Category Archives: Media

Australian Geographic: The extinction crisis: Australians call for a radical re-haul of environmental laws

Australia is failing to meet international obligations to protect our unique wildlife, experts say.

Recounting a list of Australian animals on the brink of extinction comes all too easily to Euan Ritchie, an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University.

“Obvious examples include the orange-bellied parrot, which only has a few individuals left in the wild,” he says, referring to the multi-coloured grass parrot with a total population of less than 50 that migrates between Tasmania and mainland Australia…

Continue reading on the Australian Geographic website

The Conversation: Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes

Western Australian Minister for the Environment Stephen Dawson has declared that the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native. Image credit Leo via Flickr.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Lily van Eeden, (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.

But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.

This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.

The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.

What is a species anyway?

According to the biological species concept, a species is a group that has the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring. Dingoes, dogs and other canids do interbreed (or “hybridise”), and indeed this is one of the key reasons why the pure dingo is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?

However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.

Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.

Distinguishing dingoes

All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.

It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.

Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.

Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.

In the absence of thylacines, mainland Tasmanian devils, and other apex predators, the ecological role that the dingo plays in the Australian landscape is vital. Dingoes help to control kangaroo and feral goat populations, and in some cases foxes and cats as well.

Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.

How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.

In this case, economic and political interests appear to have been favoured over wildlife preservation, and given Australia’s unenviable conservation record this is deeply concerning.
The Conversation

ABC News: Dingoes to remain classified as non-native wild dogs under reform to Western Australian law

Widespread reforms to WA’s Biodiversity Conservation Act, expected next year, will not consider a change to the existing classification of a dingo as a wild dog, not native to Australia.

The iconic animals are considered no different to wild dogs and can be trapped or killed without permission in many places.

Dingoes are currently classed as unprotected native fauna and a declared pest, but the animals will be listed as non-fauna under widespread reform to the Act…

Continue reading on the ABC News website

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.

The Conversation: Australia’s draft ‘Strategy for nature’ doesn’t cut it. Here are nine ways to fix it

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Bek Christensen (Queensland University of Technology), Bill Bateman (Curtin University), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Grant Wardell-Johnson (Curtin University) Noel D Preece (James Cook University) and Sarah Luxton (Curtin University).

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

The thorny devil, one of Australia’s many remarkable and unique animals.

Australia arguably has the worst conservation record of any wealthy and politically stable nation. Since European arrival roughly 230 years ago, 50 animal and 60 plant species have gone extinct, including the loss of some 30 native mammals – roughly 35% of global mammal extinctions since 1500.

These are not just tragedies of the distant past – the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the forest skink and the Bramble Cay melomys have all died out within the past two decades.

More than 1,800 plant, animal and ecological communities are listed as being at risk of extinction, ranging from individual species such as the orange-bellied parrot and Gilbert’s potoroo, all the way up to entire ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef. This number rises every year, in the face of threats such as climate change, rampant land clearing, mining and invasive species.

This bleak situation has been recognised by successive governments, but never successfully tackled.

In the midst of such a tremendous environmental challenge, the federal government has released a draft document, Australia’s strategy for nature 2018–2030, for public comment. This is a welcome step, but regrettably the strategy falls a long way short of what’s required and contains significant flaws. It contains no firm commitments or measurable targets, and overlooks a substantial amount of relevant scientific evidence.

As representatives of Australia’s peak professional ecological body, the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA), we are deeply concerned that the strategy is not fit for its purpose of protecting Australia’s biodiversity.

A bolder, science-based vision

As part of ESA’s formal submission to the public consultation, we provide an alternative, evidence-based vision. This includes nine key recommendations for nature conservation in Australia.

1. Set measurable targets. Any project needs a set of quantifiable targets, otherwise we won’t know whether it has been successful or not. Some suggestions:

  • establish a comprehensive national network of ecosystem monitoring sites by 2025
  • reverse the declines of all species that are threatened by human-caused factors by 2025.

2. Commit to preventing human-caused species extinctions. The strategy should state explicitly that human-driven species extinctions are not acceptable, and establish and maintain clear paths of accountability.

