1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2009–10  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 04/06/2010   
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Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. This article highlights the unique characteristics of Australia’s biodiversity and explains the importance of Australia’s biodiverse environment to individuals, society and the economy.


Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is a term used to describe the variety of living things in the natural environment: the different plants, animals and micro-organisms; the genes they contain; and the ecosystems in which they occur.

Biodiversity is valued by people for many reasons. It contributes to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals and communities; it is the life-blood that sustains rural and coastal communities; and it is fundamental to Indigenous people. Biodiversity - the land, waters and all living things - form Indigenous creation and dreamtime stories and songlines about how they and the world around them came to be. Their traditions and culture are inextricably tied to the Australian landscape and its biodiversity.

Indigenous woman with cooked yam
Indigenous woman with cooked yam.

The natural environment has recreational value for many Australians: most people like nature and like to experience it. In 2008, 18 per cent of all domestic overnight trips in Australia included a nature activity, such as visiting a national park, botanical gardens or wildlife park, bushwalking, or whale watching, scuba diving and snorkelling. Visitors to Australia are also attracted to the natural environment: 65 per cent of tourists that visited Australia in 2008 participated in one or more of the above nature activities. Nature-based visitors also stay almost twice the length of time on average as other international visitors, and spend 80 per cent of international visitor dollars.

Kakadu National Park (World Heritage Area) Great Barrier Reef (World Heritage Area)
Kakadu National Park (World Heritage Area) (left). Great Barrier Reef (World Heritage Area) (right).

Many aspects of Australia’s natural environment, such as the desert, the Great Barrier Reef, and distinctive native species such as the koala, kangaroos and eucalypts are central to Australians’ national identities. Australian native animals adorn the national coat of arms and many of Australia’s sporting codes have them as national team emblems.

The biodiversity of the natural environment also provides a wide range of ecosystem goods and services that are integral to life. Resources that sustain humans, such as food, medicines, timber, fuels and genetic materials, are all provided by a biodiverse natural environment. Biodiversity provides the oxygen we breathe and purifies the water that we drink. It builds and protects soils and stores and cycles nutrients essential for food production. It controls pests and breaks down pollutants in the environment. It also aids recovery from unpredictable natural or catastrophic events and helps to maintain a stable climate. These goods and services, whether gained directly or indirectly from biodiversity, represent the fundamental building blocks of human society (End note 1).

1. Overview of ecosystem goods and services provided by biodiversity
Overview of ecosystem goods and services provided by biodiversity

In economic terms, the rivers, wetlands and flood plains of the Murray-Darling Basin are thought to provide $187 billion in ecosystem services annually, and terrestrial ecosystems up to $325 billion per year. Biodiversity related industries also contribute significantly and directly to the Australian economy: it has been estimated that, per year, Australia’s commercial fisheries are worth $2.2 billion; kangaroo harvesting worth $245 million; bushfood production worth $100 million; and wildflower exports worth $30 million.


It has been estimated that tourism, recreational fishing and commercial fishing in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park contributed $5.4 billion to the Australian economy in 2006-07. The national economic value generated by 15 of Australia’s other World Heritage Areas is of the order of $7.25 billion annually, along with approximately 83,000 jobs.


Australia is the most isolated inhabited continent and its geology is the oldest in the world. These factors, combined with its size and its long-term and geographical variations in climate make Australia one of the most biologically unique and diverse countries in the world.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent - the average annual rainfall is only 465 millimetres, compared with South America, which has an annual average rainfall of 1600 millimetres (the most of all the continents). Furthermore, only 12 per cent of this rainfall makes it to the ocean, with much of the rest evaporated and transpired by plants. Australian species have adapted to this low and variable rainfall. Many Australian bird species such as the zebra finch adjust their breeding cycles to climatic changes, while the koala derives much of its moisture needs just from the fresh leaf tips of eucalypts.

Zebra Finch
Zebra Finch

Australia’s climate is geographically very variable compared to other countries, resulting in ecosystems ranging from deserts to tropical rainforests. Whilst some parts of Australia have extremely low average rainfall, such as Alice Springs (around 270 millimetres per year), other parts of the continent have very high average rainfall, such as the town of Tully in north Queensland (more than 4000 millimetres per year). This variability in climatic zones in Australia has resulted in a particularly diverse range of species, with each climatic zone having its own uniquely adapted flora and fauna.

The age of Australia’s landscape also means it generally has very poor soils with low nutrient levels. Many of Australia’s plants and animals have adapted to these low-nutrient soils over millions of years. Australia’s acacias have evolved means of capturing nitrogen in poor soils, while banksias have evolved to survive in low phosphorous soils. The Central and Eastern Avon Wheatbelt of south-west Western Australia (a National Biodiversity Hotspot (End note 2)) is an example of the high levels of species endemism (not found anywhere else) that have resulted from adaptation to low-nutrient soils. It has been identified as a national hotspot of biodiversity for its richness in endemic plants including grevilleas, hakeas, eucalypts, acacias, eriostemons, and the asteracea family.


All of these factors have contributed to make Australia one of 17 mega-diverse countries that collectively hold around 70% of the world’s flora and fauna. Australia is home to an estimated 570,000 different species (147,579 described species), giving it more than 5 per cent of the world’s plants and animals, (End note 3) (table 2).

