Koalas, wombats, emus, platypus and freshwater crocodiles are well-known Australian animals, but did you know they are found nowhere else on Earth?
These iconic animals and many more are unique to this big island which has largely been isolated since separating from the supercontinent Gondwana about 40 million years ago.
The result has been high levels of ‘endemism’ – over 80% of Australia’s plant, mammal, frog and reptile species occur nowhere else.
This rate of uniqueness combined with a high number of overall species (between 600,000 – 700,000) means that Australia is not only rich in biodiversity, but it is also one of planet Earth’s megadiverse countries.
While the world’s 17 megadiverse countries only make up less than 10% of the world’s surface, they support more than 70% of all species.
These countries are dotted around the globe and include Australia, our neighbours to the north Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, China, Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As hosts of disproportionately large assortments of the world’s plant, animal and fungi life, and with so many species unique to their homelands, Earth’s 17 megadiverse nations are some of the most important guardians of nature. And Australia is no exception.
But colonial Australia has not been an effective custodian of nature.
While First Nations people have cared for Country for tens of thousands of years and continue to do so today, the last two hundred and thirty years have seen the recognised extinction of 100 endemic species - plants, fish, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals that existed only in Australia.
And the real figure is likely much higher.
Since the arrival of Europeans, unsustainable hunting, the destruction of forests, grasslands and wetlands for agriculture and urban sprawl and the devastation wrought by introduced species have proven too much for creatures like the thylacine, yallara (lesser bilby) magnificent spider orchid and paradise parrot.
These extinct species are irreplaceable. Each had its role in the ecosystem, culture and language.
Fast forward to today and there are around 2,000 plants and animals on Australia’s list of species threatened by extinction.
The destruction of nature mostly occurs in areas of rapid human population growth and in places where poorer economies can’t allocate resources to biodiversity conservation.
Australia therefore shouldn’t have too many issues - our human population density is extremely low by global standards, most of the continent is sparsely populated and Australia is a relatively affluent nation.
And yet, colonial Australia has caused the extinction of more mammals than any other country in the world. We are the only developed nation on the list of global deforestation hotspots, we now have more foreign plant species than native ones and scientists have identified nineteen Australian ecosystems - from the Murray Darling Basin to the Great Barrier Reef - that have undergone such significant negative change, they may never recover.
Australia’s nature is in trouble, and the main drivers of its destruction are:
These threats to nature are threats to our very existence.
Nature doesn’t just provide homes for animals. It isn’t just the sound of squawking cockatoos and the smell of eucalyptus - it is the forests that filter the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soils and pollinators of our food.
Healthy nature literally underpins everything - from our health, to the economy and our cultures.
When nature thrives, so do we. And we know what needs to be done to save our big backyard.
To get nature and ourselves out of trouble, we need to stop destroying it and do more to restore it.
Australia has just joined 190 other countries by signing a global agreement for nature.
And at home, the Albanese government recently announced a target of zero new extinctions and is set to deliver an overhaul of our environment laws that until now, have failed to stem the extinction crisis.
This is very welcome progress, but there’s a lot at stake and all of us - governments, business, people and communities - have a role to play in fixing this mess and ensuring that those doing the biggest damage are held to account.