Thematic findings: Biodiversity

Independent Report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06745 0

Thematic findings (continued)


Concern for non-human life forms occurs throughout history and across many cultures. However, the level and nature of this concern changes, reflecting our understanding, the values we ascribe to it, the threats it is under and what might be done to conserve it. A vital challenge for all Australians in the 21st century is to put human development on a sustainable path by avoiding further biodiversity loss.

Many key threats defined in SoE (1996) continue to threaten Australian landscapes. These include land clearing, salinity, pollution, nutrient loading and sedimentation of waterways and coastal areas, urbanisation of land on the intensively settled coastal areas, climate change, diseases and invasive species.

Australia has a diverse and often unique environment that represents a priceless heritage and should be a source of pride to all Australians. The continent and surrounding seas support a significant proportion of global biodiversity. For example, south-west Western Australia supports the eighth highest number of endemic vascular plant species in the world (see Table 49 in the Biodiversity theme report) and the Great Barrier Reef contains around 2000 fish species and around 500 coral species compared with New Caledonia's 1000 fish species and 300 coral species (see Table 48 in the Biodiversity theme report).

Biodiversity is defined in Article 2 of the 1992 United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity as:

the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Australians increasingly accept a share of the responsibility for biodiversity. The United Nations definition was repeated in the EPBC Act. The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity expands on the three levels at which biodiversity occurs:

  • genetic diversity - the variety of genetic information contained in all of the individual plants, animals and microorganisms that inhabit the earth. Genetic diversity occurs within and between the populations of organisms that comprise individual species as well as among species
  • species diversity - the variety of species on earth
  • ecosystem diversity - the variety of habitats, biotic communities and ecological processes.

The three levels of diversity are interrelated and interdependent. A population of a species depends on its habitat for survival, and a functioning ecosystem depends on the complex of species that comprises it. The significance of these interrelationships and interdependencies appears to be becoming more critical to avoiding further environmental, social and economic collapses within Australia.

Many fungi spend most of their life cycle in microscopic form hidden from view in the soil

Many fungi spend most of their life cycle in microscopic form hidden from view in the soil, until they emerge after rain to release spores and begin a new generation

Trend: Ecosystems
There is little change in the condition, with ecosystems still being highly fragmented, pressure is increasing due to land clearing and other threatening processes and the overall response is adequate in some respects although there are still some major gaps.

One of the key threats to Australian vertebrate species remains habitat destruction and fragmentation, and the greatest disruption and loss has occurred in the mammals. There is, general acceptance of the need for protection at the species level. There is greater support for the conservation of 'soft and cuddly' species or for commercial species (timber, wildflowers or food). The ideas of ecosystem services and genetic values are less readily accepted and understood. These services are provided by biodiversity and they not only determine the health and condition of ecosystems, but also their productivity (e.g. food and water) that Australians rely on for their existence.

Trend: Genetic diversity
Genetic diversity is declining although information remains patchy.

complex mesophyll vineforest

Complex mesophyll vineforest, south of Cape Tribulation, Qld.

Source: VJ Neldner, Environment Protection Agency, Queensland

Although 65 indicators were developed for SoE reporting at the national level, some could not be assessed in SoE (2001), as there were large gaps in either data or its availability. Data and its availability remains a key issue in planning for future SoE reporting. Because reporting occurs at local, state and national levels, data collections and information need to be integrated for maximum efficiency. Some changes in attitude to data gathering based on agreed standards may be required.

Australians are only beginning to understand the value and range of biodiversity in the Australian environment. For example, the difference between our knowledge of fungi and vascular plants is extreme - 5% of fungi and 70% of vascular plants have been described. Similarly, more vertebrates than invertebrates have been described. Therefore, how much we know depends on the interest of scientists and other professionals, as well as the wider Australian community.

Trend: Species
The condition, although variable, is generally deteriorating, pressure is increasing and the response has been adequate in some respects.

