Australian researchers have issued a call to save Antarctica, and the animals and plants which live there, from humans.
Current protective measures are failing to address the threat posed by tourists visiting the small ice-free areas of the continent where wildlife can thrive, and to stop the spread of invasive species, they say.
Antarctica has more than 40,000 visitors a year, and with more research facilities being built in the continent’s tiny ice-free area, the last wilderness on Earth is one of the planet’s least-protected regions, say Dr Justine Shaw and Professor Hugh Possingham of the National Environmental Research Program’s Environmental Decisions Hub.
“Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than 1% permanently ice-free. Only 1.5% of this ice-free area belongs to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System, yet ice-free land is where the majority of biodiversity occurs,” says Dr Shaw.
In a new study, publishing in the journal PLOS Biology, Dr Shaw and her colleagues found that all 55 areas designated for protection lie close to sites of human activity, seven are at high risk for biological invasions and five of the distinct ice-free eco-regions remain completely unprotected.
Most of the Antarctic wildlife and plants live in the ice-free areas and this is also where people most visit.
Professor Steven Chown of Monash University says the ice-free areas contain very simple ecosystems due to Antarctica’s low species diversitywhich makes its native wildlife and plants vulnerable to invasion by exotic species.
“Antarctica has been invaded by plants and animals, mostly grasses and insects, from other continents,” he says.
“The very real current and future threats from invasions are typically located close to protected areas. Such threats to protected areas from invasive species have been demonstrated elsewhere in the world, and we find that Antarctica is, unfortunately, no exception.”
The study shows that Antarctica currently falls well short of the Aichi Biodiversity Target, an international biodiversity strategy which aims to reduce threats to biodiversity, and protect ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
Dr Shaw says that the team compared Antarctica’s biodiversity protection with the protection provided in nations round the world, Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25% of assessed countries.
“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there. However, we show that’s not true,” Dr Shaw says.
The Antarctic biodiversity includes a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world.
Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth which has no cities, agriculture or mining.
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