Category Archives: Media

Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia

With the passing of the so-called “brumby bill” against scientific advice, feral horses will continue to damage the internationally significant Kosciuszko National Park.

By Don Driscoll, Euan Ritchie, and Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Late on Wednesday night the so-called “brumby bill” was passed without amendment in the New South Wales Parliament. The controversial Coalition bill, supported by the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, means that feral horses must be kept in Kosciuszko National Park.

It also creates a community advisory panel, with no scientific experts appointed, to advise the minister on how to manage the horse population in the alpine ecosystem.

The NSW government has attracted accusations of a conflict of interest. Former Nationals member Peter Cochran, who now runs a commercial venture offering brumbie-spotting rides through the National Park (and who has donated extensively to Deputy Premier John Barilaro) reportedly commissioned lawyers to draft the bill. Peter Cochran, John Barilaro and Gladys Berejiklian have denied all accusations of conflict of interest and underhanded conduct.

The bill has also been criticised by scientific bodies. In a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week, the Australian Academy of Science noted that the legislation removes consideration of scientific advice, and called for the bill to be withdrawn or substantially amended.

In a rare move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has also written to the NSW government, expressing concern over the potential degradation of this internationally significant national park.

Out of step with other states

The NSW Labor Party does not support the bill and has pledged to repeal the legislation if elected next March. The legislation represents a radical change in NSW’s management of feral horses, coming after a 2016 draft strategy that recommenced reducing their population by 90% over 20 years.

NSW now stands in contrast to other Australian states. Last Saturday, Victoria launched its Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan. That plan aims to protect native species and ecosystems in national parks by removing or controlling feral horses and is a welcome step in the right direction. Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio called on the NSW and federal governments to support a unified approach to feral horse management in Australia’s alpine regions.

Is culling in or out?

The Victorian plan excludes aerial culling but will revisit horse control methods if the proposed trapping methods don’t reduce environmental impacts. Aerial culling is widely practised throughout Australia, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland (where culling was used to improve road safety), and the Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park.

Barilaro argued against aerial culling when he presented the Brumby bill to parliament, calling it cruel and barbaric. He reiterated that the bill is meant to prevent lethal control in his response to Victoria’s announcement. But surprisingly, the draft legislation makes no mention of control methods, lethal or otherwise.

The deputy premier also referred to the Guy Fawkes National Park horse cull in northern NSW in 2000 to support his argument against aerial culling. But an independent enquiry found that the cull was an appropriate humane response to the situation, where horses were starving to death and causing environmental damage after a fire. The RSPCA and independent reports show that aerial culling is an acceptable and humane way to manage horse numbers.

Further, the brumby bill now locks in the predictable outcome that thousands of horses are likely to starve to death in the next drought or after large fires. It is therefore puzzling that actions likely to increase horse suffering are not of great concern to many within the pro-brumby lobby.

Greater emphasis, instead, has been put on a cultural argument for protecting feral horses: for example, by claiming that feral horses made enormous contributions to Australia’s World War One effort. However, the cultural heritage report prepared for the NSW National Parks Service says “there is no definitive evidence that remount horses were directly taken from the brumby population of what is now Kosciusko National Park”.

The Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was also offered as evidence that brumbies are integral to Australian culture. However, Australian Stock horses, not brumbies, were showcased at the Sydney Olympics – a distinct breed, established by horse enthusiasts in the 1970s.

That said, it is true that horses in the snowy mountains do have local cultural value. But so too does the native fauna and flora threatened by feral horses, many of which only occur in Australia’s high country. This includes species such as the southern corroboree frog, alpine she-oak skink, broad-toothed rat, Raleigh sedge and mauve burr-daisy.

Can we compromise?

Is a compromise possible, in which both cultural and conservation goals can be accommodated? We think so. The feral horse population can be removed from the national parks and sensitive ecosystems. Brumby herds can thrive on extensive private property in the region, an approach already proven in South Australia’s Coffin Bay National Park.

The brumby bill was written and presented to parliament by groups with at best a perceived conflict of interest, and promoted by using inaccurate information about culling and heritage. It has been roundly criticised by leading national and international scientific bodies for not taking adequate account of science and the key role of national parks in conserving biodiversity.