Cushion plant community, Tasmania

Cushion plant community, Tasmania

Source: JJ Bruhl, University of New England.

Although the protection of biodiversity in Australia has increased, significant problems restrict further progress. These include: the dysfunctioning of State-Commonwealth arrangements, the level of community commitment (including resources to science), and cooperation between scientists on data standards and data exchange. The role of scientists, NGOs and voluntary groups needs to be clarified.

As the attitudes of Australian people to environmental issues change, so do those of industry. The mining industry, for example, employs biologists to study and evaluate biological values in many parts of Australia, for the purpose of codes and environmental impact assessments associated with proposed developments. Previously only biologists from government departments and academic institutions collected the regional biological datasets.

Trend: Technical knowledge/data
Knowledge of biodiversity is variable, with less commitment to some areas and advances in others. There is an increasing public expectation. Research is focused but needs to address a range of data needs for SoE reporting.

The mining industry has developed codes of practice ( ) on environmental management to help manage the small proportion of the environment affected by mining. In some sectors and industries, 'corporate Australia' is yet to fully recognise and fulfil its environmental obligations, especially to biodiversity.

How all Australians are to become involved in environmental issues remains paramount in biodiversity. As most Australians live and work within the urban and coastal areas, one mechanism may be to develop urban projects. The recent Bush Forever initiative by the Western Australian Government identified regionally significant bushland to be retained and protected (see, and Bush Forever aims to protect a target of at least 10% of the 26 original vegetation complexes within the Swan Coastal Plain portion of metropolitan Perth, and to conserve threatened ecological communities. It combines the results of key research programs and consultation with the community over several years, ensuring that the recommendations incorporate the most up-to-date knowledge of the ecology of the Perth Metropolitan Region. This places Perth at the forefront of world cities conserving their biodiversity.

Biodiversity Month Patron, Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia (1996-2001)

Biodiversity Month Patron, Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia (1996-2001), plants a local native plant in his backyard with help from children

Source: Grant Ellmers, Community Biodiversity Network.

Local governments have recognised their roles and responsibilities in biodiversity. For example, the Biodiversity Report for Manningham City, north of Melbourne, is a program that developed from a conservation strategy and the 1992 Earth Summit. This illustrates the importance of involving people locally to achieve national and global needs in biodiversity. An important feature developing in urban biodiversity issues is the involvement of young Australians.

Another recent change has seen diverse organisations that historically would not have worked together (e.g. the NFF and the ACF) are now doing so. The diversity of people and organisations involved in protecting Australia's biodiversity is reflected in the range of organisations and groups involved with large programs such as Landcare, Bushcare, Land for Wildlife, Coastcare, NatureSearch Program, Friends groups associated with species, ecosystems or places, Wildcare, Rivercare and many others. The NHT has funded many of these programs since 1997.

The EPBC Act came into operation in 2000 and covers a range of key areas of biodiversity conservation including Australia's obligations under the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. In early 2001 land clearance was listed as a key threatening process, which allows a threat abatement plan to be developed. The next national SoE Report, which will appear in 2006, will be a timely opportunity to assess the effect of this legislation on biodiversity conservation, as well as the impact of NHT-funded projects on biodiversity. In 2000 the Commonwealth government reviewed the implementation of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity. The review identified some significant progress as well as areas where pressures on biodiversity continue and response remains inadequate.

Key issues

  • Land clearing
  • Dryland salinity and waterquality
  • Ecosystem and land use change
  • Altered fire regimes
  • Climate change
  • Diseases and invasive species
  • Genetically modified organisms and biodiscovery
  • Role of industries in biodiversity
  • Involvement of Indigenous peoples in biodiversity
  • Protection of biodiversity values in reserves
  • Changing roles and responsibilities
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    Land clearing

    Clearance of native vegetation remains the single most significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity. Based on estimates compiled by the ACF, over 564 800 ha of native vegetation was cleared in Australia during 2000; the AGO estimate for 1999 is 468 844 ha. The former area is exceeded by only four other countries in the world: Brazil, Indonesia, the Democractic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Bolivia (Figure 25). In the top 10 countries, Australia is the only developed nation.

