Saving biodiversity hotpots, those places on Earth with an abundance of life, are at the forefront of conservation efforts today. We now understand that Earth’s ability to provide the clean air and water and moderate temperatures humans need to survive is dependent upon its entire web of life working in harmony which is the reason why the importance of biodiversity hotspots grows with every new claim of the natural environment.
Each species plays an important role within the larger web of life. Agricultural expansion, industrial operations, urban sprawl due to an exploding population, global warming, and pollution – all of these factors are fragmenting or eradicating natural habitats and pushing an unprecedented number of plants, animals, insects, reptiles and microorganisms toward extinction.
We are so interrelated that these life systems underpin vital ecological processes. We have already lost vast areas of natural life and we are becoming worried for very good reason. Accordingly, all eyes are turned to saving what is left, prioritizing those areas with the heaviest or the most unique concentration of life, the biodiversity hotspots.
What are biodiversity hotspots?
As the term is used in the scientific community, a “biodiversity hotspot” is a place that is rich in plant and animal life which is in imminent danger of being lost .
Naturally, animal and plant life go hand-in-hand. The United Nations Council for Biological Diversity and the several partnerships and organizations working to preserve and restore biodiversity hotspots share databases and hence are in agreement on where these areas are.
Conservation International presently identifies 36 areas as hotspots, which will be listed below.
To get an overview understanding, think of a tropical jungle. Colorful birds calling for a mate, long slithering snakes, vibrant frogs and showy butterflies, wildly different trees laden with air plants, exotic fragrant flowers, fluorescent caterpillars, strange animals and plants not found anywhere else in the world.
Or think of an African savannah with its many wild herds of zebras, wildebeests, hyenas, cheetahs and elephants grazing on the tall grasses and feeding on tree leaves or preying on smaller or slower animals. Both of these biomes are abundant with biodiversity.
Earth also has large expanses of land with relatively low biodiversity. For example, the Arctic is mostly frozen tundra, with some hardy lichen and the relatively few animals that can survive the extreme cold.
Due to the complex interactions among life in the more secluded biomes undisturbed by human activity, some of these species have evolved with amazing variations over millions and millions of years. Their rituals and behaviorisms cannot be replicated. One day of timbering can eradicate thirty million years of evolution.
Let there be no mistake. We are in imminent danger of losing a significant portion of life on our planet. Overall, biodiversity hotspots have lost around 86 percent of their original habitat already. And once a large percentage of an ecosystem is extinguished, it is no longer resilient. The rest of its life falls like dominoes.
Why are biodiversity hotspots important?
Biodiversity is necessary for robust ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems perform processes necessary to sustain human life on Earth.
- Plants supply the clean air we need to breathe.
- Trees and the ocean regulate climate through absorbing carbon.
- Healthy ecosystems provide the water we need through plant respiration.
- Animal life and decaying plant life fertilize the soil and keep it healthy so that it cannot only filter water that falls back to the earth in the form of rain, but also so that it can nourish the microorganisms in the soil and support new growth.
Generally speaking, the term “biodiversity” refers to the variety of life from genes to ecosystems. But zooming in on an ecosystem we can see how it encompasses so much more than that.
The species within an ecosystem have learned to live in that region. Over many years, they have adapted to the microclimate and the other species there. In biomes undisturbed by humans, these adaptations have evolved over millions of years and can be quite complex.
For example, a frog may have a poisonous skin to repel certain predators to keep the natural balance in check so that there are enough frogs to eat certain insects. And yet there may be a snake immune to the frog’s poison in order to keep the frog population in check, so the frogs do not eat all of the insects, thus depriving a vital pollinator of its diet.
Should the pollinators become extinct, the flowers they help spread may be those of a fruit tree crucial to a small mammal living there. Perhaps the small mammal played a critical role in aerating the soil, fertilizing it and thus, keeping a certain microorganism in check.
If the microorganism is allowed to flourish beyond its natural population numbers, it may crowd out other plant species necessary for the survival of other mammals or birds. If it is a fungus for example, it may kill many of the biome’s trees, with the consequence of the entire area becoming subject to erosion, loss of soil and habitat. This in turn may also reduce the plants able to survive there.
If a significant portion of the plant life is eradicated, lessening the gene pool, the remaining plant life will likely become weakened, vulnerable to disease and eventually die as well. Simply put, if the variety in this web of life loses a player, the biome cannot simply be recreated.