3. Adequately fund the strategy’s implementation. Australia should show international leadership in conservation by investing at the upper end of OECD and G20 averages. At present Australia allocates less than 0.8% of GDP to conservation. We suggest 2% as an urgent minimum investment, with scope to expand funding to ensure that targets can be met.

4. Focus on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. The draft strategy is supposed to represent “Australia’s biodiversity conservation strategy and action inventory”, but it does not define biodiversity, choosing instead to focus on the vague notion of “nature”. We recommend the document return its focus to biodiversity, defined in the Convention on Biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

5. Make specific legislative recommendations. The strategy should specify the legislative revisions that will be needed to improve conservation, with particular focus on the flagship Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. This should include:

  • requiring recovery plans for all threatened species
  • requiring threat-abatement plans to efficiently manage major threats to many species, such as impacts of feral predators and herbivores, invasive plants and new diseases
  • specifically protecting high-value ecosystems, including those of economic value such as the Great Barrier Reef, and those that are critical for species survival, and rare ecosystems.

6. Commit to establishing a comprehensive system of protected areas, including marine parks. Despite longstanding commitments to developing a fully representative network of protected areas in Australia, many bioregions remain poorly represented in the National Reserve System and the national marine protected area system.

7. Include all 20 Aichi biodiversity targets and affirm Australia’s commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity. Australia has a proud bipartisan history of national and international engagement with conservation. But the new draft strategy is poor in comparison with other countries’ equivalent documents, such as Germany’s National Strategy on Biological Diversity and New Zealands’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

8. Base the strategy on Australia’s international conservation commitments. Australia has signed more than 30 international conservation agreements, including the Convention on Biodiversity, the Apia Convention, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The domestic EPBC Act requires Australia not to defy these agreements, yet with the exception of the Convention on Biodiversity, none of them rates a mention in the new draft strategy.

9. Recognise key issues that affect Australian biodiversity conservation. Any successful strategy should specifically address new and emerging issues that can harm our environment, such as Australia’s increasing use of natural resources, environmental water flows in rivers, and overfishing.

We cannot ignore human population growth, increasing per capita consumption and subsequent resource demand as drivers of threats to healthy and resilient ecosystems.

Our unique plants, animals and other organisms shape our national identity. They have wide-ranging benefits to our society, as well as being inherently valuable in their own right. They need a much stronger commitment to their ongoing protection.
The Conversation

 

Radio National: Australia’s new extinction crisis

Over the past few years, Australia has lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the Christmas Island skink and the Bramble Cay melomys – the first mammal in the world to have been wiped out by human-caused climate change.

Has the creation of the government’s threatened species strategy and a Threatened Species Commissioner helped? Or is red tape actually hindering conservation efforts?

I spoke to Phillip Adams on Radio National about the extinction crisis facing Australian fauna.

Radio National

The Guardian: ‘A national disgrace’ — Australia’s extinction crisis is unfolding in plain sight

The plight of Australia’s threatened species is an environmental crisis, with more and more species edging closer to extinction despite our capacity to prevent such a tragedy from occurring.

It’s akin to allowing the art of Namitjira, Olley, Preston, Nolan, Whiteley and others to disappear from our most treasured museums, through neglect, and much of society being unaware or responding with a collective shrug of shoulders.

Read more on The Guardian website

The Conversation: Australia’s species need an independent champion

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Geoffrey Heard (Charles Sturt University), James Watson (The University of Queensland), Megan C Evans (The University of Queensland) and Tim Doherty (Deakin University).

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

Furore erupted last week among many Australians who care for our native species.

First we heard that land clearing in Queensland soared to a staggering 400,000 or so hectares in 2015-16, a near 30% increase from the previous year. Second, the federal government’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, implied on national radio that land clearing was not a pressing issue for Australia’s threatened species.

This is a troubling public message, particularly as the government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 lists “clearing, fragmentation and declining quality of habitat” as a primary driver of biodiversity decline across the continent.

What’s more, loss of vegetation cover can exacerbate threats to wildlife, by making it easier for cats and other invasive predators to kill native animals.

These comments highlight key issues with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s current remit, made more pressing due to timing: the federal government will soon appoint a new commissioner, a “TSC 2.0”, if you will.