    Figure 25: Countries with highest estimated rate of native vegetation clearance in 1999

     Countries with highest estimated rate of native vegetation clearance in 1999

    Source: after ACF (2000, 2001)

    The rate of land clearance has increased, with as much land cleared since the 1950s as in the 150 years before 1945. Although this issue was recognised in SoE (1996), there has not been a unified response within Australia or within various regions; for instance, the degree of land clearing by region within Queensland between 1997 and 1999 (Figure 26). Land clearing continues at different rates, despite apparently tight legislative mechanisms, within other regions of Australia apart from Queensland.

    Figure 26: Area of native vegetation cleared in Queensland between 1997 and 1999 by subregion (indicative map only)

     Area of native vegetation cleared in Queensland between 1997 and 1999 by subregion

    Source: EPA (1999); AGO. Compiled by: NLWRA, Landscape Health Project, Canberra

    The loss and depletion of plants through clearance destroys the habitat for thousands of other species. For example, 1000 to 2000 birds permanently lose their habitat for every 100 ha of woodland that is cleared, while the clearing of mallee for wheat farming kills, on average, more than 85% of the resident reptiles and more than 200 individual reptiles per hectare.

    Trend: Land clearing
    Land clearing has reduced in most states although it continues in some areas. Legislation and other controls have resulted in a variable response to date.

    Broadscale land clearance can fundamentally change the functioning of ecosystems, including regional climate, and in the medium to long term, undermine agricultural production and regional economies (see Land theme report). Invasive plants and animals can also markedly affect ecosystems.

    By 2050, as another legacy of broadscale land clearance, up to two million hectares of remnant native vegetation are predicted to be at risk from dryland salinity.

    Many vegetation types now exist as remnants along roadsides and railway reserves

    Many vegetation types now exist as remnants along roadsides and railway reserves, such as this community near Bathurst, NSW

    Source: J Williams.

    Dryland salinity and water quality

    Australia has critical dryland salinity and water quality problems that pose threats to not only native vegetation but also to sustainable agriculture and forestry. At least 2.5 million hectares (5% of cultivated land) is affected by dryland salinity. For example, WA has the largest area of dryland salinity risk in Australia (Figure 27). The costs of rehabilitating the biodiversity values of these land areas are enormous. Mapping distributions of major fragmented vegetation types in selected catchments and their likely response to projected hydrological changes has only just begun (Figure 28).

    Figure 27: Dryland salinity risk in south-west Western Australia 2000

     Dryland salinity risk in south-west Western Australia 2000

    Source: NLWRA (2001a)

    Figure 28: Mapping of the degree of native vegetation fragmentation (indicative map only), by IBRA regions

     Mapping of the degree of native vegetation fragmentation

    Source: Specialist opinion based on State vegetation coverages. Data currency: land use - 1999; vegetation - NSW 1986-1995, Qld 1997, SA 1985-1995, Tas. 2000, Vic. 1987, WA 2000, NT no data. Compiled by: NLWRA, Landscape Health Project, Canberra

    A comparison of the areas within Australia which are under threat from salinity and fragmentation highlight many of the issues related to the protection of biodiversity values in these largely agricultural areas. The results of past effects of clearing appear difficult for some sectors of the Australian community to respond to.

    Early research findings in the wheatbelt of Western Australia indicate that some 450 endemic plants are under threat of extinction from salinity. In addition, about 75% of the waterbirds are in decline and some 200 aquatic invertebrates are likely to become regionally extinct.

    Trend: Dryland salinity and water quality
    The condition of habitats is declining as a result of increasing pressures of salinity and changes in hydrological regimes. The response is sometimes adequate but on-ground action often is still not reversing the situation.