That this bill has now passed the NSW upper house is a further backward step for conservation goals and Australia’s international reputation for environmental protection, and sets a dangerous precedent by undermining prominent national and state environmental policy. It remains to be seen how this legislation aligns with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, given that it literally tramples over several matters of national environmental significance.

The Conversation

From drone swarms to tree batteries, new tech is revolutionising ecology and conservation

Eyes in the sky: drone footage is becoming a vital tool for monitoring ecosystems. Image credit: Deakin Marine Mapping Group

By Euan Ritchie and Blake Allen, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

Understanding Earth’s species and ecosystems is a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. But with the planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction event, it has never been a more pressing priority.

To unlock nature’s secrets, ecologists turn to a variety of scientific instruments and tools. Sometimes we even repurpose household items, with eyebrow-raising results – whether it’s using a tea strainer to house ants, or tackling botfly larvae with a well-aimed dab of nail polish.

But there are many more high-tech options becoming available for studying the natural world. In fact, ecology is on the cusp of a revolution, with new and emerging technologies opening up new possibilities for insights into nature and applications for conserving biodiversity.

Our study, published in the journal Ecosphere, tracks the progress of this technological development. Here we highlight a few examples of these exciting advances.

Tiny tracking sensors

Electronically recording the movement of animals was first made possible by VHF radio telemetry in the 1960s. Since then even more species, especially long-distance migratory animals such as caribou, shearwaters and sea turtles, have been tracked with the help of GPS and other satellite data.

But our understanding of what affects animals’ movement and other behaviours, such as hunting, is being advanced further still by the use of “bio-logging” – equipping the animals themselves with miniature sensors.

Many types of miniature sensors have now been developed, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, micro cameras, and barometers. Together, these devices make it possible to track animals’ movements with unprecedented precision. We can also now measure the “physiological cost” of behaviours – that is, whether an animal is working particularly hard to reach a destination, or within a particular location, to capture and consume its prey.

Taken further, placing animal movement paths within spatially accurate 3D-rendered (computer-generated) environments will allow ecologists to examine how individuals respond to each other and their surroundings.

These devices could also help us determine whether animals are changing their behaviour in response to threats such as invasive species or habitat modification. In turn, this could tell us what conservation measures might work best.

Autonomous vehicles

Remotely piloted vehicles, including drones, are now a common feature of our skies, land, and water. Beyond their more typical recreational uses, ecologists are deploying autonomous vehicles to measure environments, observe species, and assess changes through time, all with a degree of detail that was never previously possible.

Coupling autonomous vehicles with sensors (such as thermal imaging) now makes it easier to observe rare, hidden or nocturnal species. It also potentially allows us to catch poachers red-handed, which could help to protect animals like rhinoceros, elephants and pangolins.

3D printing

Despite 3D printing having been pioneered in the 1980s, we are only now beginning to realise the potential uses for ecological research. For instance, it can be used to make cheap, lightweight tracking devices that can be fitted onto animals. Or it can be used to create complex and accurate models of plants, animals or other organisms, for use in behavioural studies.

Bio-batteries

Keeping electronic equipment running in the field can be a challenge. Conventional batteries have limited life spans, and can contain toxic chemicals. Solar power can help with some of these problems, but not in dimly lit areas, such as deep in the heart of rainforests.

“Bio-batteries” may help to overcome this challenge. They convert naturally occurring sources of chemical energy, such as starch, into electricity using enzymes. “Plugging-in” to trees may allow sensors and other field equipment to be powered cheaply for a long time in places without sun or access to mains electricity.

Combining technologies

All of the technologies described above sit on a continuum from previous (now largely mainstream) technological solutions, to new and innovative ones now being trialled.

Emerging technologies are exciting by themselves, but when combined with one another they can revolutionise ecological research. Here is a modified exerpt from our paper:

These advancements will not only generate more accurate research data, but should also minimise the disturbance to species and ecosystems in the process.

