasgupta Review”, David Attenborough wrote: “We are facing a global crisis. We are totally dependent upon the natural world. It supplies us with every oxygen-laden breath we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But we are currently damaging it so profoundly that many of its natural systems are now on the verge of breakdown.”

The Dasgupta Review brought an economic lens to the issue of biodiversity – and made the case for a radical relook at the way in which we value nature, not only for its own intrinsic worth but for our survival as a species.

© Michael Gunter, WWF
Barn swallows gather in China before making the long trek to the southern hemisphere.
View from above

Zooming out, if you’ve ever flown across South Africa and gazed down on the land below, you’ll have seen the extent of the human footprint – from the giant irrigation circles, to the sprawling towns and cities, the dams, the roads, the mine dumps. From up there, it really does seem as if we’ve squeezed nature to the very margins of life.

Consider the migratory bird that flies thousands of kilometres each year, across two hemispheres. It’s an epic, awe-inspiring journey, but to do this successfully, it needs to rest and feed, often in low-lying coastal areas or wetlands which are at high risk of development. Imagine that bird making the journey one year, and finding its only chance of respite has disappeared. What chance of its survival?

On a micro-scale, imagine that you were a honeybee in search of nectar and pollen and the journey between your hive and your source of forage is a concrete parking lot or a monocrop covered in plastic netting. What would your chances be?

© Ingo Arndt/WWF
Honey bees also need water and forage to keep them going.
The web of life

More so, think of the intricate webs of life that we find in some ecosystems, such as fynbos, where specific insects – like the long-tongued fly – have evolved to pollinate specific plants. Remove the one, and you will probably lose the other. When we start to unravel these webs, they weaken and collapse and we are all the poorer for it.

Some scientists have described biodiversity loss as the equivalent of “burning the library of life”. There is so much knowledge wrapped up in these natural systems that we have yet to discover – from the medicinal potential of certain plants to the unimaginable number of microorganisms contained in a handful of soil upon which our food systems depend.

We often hear that South Africa is a mega diverse country, and with that knowledge comes a special responsibility. South Africa’s ecosystems harbour an abundance of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. One of our missions at WWF South Africa is to dowse the proverbial flames of biological destruction before they engulf our own unique treasure chest.

© Peter Chadwick/WWF
From the high mountains of the Drakensberg to the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Let’s try to keep it that way.
The sound of silence

Bernie Krause is a natural sounds expert who has been recording the sounds of nature for a lifetime. In 2013, he gave a vivid Ted Talk on what he discovered about biodiversity loss by listening to nature and recording its diminishing sounds over time.

Another way of looking at biodiversity would be to think of the natural world as an orchestra with its constituent parts – from the first violins to the brass section, percussion and even a full choral ensemble. Together they are a magnificent whole that can deliver, say, the richness of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its Ode to Joy. Remove each of these one by one and all we might be left with would be the ting of a triangle.

Is that what we really want for our living world?

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea wants everybody to understand how our future is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the natural world.

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