2. Number of species in the world and Australia

World Described
Australia Described
Australia Percentage
Estimate World
Estimate Australia
Percentage Endemic

~7 363
~80 500
~8 230
1 359 365
98 703
~320 465
310 129
24 716
~390 800
26 845
98 998
11 846
1 500 000
50 000
~66 307
>4 186
2 600 500
~160 000
Total 2009
1 896 794
147 579
~566 398

Source: Chapman, 2009.
Note: unknown = no way of providing a meaningful estimate. ~ = number shown is considered to be a very close approximation of the exact figure.> = there is estimated to be at least or more than the number shown.

Australia has more endemic species than are currently known for any other country. Eighty-seven per cent of Australia’s mammals are endemic, as are approximately 45 per cent of birds, 86 per cent of vascular plants (End note 4), 93 per cent of reptiles and 94 per cent of amphibians. These high levels of endemism are not only found in the terrestrial environment: of the estimated 600 inshore fish species in the southern temperate zone (non-tropical marine waters), about 85 per cent are found only in Australian waters.


Some of Australia’s ecosystems display great species richness. Australian deserts, for example, have a greater number of lizard species per square kilometre than do either the Kalahari or American deserts. Australian ants are also highly diverse compared with elsewhere in the world, with an estimated 4000 species. The 452 hectare Black Mountain Nature Reserve in Canberra alone has more species of ant than the whole of Britain (more than 100 species, as opposed to around 41 species in Britain).
Thorny Devils, Alice Springs Desert Park
Thorny Devils, Alice Springs Desert Park.

Terrestrial (land) ecosystems

Australia’s unique flora and fauna inhabit some of the most diverse landscapes of any continent. Australia has been divided into 85 distinct bioregions based on climate, geology, landform, vegetation and animal communities. These bioregions represent the array of terrestrial ecosystems in Australia, ranging from deserts and rangelands that spread across 70 per cent of Australia, to tropical monsoon rainforests in the north, temperate grasslands and wet eucalypt forests in the south, and alpine regions in the south-east. In addition to these bioregions, Australia’s external territories extend to sub-Antarctic and Antarctic regions (End note 5).

Examples of some of the unique bioregions across the continent are the Australian Alps, the Arnhem Plateau, the Central Ranges, Cape York Peninsula, the Darling Riverine Plains, the Great Sandy Desert, the Jarrah Forests of the south-west, the Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields, the Tasmanian Central Highlands and the Wet Tropics of the north-east.

The Australian Alps are located in the south-east of Australia, forming part of the Great Dividing Range. The Alps contain the highest peaks in Australia, with the Kosciuszko Plateau including the most striking examples of glacier-formed landscapes on the continent. Distinctive features of the Australian Alps include high altitude peaks and plateaus, glacial lakes and alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems. Many distinctive species have adapted to the cold climate of the Alps, including snow gums, unique wildflower species, mountain pygmy possums and migratory Bogong moths.

The Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields extend from the southeast of the Northern Territory, through the northeast of South Australia and into Queensland and New South Wales. In contrast to the Australian Alps, the landscape of the Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields is characterised by long parallel sand dunes, fringing dunefields, extensive sand plains, dry watercourses and saltpans. The predominant vegetation is Spinifex hummock grasslands, sparse acacia shrublands and some river red gum and coolibah river woodlands. A very different range of distinctive species have adapted to this environment to that of the Australian Alps. Species such as Acacia nelsonii, the Eyrean grasswren and the Lake Eyre dragon are endemic species which have adapted to the unique desert landscapes of the area.

Snow Gum, Kosciuszko National Park Simpson–Strzelecki Dunefields
Snow Gum, Kosciuszko National Park (left). Simpson–Strzelecki Dunefields (right).

Inland aquatic ecosystems

Australia has a diverse range of aquatic habitats that range from saline terminal lakes, found in arid and semi-arid landscapes (such as Lake Eyre), to the sphagnum bogs of the Australian Alps and include waterways, lakes, swamps, and subterranean karst (cave) systems. Many different species of plants, algae, bacteria, invertebrates (such as insects, worms, molluscs and crustaceans), fish, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals live in Australia’s aquatic environment. Some of these species live their entire life cycle in water, whilst others spend only part of their life cycle in, or near, water.

Because of Australia’s geographic isolation, many of its aquatic species are endemic and include species that have existed continuously in Australia for millions of years (such as syncarid shrimps, petalurid dragonflies, lungfish and salamander fish). Studies of Australia’s freshwater biodiversity have identified the likelihood of high levels of local endemicity, groups of species and subspecies that are difficult to separate on physical characteristics (e.g. shrimps), and some species with limited distribution (mountain stream frogs, crayfish, and some species of mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, dragonflies and damselflies). This means that there are likely to be many more aquatic species in Australia than are currently described.

Marine and coastal ecosystems

Australia’s marine and coastal environment is one of the most expansive and diverse in the world. The oceans of Australia cover 16 million square kilometres, and Australia’s 37,000 kilometre coastline is one of the world’s longest. Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone is divided into 41 provincial bioregions; the continental shelf is further divided into 60 meso-scale bioeregions(End note 6). Marine habitats within Australia’s oceans range from tropical marine to sub-Antarctic ecosystems. They include extensive coral reefs (both the largest coral reef province - the Great Barrier Reef - and the only extensive fringing reef on the west coast of a continent in the world - Ningaloo Reef), the largest areas of seagrass plains in the world, giant kelp forests, sand-bottomed habitats that cover much of the continental shelf, seamounts, and extensive mangrove forests (with more than 50 per cent of the world’s mangrove species).