Threatened Species Commissioner 1.0

The commissioner’s role was established in 2014 to address the dire state of threatened species; a key initiative of the then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The remit was sixfold, including bringing a new national focus to conservation efforts; raising awareness and support for threatened species in the community; and taking an evidence-based approach to ensure conservation efforts are better targeted and co-ordinated and more effective.

Did TSC 1.0 meet the objectives?

We can confidently say “yes” in relation to the objectives of collaboration, public awareness and promotion of threatened species conservation. Andrews travelled widely and engaged directly with stakeholders, maintained active social media feeds, developed a YouTube channel, and had numerous media engagements.

Also laudable was the 2015 Threatened Species Summit, attended by some 250 delegates from a diverse set of stakeholders, which garnered significant media coverage.

But elsewhere progress has been mixed. The development of the Threatened Species Strategy is welcome, but the plan does not go nearly far enough. Key targets by 2020 are improvements in the population trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plants. But this represents a mere 4% of Australia’s threatened species, excluding all threatened reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates, and most of our threatened flora.

The focus on threatening processes is equally narrow. The science tells us that habitat loss is a top threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Land clearing has been listed as a key threatening process under federal legislation since 2001.

Yet the Threatened Species Strategy mentions land clearing zero times and habitat loss just twice. Feral cats, on the other hand, are mentioned 78 times, with the plan overwhelmingly focused on culling this one invasive species. Other major introduced pests – foxes, rabbits, feral pigs and goats – are mentioned 10 times between them.

An on-ground focus and mobilising of financial and logistical resources to support threatened species recovery was a welcome development during Andrews’s tenure. His second progress report cites AU$131 million in funding for projects in support of threatened species since 2014.

This is a significant sum. But it is just 0.017% of the government’s AU$416.9 billion annual revenue – well short of what’s needed to reverse species declines.

Likewise, funding for threatened species must be better targeted. Of the 499 projects cited in the TSC second progress report, 361 were those of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees programs (costing AU$78 million, 60% of total funding). Neither program is specifically devoted to threatened species, and their benefit in this regard is doubtful.

The next commissioner’s checklist

Australians and democratic societies should have access to reliable, independent and objective information about the current state of our natural heritage, and how government decisions influence its trajectory. That’s a critical role that TSC 2.0 should play.

Expertise will be crucial for the new appointee. Given the complex science of species conservation, a background in environmental science is a clear requirement, just as a background in economics would be expected for the chair of the Productivity Commission, or a grounding in law for a human rights commissioner.

For a commissioner to work effectively, they must also be willing to comment on politically sensitive issues and put themselves at odds with the government when necessary. Commissioners typically work as the head of an independent statutory body, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Electoral Commission.

However, the TSC position sits within the Department of Environment and Energy and so, like any public servant, the commissioner is restricted in what they can say in public forums. A more accurate name for the current position would be Threatened Species Ambassador.

But if the TSC 2.0 is to be a truly informed and independent voice for Australia’s threatened species, the role must sit within a statutory authority, at arm’s length from government. This is the case in New Zealand, where an independent environment commission has operated since 1986. It’s time for Australia to follow suit.
The Conversation

Remember The Wild: To improve nature conservation we must better embrace complexity

The natural world is truly glorious in its diversity, and in the complexity of relationships between its many millions of species, and the environments in which they live. I was lucky enough to immerse myself in this wonder recently, while snorkelling on Heron Island with my family. The kaleidoscope of colours and chaos of movement I saw as I drifted over countless different fishes and corals was truly breathtaking. But they also inspired reflection.

Continue reading at Remember The Wild.

Remember The Wild is a nature engagement charity, connecting people with the natural world.

this. Shining a light on Australia’s biodiversity crisis

From a very young age, we are taught the basics about nature and how ecosystems work. But for many of us, school science class was the last time issues like climate change and extinction were explored in much detail and front of mind. For ecologists like Dr Euan Ritchie from Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, this is troubling.

‘Unfortunately, Australia’s biodiversity crisis isn’t on the wider public’s radar day to day,’ says Dr Ritchie. ‘This is because many people don’t see the problems for themselves, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. As a result, the issues are not given the attention they deserve and our natural world declines further and more rapidly as days go by.’

Continue reading on this.

The Conversation: Why do some graziers want to retain, not kill, dingoes?

