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The Link Between Education and Biodiversity

The BBC TV series, Planet Earth, explores the plight of diverse endangered species around the globe.

From the Amazon river dolphins and Ethiopia’s Walia ibex, to the much-loved polar bear and assorted amphibians of Central America – one thing consistently endangers these and other species, not to mention the habitats these creatures call home.

What is the uniting threat?

Alas, it is human beings and the way we choose to behave in relationship with (or some world argue, disconnection from) the natural world.

When communicating the threats to and impacts of biodiversity loss (the extinction of life-forms on Earth, whether plant or animal or microbial), environmental educators often apply simple tools to help people understand and remember key information.

A case in point is the HIPPO acronym.

There is general agreement amongst conservation biologists and ecologists as to the causes of ecosystem and species extinctions. According to Professor E.O. Wilson (cited in Planet Earth: The Future (what the experts say) 2006, p.44), the threats to biodiversity can be summarised as follows through the H-I-P-P-O acronym:

“H” stands for Habitat destruction. Humans have become adept at this. From clear-felling forests to draining swampland, in the pursuit of economic development, habitat loss has been (and continues to be) the number one decimator of the natural world. With the foreshadowed impacts of climate change, the prospect for habitats world-wide looks grim, well into the twenty-first century.

“I” is for Invasive species. Across the world, species of plants and animals from one area have been introduced into fragile environments that suffer from the predation and competition created by ‘alien’ invaders. Some of these – from assorted weeds to birds and reptiles – are prized by humans.

Invasive species of the Rhododenron flower in the Blue Mountains is a case in point. An introduced species to the area, the plant is oddly celebrated through the annual Rhododendron Festival held in the village of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains (a celebration that occurs despite the fact that the plant has now invaded areas of World Heritage National Park). All around the world, invasive species (plants and animals alike) are spreading at rapid rates that out-compete and destroy native species.

According to Wilson (2006), invasive species also include disease organisms. “These are simply invasive species coming from different parts of the world, where they evolve or have been in place for a long time and sweep around and assault not only the human species, but also a lot of the natural species” (p.44).

“P” stands for Pollution. A striking example of this is the pollution of rivers in China where some 80 per cent of the nation’s waterways are now “so polluted that they are unable to support any fish of any kind, and that indicates a probably horrendous amount of extinction of species in the river systems of China” (Ibid).

The second “P” is for Population (or more specifically, over-population). This is a root cause of biodiversity loss, not least because it coincides with increasing levels of consumption. Together, these apply direct and unsustainable pressures on the natural ecosystems from which countless materials are sourced.

And finally, “O” is for Over-exploitation. Whether it’s through hunting or fishing, the excessive draining of natural resources is a key driver for species extinction.

There is now increasing awareness within the scientific community and beyond that climate change will pose increasing pressures on biodiversity throughout the world. Exacerbating the impacts of the human activities captured by the HIPPO acronym, we perhaps need to revise the tool and add a “C” into the mix. Maybe we’ll start referring to CHIPPO instead (letting the humble hippopotamus reclaim its name without association to mass carnage!).

Either way, one thing is certain. Identifying the threats to biodiversity is more straightforward than resolving the challenges that lay ahead.

But solutions exist – if the human will for change shines through the apparent darkness…and if we honour the simple fact that our own health and well-being is inextricably linked to all life on planet Earth.

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