Biodiversity action plan | a good place to start

Biodiversity action plan describes activities designed to restore and protect biological assets, especially species that are threatened and habitats that are degraded or disturbed.  And they are an important response to biodiversity loss.

It was the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio de Janeiro that achieved over 190 country signatories and created a global awareness of biodiversity loss and the need for active intervention to reverse this trend. 

At the time this environmental issue gained more attention than climate change that also surfaced as a major environmental issue in Rio. 

Whilst the international community has paid some attention to climate change issues in the last 20 years inventing and then backing off from significant market mechanism solutions, biodiversity has been left to individual jurisdictions and the considerable efforts of non-government organisations [NGO’s].   

The usual approach for governments at all levels is to 

  • catalogue the biological assets of an area [country, region or district], 
  • understand the status and threats to those assets [the conservation status], 
  • establish targets for restoration or protection of the most vulnerable of the assets, and then 
  • ensure there is budget and organisation to achieve the targets
  • write a plan and/or legislation to achieve the targets.

Whilst threatened species might be covered by broader legislation most threats to biodiversity and restoration effort are covered by regional land use plans or local environment plans.

This is not a bad thing. Biodiversity is naturally patchy and it makes sense to tackle management at more local scales. It does mean that knowledge and expertise is needed locally to design successful plans.

Typically there are two types of biodiversity action plan: a species plan and a habitat plan. 

Species plans

A species plan identifies key threatened species [usually large, iconic animals with fur or feathers] and then designs a plan for their protection or recovery. This is a natural response to loss, especially for the charismatic species that we notice.

Species plans work well for us because our frame of reference is for big things. 

Whilst there are elephants, rhinos, giraffes and the like that make us feel small, human beings are large organisms and we relate best to things that are near to us in size, shape and activity — think teddy bears.

Except large organisms make up only a tiny fraction of biodiversity. Most of the variety of organismal life is small.

in the late 1990's I developed an undergraduate course that covered many of the biodiversity conservation issues — this logo was designed by Professor Andy Beattie and is drawn to scale based on the number of described Australian species for each group of organisms

Microbes are by far the most diverse taxa and there are several thousand invertebrate species for every mammal species. Most biodiversity is too small for most of us to notice — only those nerdy enough to stare down microscopes for a living really get to see just how much variety there is in the small stuff.

Clearly it is not practical to have a plan for each of these small creatures. Not least because we know so little about them. 

Threatened species plans for large bodies species have had some success [Andean condors, white rhino] but the horse has bolted by the time they kick in.

So most of them fail because the processes that maintain the focal species have already been severely compromised and the only hope is to set up the equivalent of the intensive care unit. 

Another problem is that iconic species are poor indicators of overall biodiversity. Unfortunately there is only patchy evidence for the idea that the protection of iconic species works to protect everything else.

Habitat plans

The common alternative to species plans is to work out ways to protect and restore habitats. It is much easier to cover all the components of biodiversity this way and it is often easier to work on where organisms live than ion the organisms themselves. 

When protection is the tactic the organisms of concern are usually already present. It’s then just a matter of reducing the pressures and stopping the drivers that out them under threat. Reserves, parks and protected areas are a relatively easy way to do this.

When restoration of habitat is required, usually through combinations weeding, planting, water management and pest control, the assumption is that by returning the habitat to near its original state the key species will return.

And this assumption holds surprisingly often.

However, the restored habitat is never quite the same as the original.

Biodiversity action plan | Getting the best of both approaches

The common definition of biodiversity as “the variety of life on earth” is catchy and tries to cover all the bases. But it has allowed the focus to fall on the components [the number and combination of species, populations and genes] rather than what the components do.

The Convention on Biological Diversity now recognizes that when it comes to planning for biodiversity… 

“it is essential to take an holistic view of biodiversity and address the interactions that species have with each other and their non-living environment, i.e. to work from an ecological perspective”.

One way for biodiversity action plans to achieve this broader view is to think of the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides rather than focus just on species or habitats. This means conservation planers must also understand how assemblages of organisms are put together and are maintained so as to deliver functions. 

The latest biodiversity action plans that try to achieve protection and restoration of species, habits and function tend to consider

  • more than one scale 
  • ways to keep and maintain representatives of as many different habitat types as possible
  • not just the big organisms but enough of the compliment of species to maintain function


Biodiversity is everywhere and it does important things everywhere.

Without the intervention of organisms we would be drowning in dead plant material [organisms drive decomposition], have no water to drink [organisms filter, clean and help the steady release of our freshwater], and not much to eat [organisms are food].

It is staggering that, except for a handful of specialists, most of us know so little about these issues and seem unconcerned about biodiversity loss.

It is time that that changed. 

It is all very well to work hard at protecting our lifestyles and to figure out the best ways to maintain economic growth but our wellbeing relies a great deal on the biological diversity all around us. And biodiversity action plans are a good start.

This is pragmatology talking here, not greenies or those with a preponderance for hemp. 

We ignore it at our peril.

› biodiversity action plan

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Confused Confucius spurned the monastic life for the world of work, moral conundrums and mobile devices. His sayings, questions and incongruous idioms on the environment and modern life bring delight and bafflement in equal measure...  check out more Confused Confucius sayings.

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