What is Biodiversity?

The term biodiversity is quite a new one. It is made up of two words: biological and diversity and means the great variety of plants and animals species that support the web of life. Planet Earth has so much biodiversity that we haven’t even found or named all the existing species yet!

So far, 1,700,000 species have been identified. These include:

950,000 Species of Insects
270,000 Species of Plants
19,000 Species of Fish

10,500 Species of Amphibians and Reptiles
9,000 Species of Birds
4,000 Species of Mammals


Why Are We Losing Biodiversity?

Our growing population and the demands we have placed on our planet has caused a huge decline in species.

The main reason for the loss of biodiversity is the destruction of plant and animal habitats to make way for agricultural, urban and industrial development, such as building houses, factories and roads, as well as the wildlife trade.

Humans have cut down forests, overfished and hunted animals, leading to the depletion of precious resources.  Climate change has also played a role, as well as pollution, which contaminates habitats.

Animal Skin

It is estimated that the rate of extinction is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, so between 0,01% and 0,1% of species become extinct every year, showing the severity of the biodiversity crisis. 

Why is Biodiversity Important?

Biodiversity supports life on Earth and provides us with food, medicines, building and industrial materials.

Biodiversity Provides Medicine
Biodiversity Provides Food

Biodiversity helps to form the soil, produce energy, clean the air and water, break down pollutants and control disease.

In the food chain, healthy soil is needed to grow plants and crops, which are eaten and used by humans and animals. In turn, animals are eaten by humans. If one link in the chain is broken or changed, the chain can be destroyed. If an animal or plant becomes extinct, any link in the chain has to change or risk dying out.

Healthy Soil
Variety of Animals

We depend on natural resources for our health and our livelihoods. Biodiversity has a direct impact on every person’s life on this planet.

What is Being Done?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) is an agreement signed by 100 countries, including South Africa, which prohibits trade in threatened species.

Go to the section on Introduction to Conservation to find out more about CITIES.

Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have put in place conservation programmes, such as the Amazon Initiative, where $30 million is being invested in the tropical rainforest, to create 20 million acres of protected areas.

The United Nations has designated 2011 to 2020 as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity.

Biodiversity in South Africa

South Africa has the 3rd highest diversity in the world. South Africa takes up about 1% of the total land surface of Earth but has 10% of the world’s bird, plant and fish species, and over 6% of the world’s mammal and reptile species.

South African Ostriches

South Africa's biodiversity is due to the variety of climatic conditions, as well as the unique physical features in the country.

The following major biomes are found in South Africa: the Karoo, fynbos, forest, grassland, desert and savannah. Each of these biomes supports unique plant and animal species.

For more information go to Grade 5 Geography: Natural Vegetation

Little Karoo

South Africa provides a habitat to many indigenous species, i.e., those that occur naturally in the area or country.

An endemic species is one that occurs only in a specific area. A threatened endemic species is a conservation priority.


Over 20,000 species of flowering plants are found in South Africa.

The Cape Floral Kingdom or Fynbos is one of the six floral kingdoms in the world and is home to 2,000 threatened plants.

Protea Flower


In South Africa, there are 243 species of mammal, of which 17 are threatened, including the Black Rhino.  The Roan Antelope and Wild Dog are mammals that are classified as endangered. Two South African mammals have already become extinct – the Blue Antelope and the Quagga.

Endangered Wild Dog
Extinct Quagga


South Africa has 220 species of freshwater fish, of which 21 are threatened. In addition, there are over 2,000 species of marine fish.

Fish Species


800 bird species are found in South Africa. Of these, 26 species are threatened, including the Cape Vulture and the Jackass Penguin. A further 5 are endangered.

Threatened Cape Vulture

Reptiles and Amphibians

370 species of reptiles and amphibians live in South Africa, of which 21 are threatened and 6 are endangered.

Pythons Hatching


 South Africa is full of bugs! There are 80,000 species, including many that are endemic.

Beetle Laying Eggs

South Africa has 582 National Parks and nature reserves, which are home to 90% of our birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. However, only 34% of our plant species are protected.

What Can You Do?

There are lots of ways that you can help to reduce biodiversity loss. Many of these are simple, everyday actions that can make a real difference. See the list below for some suggestions:

  • Help to reduce global warming. 

Go to the section on Global Warming to find out more. 

Global Warming

  • Do not buy any wildlife products which have been made from the skin, fur, hooves, shells, beaks or bones of an endangered animal. Discourage others from hunting, whether for sport or poaching. 

Go to the section on Wildlife Trade to find out more.

Souvenir Made from
Animal Skin

  • Find out where wooden products that you buy come from. One of the main causes of deforestation is illegal logging. 

Go to the section on Deforestation to find out more.


  • Don’t eat fish which is on the alert list. Eat sustainable species only.

Go the section on Overfishing to find out more.

Eat Sustainable Species

  • Reduce, re-use and recycle as much as possible.

Go to the section on Waste and Recycling to find out more.

Recycling Bins

We need to protect our biodiversity that is now under threat, so that future generations can enjoy the rich variety of species that have been put on this planet for us to enjoy.