Australia’s diverse marine ecosystems are home to 11 per cent of the world’s known marine species. They support over 5000 species of fish - one of the world’s most diverse fish faunas - and about 30 per cent of the world’s sharks and rays. The southern Australian coastline alone is home to one of the most diverse collections of crustaceans, sea squirts, sea mats and sea mosses in the world as well as the highest known diversity of red and brown algae - more than 1150 species.
Importance of algae in the environment

Environmental importance:
  • produces more oxygen than all the terrestrial plants in the world
  • underpins the food chain as an important source of food for many animals, ranging from shrimp to whales
  • influences global climate by absorbing large volumes of carbon dioxide.

Human uses:
  • fertiliser
  • energy source (biofuel)
  • source of nutrition (with many vitamins and minerals)
  • agent for thickening substances, such as ice-cream and toothpaste

Diversity of Australia’s seascapes - from Ningaloo to the Antarctic

Ningaloo Reef is located off the coast of Western Australia, stretching 230km from south of Coral Bay to the Exmouth Gulf. Because of its location in a transition zone between tropical and temperate waters, the Reef sustains a great variety of both tropical and temperate species and many species at the limits of their distribution. The diverse range of marine species which the Reef supports includes 300 species of coral, 500 fish species, 600 mollusc species, turtles, dugongs, and many migratory birds. Humpback whales migrate along the Reef and it is the only place in the world that whale sharks are known to visit regularly in significant numbers.

Australia’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic marine waters are also highly biodiverse, and hold a variety of unique marine species. Antarctic waters have a complex plankton-driven food chain which supports a number of species. The 350 species of phytoplankton identified in Antarctic waters supports species ranging from tiny zooplankton to whales. Other marine species which inhabit the marine Antarctic ecosystems include fish and squid species, a number of bird species, penguins, seals and sealions, and over 700 seaweeds (of which around 35 per cent are found nowhere else).

Rod Cod, Nigaloo Reef King Penguins, Heard Island
Rod Cod, Nigaloo Reef (left). King Penguins, Heard Island (right).

3. Bioregions of Australia, Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) and Interim Marine and
Coastal Regionalisation for Australia (IMCRA)

Bioregions of Australia, Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) and Interim Marine and


Biodiversity decline is the loss of variety in living systems. Decline can be measured through a number of characteristics: it can be decline in the number and range of species in a particular region, the loss of genetic diversity within populations of individual species, or more broadly, the loss and simplification of ecosystems.

Australia has experienced the largest documented decline in biodiversity of any continent over the past 200 years. Under the EPBC Act (End note 7), more than 50 species of Australian animals have been listed as extinct, including 27 mammal species, 23 bird species, and 4 frog species. The number of known extinct Australian plants is 48. Australia’s rate of species decline continues to be among the world’s highest, and is the highest in the OECD (End note 8).

The list of nationally threatened species continues to grow in Australia, with 426 animal species (including presumed extinctions) and 1,339 plant species listed as threatened under the EPBC Act (End note 9). Furthermore, there is some evidence that the rates of recovery once a species has been listed as threatened, whilst it is difficult to determine in short time periods, may be particularly low. In a study conducted on 38 threatened species recovery plans across every state and territory, evidence of ongoing decline in populations was displayed in 37 per cent of cases.

Species and ecosystems have complex and important interrelationships. Some species play important roles in the maintenance of ecosystems, and the extinction of individual species can have flow-on effects and impact significantly on the function of the broader ecosystem. The Cassowary, for example, plays an important role in the dispersal of rainforest seeds, with the rate of germination of many plant species significantly higher after Cassowary digestion of the seeds. Equally so, many ecosystems play significant roles in nurturing a variety of other species. Coral reefs and mangrove forests are both very important ecosystems in nurturing a great number of marine species. The decline of these ecosystems can affect hundreds of species that depend on them.

Cassowary Mangroves
Cassowary (left). Mangroves (right).

The importance of species in maintaining ecosystems

Species such as the bilby and the burrowing bettong (boodie) move huge amounts of soil in digging burrows and in foraging. These activities, along with their selective browsing on native shrubs, help shape the entire ecosystem through seed entrapment, plant germination and establishment, soil nutrient stores and fluxes, water infiltration and storage, soil respiration, microbial activity and litter decomposition. Unfortunately these species are now missing from most of their previous range. The ecosystems which depended on the role these species played are now also in decline (End note 10).

Bilby, Shark Bay.
Bilby, Shark Bay.

Terrestrial (land) ecosystems

Terrestrial or land ecosystems have experienced significant decline since European settlement in Australia, and many continue to be under threat. More than a third of Australia’s 85 bioregions have at least 30 per cent of their ecosystems threatened. Within extensively developed coastal areas and the Murray-Darling Basin, this figure is more than 50 per cent. Under the EPBC Act, there are currently 46 inland and inland aquatic ecological communities listed as threatened. The list of threatened ecological communities demonstrates biodiversity decline across a range of Australian landscapes, including alpine, warm and cool temperate, tropical and arid zones (End note 11).

