January 19, 2023

Understanding the biodiversity crisis

Planet Wild is a community of nature lovers who want to help rewild and protect the planet's biodiversity—here's why we need more biodiversity and what we can do about it.

Biodiversity describes the variety of life on our planet. It includes all species, animals, plants, and ecosystems. It supports the air we breathe and directly impacts the health of every living community on Earth.

How all these species interact with each other can be thought of like a Jenga tower: each piece—from the smallest insect to the largest mammal—plays a crucial role in supporting all life on Earth. As pieces of this Jenga tower start to vanish, life on Earth becomes more unstable, more uninhabitable.

This is exactly what is happening now. We are living through an extinction event.

Scientists believe we are currently experiencing the planet’s sixth global extinction since life began, but for the first time this one is entirely of our own making. 

The effect of deforestation
Deforestation pushes species towards extinction by destroying important habitats

Quick Facts:

  • Due to deforestation it’s estimated we are losing around 135 plants, animals and insect species every day. That’s 50,000 species a year.
  • In the past 12 years alone, 467 species have been declared extinct. These include species such as the Formosan Clouded Leopard, Pinta Tortoise (2012), West African Black Rhinoceros (2011) and the Spix's Macaw (2016).
  • It’s estimated that three-quarters of the land-based environment and two-thirds of our oceans have been significantly altered by human activity.
  • Living Planet’s 2022 report concluded that wildlife populations have plummeted 69% since 1970.
  • Up to one million species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.
  • We’re all aware of how climate change is warping our environment, and the massive impact carbon emissions have on the world around us, but the natural world is being lost on an unbelievably massive scale—and it's time we took matters into our own hands.

How does the loss of biodiversity impact humanity?

Simply, biodiversity is vital for all life on Earth. It’s what gives us the food we eat, the water we drink, life saving medicines, and shelter from the elements. We don’t have to look very far to see the effects of the crisis.

Biodiversity exists within different ecosystems, all of which support the Earth’s biosphere—the life web that all living things need to survive. Without plants, there would be no oxygen. Without vast forests, there would be no way to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Without pollinators, we can’t grow crops.

Everything has a role to play in their respective ecosystem. For example, trees are 500 times more likely to grow once their seeds have passed through the digestive systems of animals. Without the microscopic organisms that live in our soil, we cannot keep land fertile to feed our booming population. The economy we rely on to live our day-to-day lives cannot continue indefinitely if we are not taking care of biodiversity’s life-giving resources.

Biodiversity loss is also a direct threat to human health, and not just because of its link to climate change and the increase in natural disasters. The knick-on effects of biodiversity loss have an impact all the way down the food chain, to the microscopic organisms that are responsible for cancer treatments, painkillers, and other vital life-saving medicines.

A butterfly getting nectar from a flower
Pollinators are vital for all life on Earth

What are the three biggest threats to biodiversity?

When it comes down to it, the three biggest threats to biodiversity are habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change.

Habitat loss

37% of the world’s land is used for agriculture. This includes farms for growing crops, pastures and meadows for raising livestock, and monoculture forests used for timber. The transformation from wild habitats to farmland is one of the most visible marks humanity has left on the planet. Industrial agriculture has led to millions of animals, insects, and plant species to become displaced or extinct, and is a direct contributor to the biodiversity crisis we are currently experiencing.  

Invasive species

When plants and animals are forced out of their home, they need somewhere to go. A species becomes invasive when it is unnaturally introduced into a new habitat. Sometimes invasive species can overwhelm ecosystems, causing major damage to the status quo. They can wipe out entire populations, destroy acres of forest, and once introduced they can become tricky to remove. 

Climate change

It’s no secret that the world is warming up. As the temperature rises, spring arrives earlier, which is changing the life cycles of many plants and animals. Carnivorous such as wolves or bears will often arrive too soon to hunting grounds, only to discover their migratory prey has already been and gone. These phenological mismatches result in changes in behavior, forcing animals further away from their habitat in search for food, water, and shelter.

Large machinery taking coal out the earth
We are the cause of this current mass extinction

Examples of biodiversity loss

From the bone-white coral skeletons that litter Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the massive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to make way for more farmland, the impact of human activity on the natural world is everywhere.

Let’s think about our pollinators. Butterflies, bats, birds, moths, and bees contribute to 75% of the world’s crop pollination—which some scientists estimate is about one in three bites of food we eat!

Habitat loss, disease, environmental changes, and other human activities have meant that these important creatures are struggling to maintain their populations. Without our pollinators, we might start to see the bread, cereal, and vital grains we rely on begin to disappear from store shelves.

In our oceans, climate change and irresponsible waste disposal have weakened its ability to withstand a changing environment. Rising temperatures have led to species migrating to new areas. Increasing acidity erodes the calcareous skeletons or shells of marine animals. Massive overfishing has destroyed huge areas of the ocean floor, ripping up marine habitats.

Examples of the biodiversity crisis can be seen everywhere, which is why it’s more important than ever to do something about it. 

Some species of whale have been driven to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling

What can we do to stop this mass extinction?

The good news is that, in theory, the damage we have caused can be reversed—but only through direct action.

A 2009 study by Yale University found that forest ecosystems take 42 years on average to recover, while the ocean floor could recover in less than 10 years.

"The damages to these ecosystems are pretty serious," said Oswald Schmitz, an ecology professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "But the message is that if societies choose to become sustainable, ecosystems will recover. It isn't hopeless."

The fight isn’t over. This is the best news we have to fight the biodiversity crisis.

In 2022 several of the world’s nations gathered in Montreal for the UN Biodiversity conference (COP15) to discuss the ways we can slow down the assault on our natural world. The conference ended in a landmark agreement of 23 points to protect global biodiversity by 2030. Whether the conference will meet its goals by the deadline remains to be seen.

Sun bears are threated in the wild

But what can I do?

On a personal level, tackling such a huge global crisis might feel pretty impossible…

…But that’s where Planet Wild comes in.

We are a global community of individuals who care deeply about the planet, and want to find real ways to tackle the biodiversity crisis. When you become a Planet Wild member, your contribution will directly fund innovative and exciting projects all over the world, so you can make a difference from home. Every month we document our missions so you can see exactly how your money is being spent.

Here’s an example of what we do: cutting down trees to restore an ancient forest to its wild, natural state.

No nonsense, no empty promises, just direct action to fight one of the biggest issues affecting our planet right now. Learn more about what we do here.

"An understanding of the natural world is a source of not only great curiosity, but great fulfilment."

- Sir David Attenborough

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Glossary of terms

Biosphere - The biosphere is made up of the parts of Earth where life exists—all ecosystems.

Calcareous - Mostly or partly composed of calcium carbonate.

Phenology - The study of the timing and patterns of events in the natural world, particularly those related to the annual life cycles of plants, animals, and other living things.

Pollinators - Species that moves pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower, allowing for fertilization to occur. 

Rewilding - A philosophy that embraces the idea that nature can take care of itself once the conditions are right to do so. 

A bison wearing sunglasses

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