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Biodiversity Lives Where the Dead People Go

Biodiversity Lives Where the Dead People Go

It's the last place you'd look for something alive....a cemetery. But cemeteries across Australia are life-saving refuges for some of the nation's most endangered native plants; even for entire native ecosystems.

The latest edition of the biodiversity newsletter Biolinks, published by the Department of Environment, Sport and Territories, reports on research into cemeteries in five states and the ACT. It says cemeteries in suburban Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra, and in rural Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia have become important biodiversity refuges.

"Sydney's Rookwood Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries in the world, contains significant areas of remnant vegetation," Biolinks reports.

"The cemetery represents one of the only significant areas of native bushland within a 10-kilometre radius of the city, and contains a population of the rare and endangered species downey wattle, several species of notable terrestrial orchids and also supports populations of native fauna.

"The report says other Sydney cemeteries are also biodiversity refuges.

One cemetery in the heart of Adelaide still harbours more than 50 species of native plants which have survived 158 years of European settlement, Biolinks says. The native plants, in the West Terrace Cemetery, include such well-known species as quandong trees and native apricots, as well as other rarer plants which once thrived on the Adelaide plains.

"Native species usually occur in small communities in parts of the cemetery not used frequently or along paths and on grave plots," Biolinks says. "Mowing of paths does not deter the plants - which also survive in cracks in gravestones, spaces between the graves, along grave surrounds and edges, on fenced-off graves and near perimeter fences.

"However natural vegetation in cemeteries faces a number of threats. Caretakers can maintain the area with the view to keeping the cemetery neat and tidy, consequently destroying the natural vegetation and preventing any revegetation.

"Remote cemeteries, on the other hand, can be left to become overgrown, usually with weeds overtaking the natural vegetation.

"Other cemeteries with biodiversity refuges include: the Hall Cemetery in the ACT; the Upper Regions Cemetery near Dimboola in Victoria; the Jericho, Bothwell, Hamilton and Campbelltown cemeteries in Tasmania; and the Gingin cemetery in Western Australia.

"Australia represents a vast resource of plant life, with some 85 per cent of the estimated 21,000-23,000 different species of native vascular plants not found anywhere else in the world," Biolinks says.

"It should be noted that 77 of these species have become extinct in the last 200 years, and another 930 species are endangered or vulnerable.

"Remnant vegetation, such as that found in many cemeteries, provides a habitat that can help the survival of many species of Australian plants and animals."

Biological diversity (or "biodiversity") means simply the variety of life on Earth. It includes three levels - genetic variation within a species, variation between different species and variation between different ecosystems.

Many major industries rely entirely on biodiversity. For example, world agricultural trade, worth an estimated $3 trillion a year, depends on new varieties of livestock and crops being bred continually from their wild cousins. Scientists use wild genetic stocks to keep domesticated crops and animals a jump ahead of pests and diseases, to breed drought-resistance and other desirable traits, to boost nutritional content and to increase crop yields.

The pharmaceutical industry also depends largely on biodiversity from the wild to provide new drugs and processes. Many common pharmaceuticals were first found in wild plants and animals, and major searches are continuing around the world for possible new drugs in wild species.

Australia, with an estimated 475,000 of the Earth's 10 to 30 million species, is one of the world's 12 "megadiverse" countries. The International Convention on Biodiversity, which Australia and 36 other countries have ratified, came into force on December 29 last year. On December 16 Federal Cabinet approved the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity.

Author: David Mussared
Source: Department of the Environment and Water Resources. February 19, 1994.

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