4. Number of threatened ecological communities by bioregion as at December 2009

Number of threatened ecological communities by bioregion as at December 2009

Riparian zones, particularly the vegetation adjacent to waterways, are experiencing particular decline across Australia. Riparian systems are important in maintaining both terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity because of the role they play in regulating environmental conditions, such as water quality and flow. The condition of riparian zones is poor in more than two-thirds of Australia and is continuing to degrade in more than three quarters. Human impacts on the health of these ecosystems have been exacerbated by drought. One example of this decline is the condition of river red gums along the Murray River, Australia’s major river system. River red gums are an important species in maintaining healthy river ecosystems. Eighty per cent of remaining river red gums on the Murray River floodplain in South Australia were stressed to some degree in 2003, and 20 to 30 per cent were severely stressed.

River Red-gum, New South Wales
River Red-gum, New South Wales.

Decline in the vegetation and habitats of terrestrial ecosystems has led to declines of many species. For example, bird species have declined across Australia and significant local extinctions of populations have occurred. Twenty-nine bird species (out of 497 species recorded) showed significantly decreased reporting rates over the period 1977-1981 and 1998-2001. Another study showed that two-thirds of bird species in a 30,000 square kilometre area in northern and central Victoria have declined dramatically over the past 15 years (including species thought to be secure, such as the Red Wattlebird, Striated Pardalote, Grey Shrike-thrush and Musk Lorikeet). These declines were directly attributed to reduced food as a result of declines in native vegetation leading to low breeding success. The study indicates that improvements to the habitat quality and existing vegetation would likely increase the resilience of bird populations to other pressures (End note 12).

Inland aquatic ecosystems

Aquatic biodiversity is declining more rapidly around the world than any other major group. This is also true of Australia, with many aquatic ecosystems across the continent, including rivers, wetlands and floodplains, experiencing severe stress.

About one-third of Australia’s river length has lost between 20 and 100 per cent of the kinds of aquatic invertebrates that previously lived there. Wetlands in Australia, particularly in southern Australia, are also in decline. As shown in Table 5, almost one-third of the 851 nationally important wetlands in Australia in 2001 had threatened water regimes. Altered flow regimes have resulted in the loss of 90 per cent of floodplain wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin, 50 per cent of coastal wetlands in New South Wales and 75 per cent of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain in south-west Western Australia.

Decline in these important aquatic habitats has led to significant declines in aquatic species. Severe reductions in wetland extent in Australia, as well as the frequency of flood events, have reduced the numbers and breeding success of native water birds. Waterbird breeding grounds depend on regular flooding for their replenishment, and when the frequency of flooding decreases, so too does waterbird breeding. Overall, annual average waterbird numbers have fallen from 1.1 million in 1983 to 0.2 million in 2004. Other important aquatic species such as many macro-invertebrates, freshwater fish and amphibians have also significantly declined in numbers and distribution.

5. Number of nationally important wetlands and number with threatened water regimes as at 2001

State or Territory
Total number of sites
Number of wetlands with threatened water regimes

New South Wales
South Australia
Western Australia
Northern Territory
Australia Capital Territory
External Territories

- nil or rounded to zero (including null cells)
Source: Davies et al.2001.
Frogs as indicators of aquatic ecosystem health

Frogs are very sensitive indicators of aquatic ecosystem health. Frog populations have decreased significantly over the last 15 years, with 4 species of frog extinct (including both the southern and northern gastric-brooding frogs), 2 critically endangered, 14 endangered, and 12 listed as vulnerable. While some of this decline may be attributed to the Chytrid fungus, human impacts are likely to have exacerbated the problems frogs are experiencing.
Southern Gastric-brooding Frog
Southern Gastric-brooding Frog.

Marine and coastal ecosystems

While great advances have been made in our understanding of Australia’s marine biodiversity, particularly in inshore and coastal habitats, comparatively little is known of deep-water and remote oceanic communities, with the likelihood of substantial numbers of species awaiting discovery in those environments. It is clear, however, that biodiversity in a number of marine and coastal areas is in decline. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing significant damage from a number of factors, including agricultural runoff and rapid changes in climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the Great Barrier Reef faces ‘functional extinction’ within decades.

The decline in important marine and coastal ecosystems is having a significant effect on populations of marine species. A snapshot of preliminary findings following the 2008-09 summer counts of migratory shorebirds shows that in south east Australia 13 species of migratory shorebird appear to be declining, including the Curlew sandpiper (80% decline) and the Sharp-tailed sandpiper (25% decline). The Monitoring Yellow Sea Migrants in Australia (MYSMA) surveys also indicate a concerning level of decline; 12 of the most common shorebird species in north west Australia have shown declines, and four of these species have declined by over 50%. It is important to note that these declines cannot be attributed to any local habitat changes but rather, they reflect flyway-wide declines. Many other marine species, including scalefish species, sharks, invertebrates, all marine turtles, dugongs, some seals, dolphins and whales are also experiencing major population declines.


Human threats to biodiversity in Australia are numerous. They range from localised impacts such as clearance and fragmentation of habitats, unsustainable and destructive use of resources, and pollution, to impacts on broader scales, such as the introduction of feral species, deteriorating water levels and quality

and the consequences of a changing climate. All of these impacts result from changes to the environment and the ecosystems which support biodiversity. Taken collectively, the cumulative effect of these impacts is a major threat to Australia's biodiversity.

6. Number of EPBC Act listed taxa by bioregion as at December 2009

Number of EPBC Act listed taxa by bioregion as at December 2009

Loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat

One of the most significant factors in determining the health of ecosystems is the extent and quality of native vegetation. The locations where species are declared to be threatened correlates closely with areas where native vegetation has been extensively cleared and in regions where intensive development has occurred (Figure 7). As urban areas expand, development continues to encroach on ecosystems surrounding cities and biodiversity of these areas is increasingly being degraded or lost.