Not only will this minimise the stress to animals and the inadvertent spread of diseases, but it should also provide a more “natural” picture of how plants, animals and other organisms interact.

Realising the techno-ecological revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries. Ecologists should ideally also be exposed to relevant technology-based training (such as engineering or IT) and industry placements early in their careers.

The ConversationSeveral initiatives, such as Wildlabs, the Conservation Technology Working Group and TechnEcology, are already addressing these needs. But we are only just at the start of what’s ultimately possible.
The Conversation

Planet Earth II Live unites art and science in a celebration of nature

Flamingoes dance on a lake in South America in Planet Earth II Live in Concert. Image credit: Travis Hayto

By Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

Following an epic and determined journey by an amorous male pygymy three-toed sloth, witnessing golden eagles duel over a fox carcass against a backdrop of majestic mountains, or simply being in awe of one of evolution’s most sublime creations, the sword-billed hummingbird, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited to experience the Melbourne production of BBC’s Planet Earth II Live in Concert.

The show is a fusion of BBC’s extraordinary wildlife and landscape footage, from the Planet Earth II documentary series. It’s presented on a suitably massive screen, accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score written specially for this visual and aural celebration of nature.

The start of the show was sensational, a montage of wildlife imagery from around the world, with the emotional roller-coaster expertly enhanced by the beauty and fusion with the music that filled the room. It was akin to walking through a gallery, where the individual, finer details of paintings were unimportant, but the overall majesty of what was on show swept you away. I wish the remainder of the show had continued in this vein.

The actual images of wildlife were as we’ve come to expect from the BBC’s legendary wildlife team, second to none. A close-up of a lioness’s paw rippling as it moved across the sands of the Namib Desert while stalking a giraffe, a starling murmuration above Rome, langurs leaping through Jodhpur and, of course, the now famous great escape by a hatchling marine iguana from scores of hungry racer snakes were all captivating.

The orchestra was outstanding. Such was the power of the wildlife footage that at times it was possible to forget their presence, but at key moments onscreen they were most certainly heard and felt, providing a truly emotional and visceral experience.

There were many things to like, but a number of important elements didn’t work, which really detracted from what the show could have been. The first and perhaps most important problem was that each sequence was introduced, in far too much detail, by Eric Bana, who had the unenviable task of trying to replace some of David Attenborough’s narration of the original documentary series.

Bana’s commentary was aimed at making people more informed about the wildlife being featured, but it had the unfortunate effect of giving away exactly what was about to happen next, rather than allowing the audience to have the joy of discovering this for themselves, a very odd production decision. It made the performance feel quite stilted and disjointed, which wasn’t helped by an unannounced 20-minute intermission mid-show.

Bana is a fine Australian actor, but his casual approach and lighthearted jokes were unnecessary, and often not particularly funny. Most importantly, it took attention away from the main event, which should have been what was happening on screen. It reminded me of watching a great film on commercial TV and being engrossed, only to be wrenched out of this blissful state by the dreaded commercial break. This happened multiple times throughout the evening. Judicious and sparing use of surtitles could have remedied this situation.

Another deficiency was the editing and sequence of footage. We were told about the plight of a primate relative of humans, the Indri, from Madagascar’s rapidly disappearing forests. So why then did this sequence start with flying draco lizards from Southeast Asia and toucans from South America? Perhaps many were not bothered by this and instead it just reflects my ecological background.

The Indri was one of several species to appear a number of times in the show, sometimes without narration or explanation. This seemed puzzling given how much amazing material the BBC has at its disposal. Australian wildlife was also conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, at times the show’s lighting was over-the-top, washing out and obscuring imagery on the screen.

There was an attempt towards the end of the show to send a message to the audience about the plight of life of Earth, including how our cities could better accommodate plants and animals to live alongside us. There were painful times during the show when I felt like I was watching soon-to-be ghosts, given the current and dire mass extinction event we have created and are witnessing. I couldn’t help notice the irony of the many audience members watching wildlife while drinking bottled water they’d bought during the show’s intermission, a symptom of our dependence on plastics and consumption.

