Australia is one of seventeen countries described as being 'megadiverse'. This group of countries has less than 10% of the global surface, but support more than 70% of the biological diversity on earth.
The concept was first developed by Russell Mittermeier in 1988, as a way to prioritise conservation action. Based on an analysis of primate conservation priorities, he found that four countries accounted for two-thirds of all primate species. The analysis was then expanded to include other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, plants and selected groups of insects.
This resulted in 17 countries being identified, representing more than two-thirds of all (known) life forms and the majority of tropical rainforests, coral reefs and other priority systems. The results of the assessment were published in the Megadiversity: Earth's biologically wealthiest nations (Mittermeier, Gil and Mittermeier eds. 1997. Cemex, Mexico). Find out more about the megadiverse countries.
Australia is home to between 600,000 and 700,000 species, many of which are endemic, that is they are found nowhere else in the world. These include, for example, 84% of our plant species, 83% of mammals, and 45% of birds.
Australia's biodiversity - the plants, animals, micro-organisms and their ecosystems - is threatened from the impacts of human activities. Since European settlement, more than 50 species of Australian animals and over 60 species of Australian plants are known to have become extinct.
About biodiversity hotspots
Photo: Kevin Watt
Biodiversity hotspots are areas that support natural ecosystems that are largely intact and where native species and communities associated with these ecosystems are well represented. They are also areas with a high diversity of locally endemic species, which are species that are not found or are rarely found outside the hotspot.
The current, planned or potential management activities in hotspots place the natural values at risk, and it is likely this risk will increase in the future in the absence of active conservation management.
Because the natural values of hotspots are largely intact, undertaking action now to maintain these values has the potential to provide value-for-money in contributing to our efforts in biodiversity conservation.
Protecting and maintaining biodiversity hotspots
The Australian Government’s $36 million Maintaining Australia's Biodiversity Hotspots Programme focused on action to improve the conservation of hotspots on private and leasehold land. The programme had two delivery components, stewardship payments and voluntary property acquisitions.
Action was also taken at the regional and local scale through the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Funding was provided to regions to implement accredited natural resource management plans. A major requirement for accreditation was that plans covered the full range of natural resource management issues, including biodiversity conservation.
The Australian Government's Threatened Species Scientific Committee, with input from experts in biodiversity conservation from the states and territories, identified 15 hotspots across Australia.
National biodiversity hotspots
The Australian Government announced 15 national biodiversity hotspots in October 2003. Whilst international biodiversity hotspots have been identified for some time, this was the first attempt to identify biodiversity hotspots at the national scale.
Photo: Kevin Watt
The national hotspots were identified by the Australian Government's Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
The Committee held a workshop and invited biodiversity experts, including representatives from conservation groups, museums and the states and territories.
The identification of biodiversity hotspots was a two-stage process. The experts first identified areas with many endemic species. They then assessed each of these areas for current conservation pressures and the possibility of future threats to biodiversity. Areas with many endemic species where the levels of stress or future threat were considered to be high were identified as hotspots.
The hotspots were identified to increase public awareness of the cost-effectiveness of strategic and timely action to conserve biodiversity. In hotspot areas, timely intervention may prevent long-term and irreversible loss of their values, and provide high return on our conservation dollar.
These 15 areas are examples of locations that contain particularly high levels of biodiversity under threat.
International biodiversity hotspots
Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organisation based in Washington DC, has identified more than 30 biodiversity hotspots around the world, including one in the southwest of Western Australia.
The unique biogeographic region of Southwest Australia, stretching from Shark Bay in the north to Israelite Bay in the south, covers over 300 000 square kilometers and is recognised as an international biodiversity hotspot.
Separated from the rest of the continent by desert, the plants and animals in the hotspot have evolved in isolation for millions of years.
As a result, the area is teeming with life - it is home to over 1500 plant species, most of which are endemic. These include the majestic marri and karri eucalypt trees that can grow to over 30 and 70 metres respectively.
The hotspot is home to the endangered western swamp turtle - possibly the most threatened fresh water turtle species in the world.
There are also several endemic mammals in the hotspot, including the numbat, which is a rabbit-sized marsupial anteater now endemic to the hotspot having disappeared from the rest of its range in Australia, and the Dibbler which had been thought extinct for 83 years.
Land clearing, salinity, feral animals, weeds and the root-rot fungus Phytopthora cinnamomi threaten the biodiversity values of the hotspot.
To find out more about Western Australia's biodiversity, visit:
Regional Natural Heritage Programme
The Australian Government provided $10 million over three years through the Regional Natural Heritage Programme to fund non-government organizations and other agencies to protect outstanding biodiversity in hotspot areas of South-East Asia and the Pacific.