Vegetation clearance has both immediate and longer-term impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems. A Queensland-based review estimated that clearing of 1 square kilometre of woodland results in the deaths of about 3000 individual birds, 20,000 reptiles and 45,000 trees (End Note 13).

It is not just the direct loss of vegetation that has impacts on species. Fragmentation of ecosystems, where species lose the ability to move between remaining areas of habitat, has longer-term impacts on the survival of many species. Isolation of individuals or groups in a population leads, over time, to a reduction in the genetic diversity of the entire population and possibly local, or complete, extinction of species.

Since European settlement, about 13 per cent of Australia’s vegetation has been cleared. This includes 34 per cent of rainforest, 30 per cent of mallee, 60 per cent of coastal wetlands in southern Australia, 31 per cent of Eucalyptus open forest, 99 per cent of temperate lowland grasslands and 34 per cent of Eucalyptus woodlands. In the marine environment, similar loss of habitat is occurring, with important breeding areas such as mangrove forests declining across Australia’s coastline. Whilst broad-scale clearing has been reducing in Australia since 2002, native vegetation is still being cleared faster than it is being replaced. A net loss of around 260,000 hectares of forest per year occurred between 2000 and 2004, mainly from clearing for agriculture and urban development.

7. Percentage of estimated pre-1750 native vegetation remaining by IBRA bioregion

Percentage of estimated pre-1750 native vegetation remaining by IBRA bioregion

Invasive species

Invasive species are a major factor contributing to the loss of biodiversity in Australia. The negative effects of invasives do not just involve direct loss of species from predation, competition with native species and grazing impacts. They also impact upon land degradation, soil erosion and changing habitats and landscapes. For example, a number of introduced mammals such as cattle, sheep, buffalo, pigs, horses, camels and goats cause extensive damage to vegetation, soils and water bodies through grazing and trampling.

Invasive species comprise around 6 per cent of Australia’s terrestrial mammal species, and there are more than 2500 species of introduced plants established in the wild. In the marine environment, Australia has over 250 introduced species. Furthermore, it is estimated that approximately 20 new pests or diseases reach Australia each year.

The cost in monetary terms of introduced species on Australia’s landscape is significant. The cost of weeds to Australian agriculture alone is estimated to exceed $4 billion a year. This does not take into account costs associated with enviromental, health or social impacts, which are often difficult to value. In Kakadu National Park, $500,000 a year is spent trying to eradicate just one woody weed species (Mimosa pigra). In 1999, more than $2 million was spent over just one month to eradicate the black striped mussel from the waters around Darwin.

 Mimosa Pigra, Daly River
Mimosa Pigra, Daly River.

Invasion of the Yellow Crazy Ant on Christmas Island

The endemic red land crabs (Geocarcoidea natalis) of Christmas Island are an important species in influencing the unique structural characteristics and species composition of the island’s vegetation. The invasion of yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) on the island has led to the reduction in numbers of the red crabs, and this has resulted in changes to the rates of seedling recruitment of rainforest trees and litter breakdown. This in turn has changed patterns of nutrient availability and has led to a rapid shift in forest structure and composition in the rainforest ecosystem. This has flow-on effects on other species that rely on the rainforest ecosystems of the island. For example, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle bat has declined severely since the late 1980s and is now presumed extinct (End note 14).

Unsustainable use of natural resources

Use of resources is unsustainable if the rate of use of a resource exceeds natural replacement, or the conditions for replacement, e.g. soil health, are not maintained. Unsustainable use of natural resources, for example through over-fishing and over-intensive agricultural activity, is a significant contributor to biodiversity decline.

The number of fish stocks that are over-fished or are experiencing overfishing has been fluctuating over the past decade in Australia. In 2008, 18 per cent of stocks were overfished or experiencing overfishing and the status of 42 per cent of stocks was uncertain.

8. Biological fish stock status classifications by year, 1992-2008
Biological fish stock status classifications by year, 1992-2008

Significant impacts have also been caused by unsustainable farming practices. Over-intensive agriculture has led to severe land degradation across the continent, such as salinity, erosion and nutrient loss, through the removal of deep-rooted trees, over-irrigation of land and the over-grazing of stock. In 2002, it was estimated that salinity impacted almost 2 million hectares of land on 20,000 farms across Australia. Salinity has affected hundreds of species and is threatening many terrestrial and aquatic populations. In the Western Australian wheat belt, more than 450 endemic plants and 200 species of aquatic invertebrates are at risk of extinction from salinity.


Pollution, such as pesticides, nutrients and increased sediments can have serious effects on species and ecosystems. Pollutants poison plants and animals directly, as well as having broader impacts on ecosystems and the ability for species to survive in ecosystems. Toxins can stay in the environment for very long times (decades and longer), and can bioaccumulate in species, i.e. substances can accumulate in species and can have flow-on effects through the food-chain.

Contamination of marine and coastal areas is an especially significant issue in Australia. Nutrients, chemicals and sediments from agricultural and industrial activities can flow into coastal areas as runoff and have significant effects on marine and coastal biodiversity. The biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef is an example of the effect pollution from agricultural runoff can have on marine environments. Hard coral diversity is decreasing as a result of increased macroalgae growth and filter feeding organisms taking advantage of increased nutrients and sediment, and nutrients inhibiting coral fertilisation rates.

