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Megadiverse Countries

17 Countries Contain Most of the World's Biodiversity

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Megadiversity in Brazil

Rio Negro River and rainforest at dawn in Brazil, one of the world's most biodiverse countries.

Jose de Paula Machado/Getty Images
Like economic wealth, biological wealth is not distributed evenly across the globe. Some countries hold vast amounts of the world's plants and animals. In fact, seventeen of the world's nearly 200 countries hold over 70% of the earth's biodiversity. These countries are labeled "Megadiverse" by Conservation International and the United Nations Environment Program's World Conservation Monitoring Center.

What is Megadiversity?

The label "Megadiversity" was first introduced at the 1998 Conference on Biodiversity at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Similar to the concept of "biodiversity hotspots," the term refers to the number and variation of animal and plant species native to an area. The countries listed below are those classified as Megadiverse:

Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, United States, and Venezuela

One of the patterns that dictate where extreme biodiversity occurs is the distance from the equator to the poles of the earth. Therefore, most of the Megadiverse countries are found in the tropics: the areas that surround the Earth's equator. Why are the tropics the most biodiverse areas in the world? The factors that influence biodiversity include temperature, rainfall, soil, and altitude, among others. The warm, moist, stable environments of the ecosystems in tropical rainforests in particular allow floral and fauna to thrive. A country like the United States qualifies mainly due to its size; it is big enough to holds various ecosystems.

Plant and animal habitats are also not distributed evenly within a country, so one may wonder why the nation is the unit of Megadiversity. While somewhat arbitrary, the nation unit is logical in the context of conservation policy; national governments are often the most responsible for conservation practices within the country.

Megadiverse Country Profile: Ecuador

Ecuador is a relatively small country, about the size of the U.S. state of Nevada, but it is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. This is due to its unique geographical advantages: it is located in the tropics region along the Equator, contains the high Andes Mountain Range, and has a coastline with two major ocean currents. Ecuador is also home to the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its unique plant and animal species, and for being the birthplace of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The Galapagos Islands, and the country's unique cloud forest and Amazon region are popular tourism and ecotourism destinations. Ecuador contains over half of all the bird species in South America, and more than double the bird species in Europe. Ecuador also holds more plants species than all of North America.

Ecuador is the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature, enforceable by law, in its 2008 constitution. At the time of the constitution, close to 20% of the country's land was designated as preserved. Despite this, many ecosystems in the country have been compromised. According to the BBC, Ecuador has the highest rate of deforestation per year after Brazil, losing 2,964 square-kilometers yearly. One of the biggest current threats in Ecuador is in Yasuni National Park, located in the Amazon Rainforest region of the country, and one of the biologically richest areas in the world, as well as home to multiple indigenous tribes. However, an oil reserve worth over seven billion dollars was discovered in the park, and while the government proposed an innovative plan to ban oil extraction, that plan has fallen short; the area is under threat, and is currently being explored by oil companies.

Conservation Efforts

The Megadiversity concept is in part an effort to emphasize conservation of these diverse areas. Only a small portion of land in Megadiverse countries are conserved, and many of their ecosystems face challenges related to deforestation, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, invasive species, and climate change, among others. All of these challenges are associated with major loss of biodiversity. Rainforests, for one, are facing rapid deforestation that threatens global well-being. In addition to being home to thousands of species of plants and animals, and sources of food and medicine, rainforests regulate global and regional climate. Rainforest deforestation is associated with rising temperatures, flooding, droughts, and the formation of deserts. The biggest causes for deforestation are agricultural expansion, energy exploration, and infrastructure building.

Tropical forests are also home to millions of indigenous people, who are impacted in many ways from both forest exploitation and conservation. Deforestation has disrupted many native communities, and has at times triggered conflict. Furthermore, the presence of indigenous communities in areas that governments and aid agencies wish to preserve is a contentious issue. These populations are often the ones who have the most intimate contact with the diverse ecosystems they inhabit, and many advocates assert that biological diversity preservation should inherently include cultural diversity preservation as well.

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