    Ecosystem and land use change

    Most biodiversity conservation has been focused in southern and eastern Australia where broadscale land clearing has been concentrated. Governments and the community are now beginning to appreciate the potentially significant effects of altered fire, grazing, hydrological regimes and invasive species on biodiversity in the extensive land use zone in central, western and northern Australia.

    The pastoral industry covers about 70% of the continent. Grazing in arid and semi-arid regions is considered partly responsible for the extinction of many plants and continues to threaten around one-quarter of the plant species listed as endangered. The pastoral industry in these regions relies heavily on the production and diversity of native species. Native species are damaged by trampling or grazed to the extent that species and the industry suffer. Some species may not be under threat but if current stocking rates continue, then they may be.

    The Commonwealth government developed a national approach to forest policy in 1992, which later was followed by a series of RFAs between states and the Commonwealth. The pressures on biodiversity in old-growth forests were identified as a major issue in SoE (1996). Since SoE (1996), there have been major changes in forest management in RFA areas (covering most of the production areas in Australia). Informed by regional assessments costing about $115 000 000, the RFAs generated comprehensive information about the environmental, heritage, social and economic values of forests. The RFAs were developed using extensive consultation with communities, industry and NGOs. Old-growth forests were, for the first time, mapped systematically and comprehensively. The RFAs have added 2.8 million hectares to forest reserves, protecting more than 60% of all public land in the RFA regions in a reserve system of 10.3 million hectares. The protection of old-growth forest increased by about 40%. Some claim that too much forest is locked away from commercial harvesting while others believe that all harvesting in native forests should be stopped.

    Freshwater aquatic ecosystems also continue to be degraded. Numbers of several species of frogs, aquatic tortoises and lizards continue to decline. This is primarily the result of continuing declines in wetlands, riverine systems and water quality. The River Disturbance Index presented below reflects the large variation in condition of rivers systems within Australia (Figure 29).

    Figure 29: The River Disturbance Index.
    The River Disturbance Index is the average of the Flow Regime Disturbance Index and Catchment Disturbance Index (from the Australian Rivers and Catchment Condition Database, ARCCD). Wild rivers are shown in blue (dark blue for rivers with no disturbance and light blue for rivers with a disturbance up to the 0.01, a threshold set by the Commonwealth Wild Rivers Program). All other rivers are shown with their respective disturbance levels (in order of increasing disturbance: green, brown, orange, pink)

     The River Disturbance Index

    Source: Environment Australia (2000)

    For discussion of marine biodiversity, see the Biodiversity theme report and the Coasts and Oceans Thematic findings.

    Trend: Changes in land use
    The condition is variable, pressures on biodiversity continue as a result of urban expansion and increasing population pressures. There has been increased attention from local governments on addressing biodiversity through local planning processes and land capability studies.

    Altered fire regimes

    Altered fire regimes were not listed as a key threatening process for biodiversity in SoE (1996). Today, however, there is much greater awareness, particularly in northern Australia, of the links between fire regimes (season, frequency, intensity and type) and the conservation of biodiversity. Satellite monitoring in northern Australia is building up a picture of changes in fire patterns, which are being used to improve management. With modest resources, monitoring could be extended Australia-wide to provide a long-term picture of fire patterns.

    Summer wildfire in dry sclerophyll forest on Black Mountain, ACT

    Summer wildfire in dry sclerophyll forest on Black Mountain, ACT

    Source: AM Gill, CSIRO Plant Industry.

    Resprouting eucalypts after a wildfire on Black Mountain, ACT

    Resprouting eucalypts after a wildfire on Black Mountain, ACT

    Source: JE Williams.

    Climate change

    Climate change and its potential to influence biodiversity remains a key issue. The present Australian government has emphasised mitigation of greenhouse gases emissions through processes such as the Greenhouse Challenge (see ). The direct and indirect effects of climate change on biodiversity has received much less attention. The potential effects of climate change on terrestrial (e.g. alpine and arid zones) and marine biodiversity need to be adequately researched, better understood and managed. Native vegetation assists in carbon sequestration and the mitigation of climate change. Despite this, some Australian jurisdictions continue to permit high rates of land clearance (see the Land and Biodiversity theme reports).