Australia has a complex relationship with the dingo. Image credit: Angus Emmott, via The Conversation

Vast, ancient, nutrient-poor, with wild swings between droughts, floods and fires: this describes much of the Australian continent. Livestock grazing and farming in such a land is certainly not without its challenges. The Conversation

Where we’ve failed to work with the local conditions, we see barren plains, dust storms, the extinction of native species, and the repossession of properties by banks, among many ills.

But such a dire picture is far from universal, and belies the fact that many who live on the land are also among our most innovative land managers. Many projects offer potential benefits for livestock production and the environment alike, but without support progress may be hindered.

Putting dingoes to work

One of the most contentious examples involves encouraging dingoes. Many pastoral areas require land managers to take “all reasonable and practical steps” to manage the risk of dingoes, which are classed as pest animals.

But a growing body of research argues that dingoes can be effective at controlling kangaroo and feral goat populations, especially on cattle stations.

A Western Australian couple, David Pollock and Frances Jones, were recently featured on Australian Story for their decision to regenerate their property, Wooleen, by de-stocking, encouraging local flora and fauna, and investing in ecotourism.

Their neighbours, including sheep graziers whose stock are vulnerable to dingoes, feel this is an irresponsible decision. Graziers have a mandate to control dingoes (“wild dogs”, to many) and dingo-domestic dog hybrids — which can’t be easily and reliably distinguished in the wild.

While the impacts and merits of encouraging dingoes in sheep country are hotly debated, their role in the management of cattle stations is much better understood. But restrictive legislation and the stigma attached to dingoes are frustrating for those who see them as having a vital ecological and economic role for their properties.

Queensland grazier Angus Emmott writes that his beef cattle enterprise, Noonbah station, has benefited from leaving dingoes and kangaroos alone:

We run a beef cattle enterprise in the top end of the Queensland channel country, southwest of Longreach. As a part of our management plan, we leave the dingoes and the ’roos alone. We see a range of benefits to our operation.

When the dingoes don’t have their social structure disrupted by poison baiting, trapping and shooting, only the apex bitch breeds, once a year at most. These family groups have strictly defined ranges, and they kill or chase off other wild dogs or dingoes that intrude. They also keep kangaroos down to very low numbers, which is a huge benefit in regards to pasture growth and being able to rest our paddocks. The dingoes also keep down feral pig, cat and fox numbers.

Yes, dingoes do take some of our calves, but the benefits of pasture growth and feral animal control result in a net benefit of better land condition and a greater dollar return. Dingoes also benefit biodiversity conservation and soil condition. We acknowledge this management model does not work in sheep country, including for some of our nearby neighbours, and in these cases we need to look at different forms of management, such as fencing and/or companion and guardian animals.

Research supports the financial benefits of this approach in certain circumstances. Some studies have found that, perversely, taking lethal action against dingoes can increase the incidence of attacks on stock and boost the population of herbivores that compete with cattle for pasture.

Solutions for protecting livestock against attack, such as guardian dogs, are also at hand and may be considerably cheaper than constructing and maintaining extensive predator-proof fences. Livestock guardian dogs have been shown to be effective in numerous locations across Australia, on large and small grazing properties. But investment from state and federal government (and related agencies) aimed at encouraging such innovation has been lacking.

Working with the land

Regardless of whether graziers take the drastic steps seen at Wooleen, now is the time to reflect on the direction of Australia’s land management.

If we’re to overcome the many challenges we face, including the impacts of climate change on food production, then we need to support the bold new thinking emerging from rural and regional Australia, and our scientific institutions.

Such ideas could include making better use of native animals – better suited to Australian conditions – as sources of meat, and reforming land use legislation to allow new industries.

Seeing some of the worst land degradation first hand it’s easy to think that it’s all too hard and that environmental repair will take decades, if not centuries. This can invite inertia and apathy, the enemies of positive change.

But the stories of Wooleen, Noonbah and other innovators show us what is possible. Science has helped demonstrate ecological repair can happen faster and to a greater extent than many might appreciate.

Big changes certainly carry risks, and these must be managed carefully, but new and sometimes brave ideas will always improve our understanding of the land. Whatever the outcome, such knowledge helps guide better decisions for more sustainable grazing, farming and bio-diverse conservation.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Angus Emmott to this article.