Changing fire regimes

Fire plays an important role in the management of Australia’s landscapes. Many Australian species have adapted to fires and some ecological processes rely on fire to maintain their function. For instance, many plant species such as eucalypts and banksias are adapted to allow fast regeneration after fire, whilst others, such as grass trees (Xanthorrhoea species) and some orchids require fire in order to flower.

Tate's Grass trees re–growing after fire Indigenous woman burning, Walalkala Indigenous Protected Area
Tate's Grass trees re–growing after fire (left). Indigenous woman burning, Walalkala Indigenous Protected Area (right).

Fire regimes have changed significantly in Australia since European settlement. This has been a result of a number of factors, including a loss of Indigenous fire regimes, increased settlement, changes in vegetation and changes in climate. For example, larger, hotter and more frequent fires in parts of northern Australia have been detrimental to many small mammals, birds and sensitive plant species. Moreover, they can change the species composition of habitats by facilitating the introduction of more competitive weed species. In contrast, the Wet Tropics now has fewer fires as a result of increased grazing, which has resulted in shrubs and trees replacing grasslands and rainforests encroaching upon wet sclerophyll forests. The result is that landscapes are significantly changing and species which once inhabited some areas are being displaced.

Changing climatic conditions

Climate change has emerged as one of the most significant threats to biodiversity in Australia. Severe impacts are expected for ecological communities across Australia including many important and iconic Australian landscapes, such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian Alps, many major river systems, and rangelands. The interaction of climate change with other threats is also important, as impacts reduce the resilience of species and their abilities to adapt to a changing climate.

It is predicted that the impacts of climate change will be felt on a number of levels. There will be direct impacts on the ability of species to survive through increased temperatures, changed rainfall patterns, increased evaporation, and increased ocean temperatures. Furthermore, climate change will impact biodiversity through the increased frequency and intensity of fires, altered distributional ranges for invasive species, changes in disease distributions and processes, changes in vegetation, and inundation of habitats by rising sea levels.

Some climate change impacts are already being experienced. There is evidence that the distributions, life cycles and genetic makeup of many species are already being affected by climate change. Several bird species are now migrating to higher altitudes or higher latitudes, the large skink, Tiliqua rugosa is mating earlier and pairing for longer, and some fruit flies have experienced shifts in genetic composition. The Biodiversity Vulnerability Assessment (2009) stated that:

“Even under the most modest climate change scenario, the potential impacts on biodiversity will increase through most of this century. Formation of novel ecosystems, abrupt changes in ecosystem structure and functioning, and surprising, counterintuitive outcomes will become more common. If the current trajectories continue, though, we are headed for even more significant changes - a mass extinction event equivalent to those of the distant past, in fact, the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history.” (Steffen et al., 2009).

There are, however, many opportunities that a biodiverse landscape presents for mitigating climate change. Whilst it is well-known that forests sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, there is growing evidence that other ecosystems such as wetlands also store significant amounts of carbon. There are many other biological processes that can contribute to reducing the effects of climate change. For instance, the maintenance of coastal vegetation and wetlands provides protection from the effects of sea-level rise and increased storm events.


Biodiversity decline is a product of historical and current decisions and actions. Many of the impacts that are seen today are the product of decisions taken in the past when the critical significance of biodiversity was not fully understood. Over the past 30 to 40 years, the Australian community has increasingly come to recognise the importance of biodiversity and the impacts of past decisions and current activity on the environment. Increased concern for the environment was marked by a number of environmental campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the campaign against the Gordon-below-Franklin dam in Tasmania. The proportion of Australians concerned about the environment has steadily risen since that time, with 82 per cent of Australians now concerned about the state of the environment.

The conservation of Australia’s biodiversity is a shared responsibility across all parts of the community. It involves the protection of Australia’s valuable natural assets, ensuring that these assets do not decline in the future, and also encompasses the restoration of assets and services that have undergone past decline. Many groups are involved in the protection of Australia’s biodiversity, including governments at all levels, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups and individuals. A range of activities are undertaken in order to protect, conserve and restore biodiversity, including establishing and managing reserves, investing in on-ground action, regulating development, and using market-based approaches to create incentives to protect biodiversity.

Australia’s network of reserves conserves examples of our natural landscapes and native plants and animals. The network includes marine and terrestrial reserves managed by governments, including natural World Heritage areas (such as the Gondwanan Rainforests of eastern Australia and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park); Indigenous-owned land or sea managed for conservation; and ecosystems protected on private land.

9. Increase in Area of Terrestrial Protected Areas in Australia, 1968-2008
Graph: Increase in Area of Terrestrial Protected Areas in Australia, 1968–2008

10. Increase in area of Commonwealth marine protected areas, 1980-2009
Graph: Increase in area of Commonwealth marine protected areas, 1980–2009

Since 2000, the formal reserve area has increased from approximately 62 million hectares to approximately 89 million hectares, or over 11 per cent of Australia’s land area (Figure 9). Similarly, the area of marine protected areas has increased significantly in the past ten years (Figure 10).

Governments, community groups, businesses and individuals are involved in a range of on-ground action to protect and restore Australia's biodiversity. Revegetation programs, weed control and feral animal control initiatives are just a few examples of the work being undertaken. The number of environmental volunteer groups registered across Australia now exceeds 470. Whether through community groups, private organisations or government-supported programs, these initiatives provide an opportunity for everyone in the community to become directly involved in conserving Australia's biodiversity.