    Diseases and invasive species

    Invasive species can include exotic organisms, introduced diseases, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and native species whose range and/or abundance have changed because of human activities.

    Invasive species were identified as a major threat to biodiversity in SoE (1996) and remain so (Figures 30 and 31).

    Figure 30: Number of marine invasive species per Interim Marine and Coastal Regionalisation for Australia (IMCRA) including the endemic Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci

     Number of marine invasive species per IMCRA

    Source: Clarke et al. (2000)

    Figure 31: Number of terrestrial non-Indigenous vertebrate and invertebrate invasive species per IBRA based on a list of around 30 species considered to have a major effect in Australia

     Number of terrestrial non-Indigenous vertebrate and invertebrate invasive species per IBRA

    Source: Clarke et al. (2000)

    Unlike in SoE (1996), 'sleeper' weeds (species that have established, but are yet to become a widespread problem) are now recognised to be of major concern, as are exotic organisms that might find their way through Australia's quarantine barriers as a result of trade, tourism and other human activities.

    A Crazy Ant feeding on the honeydew produced by scale insects

    A Crazy Ant (Anoplolespis gracilipes) feeding on the honeydew produced by scale insects. The mutual relationship between these two species has been responsible for extensive canopy dieback on Christmas Island

    Some introduced animals that have been around for decades can also become pests. For example, the Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes) was introduced to Christmas Island in the 1930s but has only recently become a major threat to biodiversity on the Island. The South American Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), introduced into Queensland in 1935 from Hawaii to control two insect pests of sugar cane, has spread north, west to 500 km south of Darwin and has been reported recently in Kakadu National Park. The potential costs of these species alone are enormous in terms of control measures, loss of biodiversity and loss of productive systems.

    A National Weeds Strategy was released in 1996 with 20 Weeds of National Significance identified in 1999 and another 28 species listed that pose a potential threat to biodiversity. Threat abatement plans have also been developed for the fox, rabbit, cat and goat. In addition, Environment Australia, in cooperation with state agencies and scientists, have been developing a Threat Abatement Plan for the fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi, a major threat to biodiversity.

    At the national level, two CRCs fund most research into the ecology and management of invasive plants and animals that threaten biodiversity.

    The significance of these threats to Australia was recognised by the Commonwealth government in the recent additional allocation of funds to AQIS via the 2001-02 Budget.

    Trend: Invasive species/diseases
    There is an growing threat to terrestrial and marine systems through introduction of an increasing range of species. The response has been variable but awareness of the issues has increased.

    The Living Landscapes Project

    The Living Landscapes Project is a community-based project to develop sustainable landscape management. The Project attempts to embed biodiversity conservation into catchment and agricultural planning in the wheatbelt of south-west Western Australia. This pilot planning process considers both agricultural production and broader landscape issues such as nature conservation and ecological health. The aim is to assist community groups to develop landscape management practices that protect biodiversity within an ecologically viable and sustainable land use system.

    The Project involved an interdisciplinary team that used learning through experience as an overarching process. The other key process used was the focal species approach. By combining these two approaches, Living Landscapes has developed a set of guiding principles for nature conservation planning in the context of sustainable land management. The approach is now being considered in several regions in eastern Australia.

    Genetically modified organisms and biodiscovery

    The effects of GMOs on biodiversity could also be significant if they become invasive. A systematic and comprehensive investigation of the potential effects of GMOs in Australia should be a priority (see

    Biodiscovery (the chemical prospecting for pharmaceuticals in natural organisms) is another recent development. Although the concept of developing drugs from natural organisms is not new, the need to maintain biodiversity values is now paramount.