The processes that have created their interactions may be millions of years old and planting what appears to be a similar plant or adding in another species of frog will not restore the balance nature has taken millions of years to perfect.
Each species is interdependent upon the services of the other. We need the genetic diversity of different plants in order to keep the plant kingdom healthy. We are learning that felling a forest of trees and replanting it with a monoculture of trees does not regenerate the soil life or support a community capable of resisting stresses like disease.
Plants provide food, fruit and seeds for pollination and continued life, medicines and fiber for clothing and shelter.
We need intact ecosystems to absorb excess carbon to keep the temperatures suitable for human life, in fact suitable for much of the life that currently exists. We need intact ecosystems to provide fresh air. We need intact ecosystems to filter water and release it to the air where it can fall back down and replenish our water supplies. And we need the healthy soil of intact ecosystems to grow our food.
It is becoming abundantly clear that industrial agriculture methods are polluting the earth to the point where the soil will not be able to grow the nutritious food we need for the world’s burgeoning population. Each species plays an important role within the larger web of life.
We are rapidly losing keystone species. The earth is warming, and we are losing species that help regulate it from further warming. This is just a snapshot of the web of life. These webs are disappearing.
In short, we are fast approaching a point where there will not be enough diversity of life to maintain the processes necessary for humans to exist.
Examples of biodiversity hotspots
The biggest South America’s biodiversity hotspot
South America has five biological hotspots.
Topping the list is the Andes Mountains Tropical Hotspot, the world’s most biologically diverse area.
The mountain range extends from Venezuela, through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and the norther tropical portion within Argentina and Chile.
About one-sixth of all plant species in the world live in this region . It is also home to the largest variety of amphibian, bird and mammal species and is second only to the Mesoamerica Hotspot in reptile diversity.
The Tropical Andes covers a range of diverse landscapes including snow-capped mountains, tropical rainforests, cloud forests, lush canyons with magnificent waterfalls cascading into deep ravines, grassland valleys and woodland forests.
Too, the Andes are the source of the mighty Amazon and Orinoco rivers which provide water for much of South America.
The area is also rich in human cultural diversity as it is home to 40 indigenous groups.
But the region is now only 25 percent of its original size and shrinking fast, facing serious threats from urban sprawl, mining, pollution, commercial fisheries, logging and agriculture .
West Africa Hotspot
The tropical and humid Guinean Forests of West Africa Hotspot extends across the southern part of West Africa and into central Africa north of the Congo Wilderness Area.
Approximately 9,000 species of vascular plants grow in the hotspot, including 1,800 species unique to the area. The hotspot is also home to 416 mammal species, nearly a quarter of the mammals native to continental Africa.
It is home to 917 bird species, 107 reptile species and 269 amphibian species. These include five Critically Endangered Species and 21 Endangered species, including the Pygmy hippopotamus, the Liberian mongoose, two of the world’s rarest antelopes and the Diana monkey .
Information on the number of butterflies is incomplete, but it is known that 141 of the species identified within the region are on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species .
Likewise, the tally of amphibians in the hotspot is incomplete. There are 269 species counted, of which 80 percent are believed to be endemic and one-third of all of them threatened.