Regulation of environmental impacts also plays a part in the protection of biodiversity. The Commonwealth Government legislates to protect specific defined matters of national environmental significance, while local and state and territory governments regulate environment protection more broadly. Collectively, governments regulate actions such as land clearing, urban and industrial development, resource use and the import and export of species to ensure that these activities do not have unacceptable environmental impacts.

Market-based mechanisms have become more prominent in their use to conserve biodiversity in Australia. Market mechanisms seek to create a market that values the environment as an important resource, and create an enduring culture of conservation on private lands, for example through the provision of financial incentives to landholders for the protection of natural areas or through the requirement to offset the environmental impact of development. There is a growing number of government and privately run market-based schemes across Australia.

Case study 1: Indigenous connections to country and conservation initiatives

For Indigenous Australians, biodiversity is inextricably linked to their identity, culture and traditions. The Anindilyakwa, the traditional owners of the Groote Eylandt archipelago on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, encapsulate this relationship to country and all living things:

“Our land and sea country is everything to us. It nourishes and sustains us. It contains the story of our history that stretches back forever. It teaches us our law and it celebrates our ancestors. It connects today’s people to the past and holds the sites and signs that guide the men and women of our clans.”

Indigenous people’s continued presence and ties to their traditional estates has helped maintain the health of our country. These are the people who have protected and managed many of the continent’s environmental assets and our biodiversity since time immemorial.

In the Northern Territory lies the important Arnhem Coast bioregion, which is entirely Aboriginal land which includes three Indigenous Protected Areas - Anindilyakwa, Dhimurru and Laynhupuy. An Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) is an area of Indigenous-owned land or sea where traditional owners have entered into an agreement with the Australian Government to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation.

This bioregion is a unique and diverse environment with coastal islands, savanna, woodland, rainforests, wetlands, mangroves, rocky escarpments and monsoon vine forests. Compared with the recent loss of wildlife in most areas of Australia, the wildlife of north-eastern Arnhem Land generally is notable for its apparent intactness.

Along the coastal area, there are long stretches of beach, rich reef systems and some of the best sandsheet and sand-dune formations in northern Australia. The coastline provides feeding habitat and nesting sites for several threatened species of marine turtle, supports breeding seabird colonies and distinctive plants and rare animal species such as the Gove crow butterfly. Recently, two northern hopping mice were found on Groote Eylandt. This species was last sighted on mainland Australia in 1975.

The flora of the area represents a rich and diverse natural resource and species have many potential uses. Plants play an important role in ceremonial and ritual aspects for the Indigenous people of this region. Plant names and uses were bestowed by ancestral creation figures. Some species are the source of food, some of medicines and some of material for the manufacture of tools.

A number of species also function as “bio-indicators”. For example, flowering signals the availability of desirable seasonal resources such as Djinydjalma (mud crabs) or Guku (sugarbag, wild honey).

The lack of development and broad-scale habitat modification in the area has preserved many of the environmental and cultural values. However, climate change and the spreading of weeds and feral animals presents challenges for environmental conservation.

Along the Arnhem Coast bioregion, Working on Country rangers from Anindilyakwa, Dhimurru and Laynhapuy apply current resource management techniques and traditional knowledge to look after their country and conserve and protect biodiversity.

The elders have passed on their traditional ecological knowledge to the rangers as it is a cultural obligation for all Indigenous people to care for country. In doing so, they are not only looking after our environment for future generations, they are keeping culture strong and building a more resilient environmental community.

Case study 2: Market-based mechanisms: Tasmanian Forest Conservation Fund and Environmental Stewardship Programs

Around 11 per cent of Australia, predominantly on public land, is presently protected through the National Reserve System, including Commonwealth, state and territory reserves and Indigenous Protected Areas. In addition, a number of programs exist throughout Australia to manage the environment and conserve threatened species and ecological communities on public and private lands. Despite considerable government and community efforts many important ecological communities, native habitats and species on private lands remain at risk.

Around 77 per cent of the Australian land surface is managed privately. To achieve significant land-based environmental outcomes such as biodiversity conservation the Australian Government needs the ongoing involvement of private land managers.

The use of market based instruments (MBIs) as a mechanism to deliver incentives to land managers is increasing in Australia. MBIs seek to create a market that values the environment as an important resource, and create an enduring culture of conservation on private lands.

The Australian Government has run a number of programs that use MBIs to deliver funds more strategically and cost-effectively. This case study will examine two of these programs - The Tasmanian Forest Conservation Fund, and Caring for our Country’s Environmental Stewardship. These programs were designed to complement existing policy approaches including grant programs and legislation by providing incentives to private land managers to undertake activities on their own land, in a time frame where restoration and protection of targeted environmental assets is achievable.

The Tasmanian Forest Conservation Fund Program

The Forest Conservation Fund (FCF) was established under the 2005 Tasmanian Supplementary Regional Forest Agreement, as an innovative, market based initiative, designed to encourage private landowners to protect old-growth and other high conservation value forests, through conservation covenants or assisted purchase. The Program ended in June 2009.

The FCF was a voluntary program aimed at increasing the private land component of the Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative Reserve System with the objective of protecting up to 45,600 hectares of high conservation value forests.

The FCF used a number of market-based mechanisms to engage landowners, including a competitive tender process, establishment of a revolving fund for conservation purchases and negotiated or fixed price offers. All participating landowners were required to provide protection of forested land through appropriate covenanting arrangements.

