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Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics, where distinctive species often evolve in isolation from the rest of the world. The introduction of alien species along with hunting and the clearing of vegetation by humans on small, isolated islands account for around 80% of known extinctions. Wider problems such as climate change, pollution, over-exploitation, and land use change - often to make way for agriculture - are causing biodiversity to decline in other areas such as in the oceans and rainforests.

While much species loss has taken place in specific locations, it is often driven by global systems, with choices and actions taken in one place having effects far away.

One recent analysis found that approximately 60% of total global biodiversity loss for bird and mammal species has occurred in just seven countries between 1996 and 2008 – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, China, India, Australia and the USA, where the majority has occurred on the islands of Hawaii.

Due to their relative isolation, islands tend to be home to wide varieties of unique species and habitats, often making them biodiversity hotspots. The limited habitats that species have on islands, however, makes them exceptionally vulnerable. Foreign species introduced to an island either accidentally or deliberately by humans can quickly out compete or directly destroy native populations. In Hawaii and most other tropical islands, for example, foreign species such as rats, feral cats, pigs, goats and non-native plants have decimated the local flora and fauna, which have not evolved to cope with the pressure from these introduced species. 

Biodiversity loss also affects larger islands. On Madagascar, for example, deforestation, mining and climate change are causing significant habitat loss and threatening native species. Similarly, Australia lost 5-10% of its biodiversity between 1996 and 2008 while high levels of deforestation to make way for agricultural plantations have particularly affected the species rich rainforests of Indonesia.

In the past 20 years extinctions have also become common on continents. Most threatened species can be found in areas where large human populations are concentrated, such as southeast China and the Western Ghats of India. According to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report 2020, Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered notably high losses of amphibians, reptiles and fish due to a combination of threats including disease, habitat loss and over-exploitation. 

Biodiversity loss, however, is not just confined to the land. Life in the oceans is being threatened by overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution, and acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels in the sea water. Corals, for example, have undergone dramatic declines since the mid-1990s.

For more on this topic Past and future decline and extinction of species | Royal Society

Find answers to 16 key questions about biodiversity

  • Introduction

    At its simplest, biodiversity describes life on Earth – the different genes, species and ecosystems that comprise the biosphere and the varying habitats, landscapes and regions in which they exist. We've answered some of your most popular questions about biodiversity.

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  • What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is all the living things on our planet – from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. So far, we have identified around 1.6 million species but that is probably only a small fraction of the forms of life on Earth.

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  • Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have healthy ecosystems.

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  • How do we measure biodiversity?

    There is still much we do not know about the complexity of biodiversity on Earth. There are a number of ways that we measure it, with counting species the most common approach.

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  • What is the scale of biodiversity loss?

    The list of known recent extinctions is still a small fraction of all species on the planet but it is far above prehuman levels and the evidence suggests it is rising fast.

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  • We regularly hear of new species being discovered - does that not offset the loss of existing species?

    Every year thousands of previously unknown species are discovered, described and named.

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  • Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

    Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics.

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  • Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

    Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low.

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  • What is the state of biodiversity in the UK?

    The UK boasts more than 70,000 known species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

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  • How do humans affect biodiversity?

    Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental.

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  • How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the human population has grown dramatically.

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  • How does climate change affect biodiversity?

    The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear.

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  • How does deforestation affect biodiversity?

    Forests contain some of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. But between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of mainly tropical forest has been lost.

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  • What can we do to protect biodiversity?

    Loss of natural habitats has been taking place over thousands of years, but scientists are confident that we have ways to help biodiversity recover.

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  • What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?

    While large scale changes in behaviour, policies and measures will be essential, individuals have a vital part to play.

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  • Can we allow nature to regenerate without intervention?

    Biodiversity loss is a complex issue involving many overlapping processes. While nature can recover when left to do so, it requires dramatic changes in our behaviour for this to happen.

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  • How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

    The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from their raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits they provide.

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