There is no question in my mind that a greater union between the arts and sciences, such as this event, has enormous potential for positive change.

So my greatest hope is that everyone who attended the show felt moved the next day to assess their own choices and how they affect the other species with which we share this planet, and that together we collectively demand our governments to ensure a sustainable future that preserves Earth’s remarkable wonders.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Rockin’ the suburbs – bandicoots live among us in Melbourne

Young southern brown bandicoots (Isoodon obesulus obesulus), an endangered marsupial species living in outer Melbourne. Image credit: Sarah Maclagan.

By Euan Ritchie and Sarah Maclagan, Deakin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

There are more and more of us on Earth, and increasingly we’re choosing to live in cities. This is a problem for wildlife: urbanisation is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. Sprawling construction to accommodate people completely removes or modifies the homes of many other species.

But although we need to do all we can to mitigate these effects and their causes, cities are far from biodiversity wastelands. In fact, cities are home to large numbers of species, many of which are threatened.

One such example is the iconic but endangered southern brown bandicoot. New research has found these shy animals thriving in peri-urban areas (the interface between cities and more rural areas) on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Novel ecosystems

Through our effects on the environment, humans are increasingly creating “novel ecosystems”: areas composed of new combinations of species and/or new and modified environmental conditions. In these areas there are winners and losers. How we perceive and manage such ecosystems could have a big influence on conserving species more broadly, and helping to address Earth’s extinction crisis.

We studied these issues by examining the ecology of the endangered southern brown bandicoot in southeast Melbourne. Specifically, we compared bandicoot abundance and body condition between novel sites, made up of peri-urban areas, and more natural remnant sites at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne and Quail Island Nature Conservation Reserve, which more closely resemble original bandicoot habitat.

Our goal was to see whether novel sites could support resident bandicoots. Crucially, could peri-urban areas allow bandicoots to breed, recruit (attract new migrating individuals) and survive well enough for populations to persist?

Don’t judge habitats by their appearance

Contrary to what the Human Threat Hypothesis (and logic) might predict, we found more bandicoots at novel sites (66 individuals recorded over 1722 trap-nights) than remnant sites (26 individuals recorded over 1384 trap-nights). And bandicoots were most abundant at the novel site with the most urbanised surroundings. The condition of females was similar between novel and remnant sites.

Most bandicoots at novel sites were resident (meaning they were observed at the same location multiple times thoughout the study). At these same sites we recorded successful breeding, recruitment of young adults, and survival of mature adults.

Our results challenge conventional conservation thinking. Where bandicoots did best is also where known predators such as foxes and feral cats are present and abundant, as opposed to the nature reserves from which they are largely absent. Remnant areas also have more intact native vegetation, whereas bandicoots in urban areas nested in roadsides full of invasive blackberry, a weed often targeted for removal.

Bandicoots like thick vegetation, but they appear not to care which plant species they use – as long as cover is sufficient. Blackberry bushes may protect bandicoots from predators, and also be a source of food through the insects they attract.

On the topic of food and just how adaptable bandicoots are, locals within our study region reported them dining on pet and domestic animal food from backyards.

Conservation opportunities in cities

A growing body of evidence suggests that even heavily modified environments can support viable populations of native plants and animals, and we should endeavour to manage these areas more sympathetically for the benefit of more species. This does not mean that all species will thrive in cities and heavily modified environments – there will always be a need for conservation reserves – but it throws the wilderness-versus-city dichotomy into question.

We need greater awareness of the nature we already share our cities with. Deliberate encouragement such as greener building and urban design that encourages wildlife to return and flourish would substantially benefit humans and other species alike. We are a part of and dependent upon nature, and as such should celebrate and seek to re-establish these vital connections.
The Conversation

Ecological Society of Australia: The demise of the dingo

The native dingo Canis dingo — the only remaining terrestrial, large-bodied, top predator in mainland Australia — is classified as a pest species because it threatens livestock.

Barrier fencing, and lethal methods — such as 1080 poisoning, trapping and shooting — are used as control methods, in a management practice that parallels the persecution of the Tasmanian tiger.

Continue reading on the Ecological Society of Australia website.