Across the hotspot threats include:
- wildlife trade
- oil and gas extraction
- pollution from agricultural runoff
- sea level rise from climate change
- California Floristic Province, California, USA
- Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands, Southern USA
- Mesoamerica, Central America, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Northern Costa Rica
- Caribbean Islands, East of Central America
- Atlantic Forest, Partos of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay
- Cerrado, Central Brazil
- Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests, Central Northern Chile to the Western Regions of Argentina
- Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena, Pacific Coast of South America and the Galapagos Islands
- Tropical Andes, Part of the Andes Mountains in South America
- Cape Floristic Region, Southern Tip of South Africa
- Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, Eastern Coast of Africa
- Horn of Africa, Northeastern Africa
- Madagascar, Southeast Coast of Africa
- Indian Ocean Islands, Comoros, Mauritius, and Seychelles, Surrounding Madagascar
- Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany, Southeastern Coast of South Africa
- Succulent Karoo, Coastal Region of South Africa
- Guinean Forests of West Africa, Coastal Western Africa
- Mediterranean Basin, Surrounds the Mediterranean Sea
- Caucasus, Border between Europe and Asia, separating the Black and Caspian Seas
- Mountains of Central Asia, Central Asia: extends through Afghanistan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan
- Southwest Australia, Southwest tip of Australia
- Forest of East Australia, Eastern Coast of Australia
- Eastern Himalaya, Parts of China, Bhutan, India, Tibet, and Myanmar
- Indo-Burma, Parts of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, Hainan Island and Andaman Island
- Western Ghats, Indian Peninsula
- Sri Lanka, South of India
- East Melanesian Islands, Northeast of Australia
- New Caledonia, South Pacific Ocean
- New Zealand, Southwest Pacific Ocean
- Philippines, Southeast Asia
- Polynesia-Micronesia, Southern Pacific Ocean
- Sundaland, Southeastern Asia comprising the Malay Peninsula, Borneo Island, Java Island and Sumatra Island as well as their smaller surrounding islands
- Wallacea, Eastern Indonesia
- Japan, Northern Pacific Ocean
- Mountains of Southwest China, Includes Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Myanmar
- Irano-Anatolian, Parts of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Turkmenistan
The Central African Mangroves ecoregion
The West Africa hotspot has ecoregions of distinct assemblages of species, habitats and ecological processes which include 12 terrestrial and 15 freshwater ecoregions, as well as bordering four marine ecoregions.
The Central African Mangroves ecoregion is an interesting study because it illustrates the interdependence of species.
Mangroves act much like coral reefs in providing shelter for fish to lay eggs and a nursery until the marine life is ready to move out into the open sea. Many species depend on the mangroves for parts of their life cycle. Mangroves provide habitat for the soft-skinned turtle and host at least five species of Endangered and Critically Endangered marine turtles during the summer. And they provide a temporary home for large concentrations of birds during migration.
The main threat to the ecoregion is habitat loss due to agriculture, timber exploitation, urbanization and industrialization. Petroleum exploitation also threatens the mangroves, both from infrastructure development and oil spills.
Additionally, the mangroves are being choked out in several areas by the invasive species of nypa palm.
Biodiversity hotspot in the Caribbean
The Caribbean Islands Hotspot includes more than 7,000 islands, islets, reefs and cays sustaining 30 biologically and culturally diverse nations and territories. Its diverse geography and complex geology and its warm moist trade winds afford unique habitats for a multitude of species.Dispersal processes from weather events like periodic hurricanes account for the large diversity of plants life from other continents.
The Caribbean Islands have among the highest number of globally threatened species of any hotspot in the world. Only around ten percent of the original habitat remains and life that does remain is at serious risk of extinction due to population growth and changing land-use patterns.
The Hotspot still supports about 11,000 plant species, 72 percent unique to the Caribbean Islands. 96 percent of the 200 amphibian species and 82 percent of the 602 species of reptiles are endemic.
These are the two most threatened groups. 49 percent of its 104 species of mammals, mostly bats, are endemic and due to their migratory nature, only 26 percent of the 565 species of birds are endemic.
Data for marine species are incomplete, but 12,000 have been recorded and it is believed that this is a clear underestimation.
Identifying the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is an organization whose goals are aligned with achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and who also contribute to the database of information. While different governments and businesses have pledged to support biodiversity, CEPF in a partnership with governments, NGOs and the World Bank reaches out to civil society, to the indigenous peoples surrounding a hotspot that needs protected and revitalized and assists their efforts. Consistent with the data gathered globally, the CEPF has identified thirty-six hotspots.
The list is included to give the reader pause for thought.
For example, the entire island of Japan is a biological hotspot. Japan covers nearly 378,000 square kilometers and is home to about 126 million and a half people. The biodiversity restoration will necessarily involve greening of urban spaces, sustainable food production processes, stepping up the use of fossil fuel free vehicles and home energy and will look very different from more agrarian restoration efforts than in, for example, the more sparsely populated and less developed areas in the mountains of central Asia.
CEPF’s list of 36 biological hotspots
North, Central and South America
Europe and Central Asia
Those working to conserve the hotspots have come to recognize that the most effective partnerships require human investment, commitment and oversight by those who live in the hotspots.
Efforts are focused on creating surrounding communities which understand the importance of living in harmony with nature. Projects are targeted to help native citizens to create and maintain sustainable lifestyles that reflect respect for biological and cultural diversity.
Every community can use help in upping the ante, in greening its corridors and encouraging biological diversity. Get involved!