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

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The Conversation: The bark side – domestic dogs threaten endangered species worldwide

By Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Aaron J Wirsing (University of Washington), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Thomas Newsome (Deakin University)

A domestic dog chasing a wild boar in Banni, India. Image credit: Chetan Misher via Facebook

Humans and their canine companions share many close bonds. Wolves (Canis lupus) were the first animal domesticated by people, some time between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago.

There are now an estimated 1 billion domestic dogs across their near-global distribution.

Domestic dogs include feral and free-ranging animals (such as village and camp dogs), as well as those that are owned by and completely dependent on humans (pet dogs).

Our latest research reveals that the ecological “pawprint” of domestic dogs is much greater than previously realised.

Using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, we counted how many species are negatively affected by dogs, assessed the prevalence of different types of impacts, and identified regions with the greatest number of affected species.

Dogs are third-most-damaging mammal

We found that dogs are implicated in the extinction of at least 11 species, including the Hawaiian Rail and the Tonga Ground Skink. Dogs are also a known or potential threat to 188 threatened species worldwide: 96 mammal, 78 bird, 22 reptile and three amphibian species. This includes 30 critically endangered species, two of which are classed as “possibly extinct”.

These numbers place dogs in the number three spot after cats and rodents as the world’s most damaging invasive mammalian predators.

Even though dogs have an almost global distribution, the threatened species they are known to affect are concentrated in certain parts of the globe. South-East Asia, South America, Central America and the Caribbean each contain 28 to 30 threatened species impacted by dogs. Other hotspots include Australia, Micro/Mela/Polynesia and the remainder of Asia.

Lethal and non-lethal impacts

Predation was the most commonly reported impact of dogs on wildlife. The typically omnivorous diet of dogs means they have strong potential to affect a diversity of species. For instance, dogs killed at least 19 endangered Kagu (a ground-dwelling bird) in New Caledonia in 14 weeks. Threatened species with small population sizes are particularly vulnerable to such intense bouts of predation.

Aside from simply killing animals, dogs can harm wildlife in other ways, such as by spreading disease, interbreeding with other canids, competing for resources such as food or shelter, and causing disturbances by chasing or harassment. For example, contact with domestic dogs increases disease risk for endangered African Wild Dogs in Kenya.

Part of the problem is that when wild animals perceive dogs as a threat, they may change their behaviour to avoid them. One study near Sydney found that dog walking in parklands and national parks reduced the abundance and species richness of birds, even when dogs were restrained on leads.

None of the Red List assessments mentioned such indirect risk effects, which suggests that their frequency is likely to be much higher than reported.

Friend and foe

Despite their widespread and sometimes severe impacts on biodiversity, dogs can also benefit some species and ecosystems.

For example, in Australia, the closely related dingo (Canis dingo) can suppress populations of introduced predators such as red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), and in doing so can benefit smaller native prey. It is possible that domestic dogs could perform similar ecological roles in some situations.

In some regions, dogs and their keen noses have been trained to help scientists find threatened species such as Tiger Quolls. Elsewhere they are helping to flush out and control feral cats.

An emerging and exciting conservation role for dogs is their growing use as “guardian animals” for wildlife, with the remarkable story of Oddball being the most well known.

Managing the problem

Dogs not only interact with wildlife, but can also attack and spread disease to humans, livestock and other domestic animals. As such, managing the problem requires looking at ecological, cultural and social perspectives.

Some of the regions with high numbers of species threatened by dogs are also hotspots for urbanisation and road building, which make it easier for dogs to access the habitats of threatened species. Urban development increases food waste, which feeds higher numbers of dogs. As dogs expand into new areas, the number of species they impact is likely to grow.

We can protect wildlife by integrating human health and animal welfare objectives into dog management. Vaccination and desexing campaigns can reduce disease risk and overpopulation problems. We should also focus on responsible dog ownership, removing dogs without owners, and reducing access to food waste.

Given the close relationship between humans and dogs, community engagement should form the basis of any management program. More research is needed to get a better picture of the scale of the problem, and of how dogs interact with other threats such as habitat loss. Such actions are critically important for ensuring the conservation of wildlife threatened by dogs around the world.

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

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