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What Is a Natural Habitat?

By Ray Hawk
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A natural habitat is an area of nature, usually a unique self-contained ecosystem, that supports a selection of plants and animals indigenous to the region which are adapted both to the climate and living systems there, and exist in some sort of permanently sustainable balance. Undisturbed habitat ecosystems are becoming increasingly rare, as invasive species are introduced via human travel patterns, and due to encroachment by urban development, pollution, and the construction of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, pipelines, mining, and ranching projects. Protected habitat locations around the globe are seen as vital to preserving the diversity of species.

International conservation movements recognize 142 different categories of natural habitat, known as global ecoregions, 53 freshwater and 43 marine environments. These range from tropical forests and coral reefs that support a thriving, wide variety of plant and animal species, to tundras and deserts that support a hardier, yet smaller diversity of indigenous organisms. Together these interlocking natural habitat environments are seen as a web of life on Earth that must be preserved to some minimum degree so that the loss of one ecoregion does not directly or indirectly cause the collapse of others as well.

Protection of the environment, whether it is an undisturbed habitat, requires habitat restoration, or an endangered animal's natural habitat, is being carried out by a wide variety of private, public, and global governmental organizations. Activity has become so diverse in the desire to preserve natural habitat as a counter to human expansion, that it has taken on the form of a international social movement. This culminated in 1972 with the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden, attended by 114 nations. Follow-up conferences were held in 1992 by the UN, and later by European Union and North American groups of nations. In 1988, the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was also created to investigate human activity that contributes to rapid climate change, which can have serious detrimental effects on the ability of any natural habitat to adapt and survive.

Preserving any unexplored natural habitat is not entirely altruistic, as each may offer cures for widespread human diseases. Estimates by UNEP states that of the 52,000 drugs we already derive from medicinal plants in forest regions, 8% of the plants in this type of natural habitat are threatened with extinction. As well, over one billion people worldwide are estimated to depend on medicinal drugs now derived from plants in forests alone.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Jun 22, 2013

@Mor - We have to be careful, though, to understand that there isn't any such thing as an "unspoiled" natural wildlife habitat. All living ecosystems are in a constant state of flux, even if, to our eyes, they might seem like they are in equilibrium.

I don't think it's helpful to assign a moral judgment to extinction. It's better to look at it as a loss for human kind, because diversity is a good thing for us. The more damage we do, the worse it's going to be for us, but that doesn't mean that we should never step foot into nature. We just need to learn how to work with it, instead of against it.

By Mor — On Jun 22, 2013

@indigomoth - I did a university class on environmental studies that went into detail about how much waste a swamp area could process and let out clean water at the end of it, and it was quite an eye opener.

I wish that we could find a way to integrate these systems into our technology so that we would stop encroaching into the few unspoiled places that are left. These days, even the polar bear is running out of room and it's a tragedy.

By indigomoth — On Jun 21, 2013

It's not just that we might get medicines from the plants in natural habitats. That's enough of a reason if you ask me, but it shouldn't even be the main reason.

The main reason should be that natural habitats perform all kinds of valuable services for us every day without any kind of financial input on our count. They clean the air, they clean the water, they generate new fish and insect stocks and nutrients and they generally contribute to the world's ecosystem.

We like to think we'd survive without all this, but the truth is that we wouldn't. Not easily. We need the natural habitats of animals to go on being natural, not for their sakes but for our own.

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