    Role of industries in biodiversity

    The agricultural sector has a key role in conserving biodiversity and has adopted some important reforms. Farmers comprise the bulk of the membership of many community groups such as Landcare. Some parts of the sector now routinely integrate nature conservation objectives into their resource and landscape management strategies, and commercial programs (e.g. see The Living Landscapes Project).

    Integration of land disturbances and protection of the environment is already being practised in some other industries, such as mining. Mining has developed these planning issues through capitalising on the need to undertake an environmental impact assessment of proposed developments. Particularly for larger proposed developments, the background data collected on geology, landforms, soils, hydrology, flora, vegetation and fauna have allowed a high degree of sophistication to enable the interpretation of potential direct and indirect effects.

    The differences between industries and their approaches to biodiversity conservation are related to how well these values have been defined and determined. In general, the forestry industry has also evolved in its approach from collecting data on structure and dominant species to integrating some biodiversity values by addressing potential threats (e.g. developing soil-water controls to help reduce disease caused by the pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi).

    Involvement of Indigenous peoples in biodiversity

    Today, there is much greater involvement of Indigenous peoples in land management, with repeated calls for Indigenous issues to be fully integrated into policy and program management. One example is the development of the Indigenous Protected Area Program.

    Around 15% of Australia was managed by Indigenous peoples in 1996 and their involvement is essential to the future of biodiversity in this country. Their extensive ecological knowledge could be better used to improve our understanding of biodiversity and its management. The mining industry and other land management groups are already integrating Indigenous knowledge in rehabilitation and land management programs. Exchange of Indigenous knowledge and learning would be assisted by their more comprehensive and interactive involvement in land management across an array of tenures and ecosystems.

    Protection of biodiversity values in reserves

    Some new initiatives since 1996 have helped to increase the representativeness of the nation's system of conservation reserves (Figure 32). The comprehensiveness and adequacy of the reserve system has been improved.

    Figure 32: Conservation status of IBRA in 2000 showing the percentage area reserved in each region

     Conservation status of IBRA in 2000

    Source: Environment Australia (2000)

    The new initiatives include the National Reserve System Program and related state and territory programs, the RFAs, the Indigenous Protected Area program, Marine Protected Areas (see Coasts and Oceans thematic findings), new multi-tenure management schemes, and the enormous growth in contributions from the non-government sector (e.g. Trust for Nature and Bush Heritage Fund). Many anomalies exist and conservation cannot be covered in Australia without a range of tenures, land, water and marine management options. These options need to be in place for areas managed as reserves and off reserves. For example, some regions have relatively high levels of reservation (e.g. south-west Tasmania and the Australian Alps) whereas other regions that have been subject to extensive modification and/or species loss have relatively low levels of reservation (e.g. where agriculture dominates in southern Australia and in relatively productive regions of the Australian rangelands).

    Changing roles and responsibilities

    Land management and ownership remains a key issue in the context of property rights and responsibilities. Although the land may be in certain ownership, others in the community may consider it their responsibility or right to a say on how land and its biodiversity is managed. Most land in Australia is either freehold or leasehold, managed for commercial use. The significance of ecosystem services to humans and the 'value' of biodiversity is becoming more widely appreciated.


    Many key threats to biodiversity identified in 1996 still persist. For example, clearance of native vegetation remains the single most significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity. Salinity and hydrological changes continue to threaten terrestrial and inland waters; sedimentation and nutrient loading threaten coastal waters; and arid and semi-arid regions are under threat from the effects of altered fire regimes, grazing and invasive species.

    The protection of biodiversity values in Australia, however, has progressed significantly. There have been major changes in forest management and an increase in the representativeness of conservation reserves. Protection of biodiversity values now extends well beyond the reserve system and many Australians, including Indigenous peoples and corporate Australia, are now involved with biodiversity. Threat abatement plans and recovery plans are addressing many issues although it is often still too early to gauge their effectiveness.

    Emerging issues include the potential effect of climate change, GMOs and sleeper weeds on biodiversity.