Finance Minister Matia Kasaija
Finance Minister Matia Kasaija has urged all Ugandans to promote the conservation of biodiversity. File Photo

Finance Minister Matia Kasaija has urged all Ugandans to promote the conservation of biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, in all its forms and all its interactions. From the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, all rely on biodiversity

While, speaking at the second Uganda waste, water and environment convention 2019 at Silver Springs hotel Bugolobi, Kasaija noted that biodiversity is an area of interest that the Country should consider very much in a bid to save the next generation.

According to Finance Minister Matia Kasaija, as a way of achieving this, the government is investing in diversified innovations in clean water and sanitation, climate change mitigation, waste management and integrated environmental management.

“As a government, we will continue to support public-private partnerships in all sectors of the economy aiming at transforming our country,” said Kasaija.

Highlight into biodiversity

According to Prof David Macdonald, at Oxford University, Biodiversity is the most complex feature of our planet and it is the most vital. Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity.

The term was coined in 1985 – a contraction of “biological diversity” – but the huge global biodiversity losses now becoming apparent represent a crisis equalling – or quite possibly surpassing – climate change.

More formally, biodiversity is comprised of several levels, starting with genes, then individual species, to communities of creatures and finally entire ecosystems, such as forests or coral reefs, where life interplays with the physical environment. These myriad interactions have made earth habitable for billions of years.

A more philosophical way of viewing biodiversity is that it represents the knowledge learned by evolving species over millions of years about how to survive through the vastly varying environmental conditions Earth has experienced. 

Just how diverse is biodiversity?

About 1.7 million species of animals, plants and fungi have been recorded, but there are likely to be 8-9 million and possibly up to 100 million.

Recent work considering diversity at a genetic level has suggested that creatures thought to be a single species could in some cases be dozens.

Then add in bacteria and viruses, and the number of distinct organisms may well be in the billions. A single spoonful of soil – which ultimately provides 90% of all food – contains 10,000 to 50,000 different types of bacteria.

The concern is that many species are being lost before we are even aware of them, or the role they play in the circle of life.

How bad is it?

Very. The best-studied creatures are the ones like us – large mammals. Tiger numbers, for example, have plunged by 97% in the last century. In many places, bigger animals have already been wiped out by humans – think dodos or woolly mammoths.

The extinction rate of species is now thought to be about 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet, which may be even faster than the losses after a giant meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs 65m years ago.

The sixth mass extinction in geological history has already begun, according to some scientists.

Lack of data means the “red list”, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has only assessed 5% of known species. But for the best-known groups, it finds many are threatened: 25% of mammals, 41% of amphibians and 13% of birds.

Species extinction provides a clear but narrow window on the destruction of biodiversity – it is the disappearance of the last member of a group that is by definition rare.

But new studies are examining the drop in the total number of animals, capturing the plight of the world’s most common creatures.

The results are scary. Billions of individual populations have been lost all over the planet, with the number of animals living on Earth having plunged by half since 1970.

Abandoning the normally sober tone of scientific papers, researchers call the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” representing a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.

What is destroying biodiversity?

We are, particularly as the human population rises and wild areas are razed to create farmland, housing and industrial sites.

The felling of forests is often the first step. Poaching and unsustainable hunting for food is another major factor.

More than 300 mammal species, from chimpanzees to hippos to bats, are being eaten into extinction.

Pollution is a killer too, with orcas and dolphins being seriously harmed by long-lived industrial pollutants. 

Global trade contributes further harm: amphibians have suffered one of the greatest declines of all animals due to a fungal disease thought to be spread around the world by the pet trade. Global shipping has also spread highly damaging invasive species around the planet, particularly rats.

The hardest hit of all habitats may be rivers and lakes, with freshwater animal populations in these collapsing by 81% since 1970, following huge water extraction for farms and people, plus pollution and dams.

Dangers arising from the loss of biodiversity 

Yes – nothing on Earth is experiencing more dramatic change at the hands of human activity.

Changes to the climate are reversible, even if that takes centuries or millennia. But once species become extinct, particularly those unknown to science, there’s no going back.

At the moment, we don’t know how much biodiversity the planet can lose without prompting a widespread ecological collapse.

But one approach has assessed so-called “ planetary boundaries”, thresholds in Earth systems that define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Of the nine considered, just biodiversity loss and nitrogen pollution are estimated to have been crossed, unlike CO2 levels, freshwater used and ozone losses.

Solution

Giving nature space and protection it needs is the only answer. Wildlife reserves are the obvious solution, and the world currently protects 15% of land and 7% of the oceans. But some argue that half the land surface must be set aside for nature.

However, the human population is rising and wildlife reserves don’t work if they hinder local people making a living. The poaching crisis for elephants and rhinos in Africa is an extreme example. 

Making the animals worth more alive than dead is the key, for example by supporting tourism or compensating farmers for livestock killed by wild predators.

We can all help. Most wildlife is destroyed by land being cleared for cattle, soy, palm oil, timber and leather. 

Most of us consume these products every day, with palm oil being found in many foods and toiletries.

Choosing only sustainable options helps, as does eating less meat, particularly beef, which has an outsized environmental hoofprint.

Another approach is to highlight the value of biodiversity by estimating the financial value of the ecosystem services provided as “natural capital”.

Sometimes this can lead to real savings. 

By John Dalton Kigozi