Why endangered species are everyone’s issue
Species decline is a major problem, but the solutions are well known, and everyone in Australia can play a part.
According to the federal government, Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinction of any nation, having lost 29 mammal species since colonisation.
Jess Abrahams, healthy ecosystems campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) says the situation remains grim, with a further 2,000 unique plants, animals and ecosystems currently threatened with extinction.
Nature lovers aren’t the only ones who should be worried: although difficult to quantify, declining biodiversity can have widespread economic costs.
“For example, the grey-headed flying fox, a species listed as vulnerable, is an important pollinator of avocados, bananas, dates, figs, breadfruit, peaches, mangoes, carob and other fruit in northern Australia,” Abrahams says.
Without pollinators, agriculture suffers. Recent declines in bee populations internationally have sent shockwaves through many agricultural sectors. Abrahams points out that declining biodiversity can also adversely affect eco-tourism, a $1.4 billion industry in Australia.
Creatures of habitat
Globally, scientists recognise habitat destruction as the primary driver of extinction, although invasive species, changing fire patterns and, increasingly, climate change are also pushing wildlife to the brink. So why is the problem so acute in Australia?
According to Abrahams, state and federal governments have been slow to recognise the habitats of endangered species as worthy of protection – more so than governments elsewhere, such as the United States.
“In the draft recovery plan for the Leadbeater’s possum, the critically endangered faunal emblem of Victoria, the little possum’s mountain habitat is identified as critical to the species’ survival,” Abrahams says. “Despite this, tens of thousands of hectares of mountain ash forest remains unprotected and subject to destructive clear-fell logging and burning.”
The ACF says there are more than 100 threatened species in Australia whose unprotected habitats have been identified as essential to their survival, but just five places are currently protected as critical habitat in Australia.
Following their lead
Abrahams says the US Endangered Species Act, while not perfect, goes some way toward addressing this issue.
“The requirement that the critical habitat of endangered species be mapped and protected has proven effective in helping recover endangered wildlife,” says Abrahams. “If Australia is to end our extinction crisis, we must learn this simple lesson from the US and create strong new environment laws that protect the critical habitat of our unique and at-risk wildlife.”
The ACF says the federal government should be legally responsible for protecting our wildlife and, by extension, the environments in which they live.
It’s also calling for an independent commission to set environmental standards and an independent national Environmental Protection Authority to make sure governments and businesses do the right thing.
While we wait for laws and processes to catch up with those in other parts of the world, the ACF says Australians can do their bit for vulnerable species by helping scientists with their research.
So-called “citizen science” – lay people conducting research and relaying their findings to professionals for analysis – is gaining ground in Australia. For example, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count tracks millions of birds each year and recently helped scientists identify a decline in kookaburra populations, while a 2016 National Science Week project called Wildlife Spotter enlisted hundreds of citizen scientists to identify animals in more than 1 million camera trap images.
The Australian Citizen Science Association has more than 400 active projects listed in its database; it’s currently counting koalas, emus and whales to identify areas where they are most at risk of decline.
A deeper understanding
University of NSW science honours student Simon Gorta recently analysed 17 years of citizen science data about seabirds off the coast of south-eastern Australia and published his findings in the journal Biological Conservation.
“Long-term datasets are the ones that enable us to observe patterns we can really confidently trust when reporting science – but these are often expensive for professionals to collect,” Gorta says.
“Citizen science allows us to tap into observations collected by hobbyists, who collect the data anyway. In the right situation, it allows for a cost-effective method whereby researchers obtain high-quality observations for their studies, and hobbyists contribute to research on the subjects they love.”
Gorta says citizen science can help shine a light on species decline and, hopefully, arrest the trend.
“Ultimately, greater knowledge and understanding of our environment can enable us to effect positive change to conserve our vital remaining biodiversity,” he says.