The competitive tender process required a fit-for-purpose metric, the Conservation Value Index (CVI), to assess the relative conservation benefits of individual proposals. The CVI assessed the following three elements of each proposal submitted by:
  • the ecological significance of the proposal’s contribution to the Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative (CAR) reserve system;
  • the service the proposal provides to conservation, as well as current conditions of the vegetation and risks, and
  • the security of the proposal measured as the duration of an on-title covenant over the proposal area.

The FCF Program secured some 140 conservation covenants (mostly perpetual), over 27,000 hectares with approximately 10,700 hectares of this forest considered to be old-growth.

Assisted land purchases added to the overall result with seven properties totalling 438 hectares purchased through the Mole Creek Forest Karst Program and another 918 hectares secured, to-date, through the Revolving Fund.

Caring for our Country - Environmental Stewardship

Environmental Stewardship is an element of the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country initiative that uses market approaches to maintain and improve the condition and extent of high value environmental assets listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as matters of National Environmental Significance.

Environmental Stewardship uses a voluntary tender process to provide competitive funding for private landholders to carry out specific conservation activities on their land for up to 15 years. This contract period provides a timeframe sufficient to improve vegetation condition or extent and will allow long-term monitoring of vegetation change and changes in landowner attitudes and values. The program uses a conservation index to order bids based on their value-for-money.

The first asset targeted under Environmental Stewardship is the critically endangered White Box, Yellow Box and Blakely’s Red Gum and derived grasslands that forms the Box Gum Grassy Woodland ecological community. This nationally endangered community extends from southern Queensland through the NSW wheat-sheep belt and into northern Victoria. The Woodland has been reduced to less than five per cent of its original extent. It occurs as remnants of varying quality and size on private agricultural land, where, without active management, it is still at risk.

Participation in the Stewardship program is voluntary and in the first 18 months of operation over 992 private landowners have expressed an interest, over 210 have submitted tender bids and by October 2009 the Program had contracted 130 land managers to improve the condition and extent of over 11,000 hectares of box gum woodland on their land.

Environmental Stewardship’s focus is on creating markets for purchasing long-term conservation improvements on private land and fills a gap in the policy tools available to government. Over time this approach will influence the values and behaviours of private land managers. The Environmental Stewardship approach is designed to complement existing approaches to conservation such as regulation, short-term grant programs, setting aside land in protected areas such as national parks and reserves, and capacity-building education activities.


Despite the decline that has occurred in Australia’s biodiversity, the continent still holds one of the most rich and diverse collections of flora and fauna in the world. It has an extraordinary array of fishes and reptiles, a significant percentage of the world’s birds and mammals, a large proportion of invertebrate species, many of the world’s plant species and a large proportion of the world’s fungi species. Australia’s marine ecosystems hold one of the most diverse arrays of species in the world, and are relatively healthy compared to marine ecosystems in other parts of the world. The inland aquatic environment has a huge diversity of unique species and Australia’s terrestrial ecosystems still hold one of the most unique and rich arrays of species of anywhere in the world.

Australians enjoy the many benefits of a biodiverse natural environment. Whether it be through tourism and recreation activities (such as visiting a national park, bushwalking, recreational fishing, and snorkelling), through the environmental resources and services which biodiversity provides (such as food, medicine, timber and water purification), or through a healthier surrounding environment (such as the bushland surrounding homes and the parklands in our cities), biodiversity is important to many Australians. These important resources and services that biodiversity brings to Australians makes it an asset worthy of our respect and protection.

The Australian community has become very aware of the importance of biodiversity and the implications of a declining environment. Despite action over many years from governments and the wider community, biodiversity continues to decline in Australia. Maintaining Australia’s remarkably biodiverse environment will continue to be a significant challenge for governments and the community.


1. For further information on ecosystem goods and services see: http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/Global.aspx

2. For further information on National Biodiversity Hotspots see: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/hotspots/national-hotspots.html)

3. For further information on Australia’s species see: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/abrs/index.html

4. A vascular plant is a plant with specialised tissues for conducting water and nutrients (xylem and phloem). They include ferns, conifers, cycads and flowering plants.

5. For further information on Australia’s bioregions see: http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/nrs/science/ibra.html

6. For further information on Australia’s marine bioregions see: http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/imcra/index.html

7: Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - the Commonwealth Government’s key piece of environmental legislation. For further information on the EPBC Act see: http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/index.html

8. OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) - a group of 30 western democratic nations.

9. For further information on nationally threatened species see: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/index.html

10. For further information see: Noble, J., Muller, W., Detling, J., Pfitzner, G. 2007. Landscape ecology of the burrowing bettong: Warren distribution and patch dynamics in semiarid eastern Australia. Austral Ecology, Volume 32, Number 3, pp. 326-337.

11. For further information on threatened ecological communities see: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/index.html

12. For further information see: Mac Nally, R., Bennett, A., Thomson, J., Radford, J., Unmack, G., Horrocks, G., Vesk, P. 2009. Collapse of an avifauna: climate change appears to exacerbate habitat loss and degradation, Diversity and Distributions, 1-11, Blackwell Publishing.

13. For further information see: Cogger, Hal. & World Wide Fund for Nature Australia 2003. Impacts of land clearing on Australian wildlife in Queensland, World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, Sydney.

14. For further information see: http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/publications/christmas/flying-foxes-brochure.html


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