Tag Archives: extinction

Sydney Morning Herald: Bringing back the devil

Tasmanian Devils could return to mainland Australia in the name of conservation. Image credit Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr

Tasmanian Devils could return to mainland Australia in the name of conservation. Image credit Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr

Reintroducing Tasmanian Devils to mainland Australia could solve a raft of conservation issues, and Wilson’s Promontory seems to be the ideal place to start.

Read more at the Sydney Morning Herald.

ABC Radio: Number of rhinos killed illegally in South Africa hits new high

In 2012, I penned a piece for The Conversation about farming endangered species such as rhinos. I posed questions about what it means to farm an animal — taking it out of its evolutionary and ecological context — for the purpose of… conservation? Or is this just another means to extinction?

What if the only rhinos left in the world existed in zoos? Or horn factories? Image credit: Steve Evans via Flickr

What if the only rhinos left in the world existed in zoos? Or horn factories? Image credit: Steve Evans via Flickr

Yesterday I was interviewed by ABC radio’s Sarah Sedghi about this topic in the wake of devastating news that illegal rhino poaching in South Africa has hit a record high.

Read the transcript here.

The conversation: Mourn our lost mammals, while helping the survivors battle back

he thylacine is just one of Australia’s mammals to disappear since European settlement. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The thylacine is just one of Australia’s mammals to disappear since European settlement. Image credit: Baker, EJ Keller, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Dale Nimmo, Deakin University, Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney.

“There was a plague of them and one night I got approximately 300 which had been poisoned in the garden during night. This went on for two or three years.”

Take a second and have a guess what animal species this quote might be referring to. Here’s a hint, the quote is from western Victoria, Australia, during the 1800s.

What did you guess? A house mouse, or another introduced species like a rabbit?

In fact, the quote refers to a native mammal species, the eastern quoll. A species that was “one of the commonest animals” in southeastern Australia, a species that would plague, is now officially extinct on the mainland. It has been more than 50 years since a confirmed sighting.

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world. More than a third have become extinct since European settlement​, or are currently threatened with extinction. But what about the survivors? And what can we do to prevent further losses?

A lost world

Few Australians would appreciate just how much our native mammal communities have changed since European arrival more than 200 years ago. Early quotes from books and newspaper articles like the one above, painstakingly collated by researchers, offer some insight.

Early explorers made similar notes about abundant mammals because their dogs were “completely distracted by the numbers of wallabies, paddymelons and kangaroo rats that bounded off on all sides”.

Their poor horses would struggle through the sandy soils that were “full of Wallabi holes”.

Such quotes describe an Australian landscape rich in native wildlife. A landscape that, owing to the decline and extinction of so many mammal species, has radically changed.

The abundant mammals that distracted the dog and made life difficult for the horse probably refer to species long gone. According to researchers, the burrowing bettong, which is now extinct on mainland Australia, was probably the “kangaroo rat” responsible for those pesky holes.

The “paddymelons” and wallabies are probably the eastern hare and/or bridled nailtail wallabies; the former now extinct, the latter now restricted to a few pockets across eastern Australia.

On the bright side

Even with the sad loss of so many native mammals, Australia retains a suite of truly fascinating species, many of which occur right among us.

In Melbourne’s suburb of Cranbourne, populations of southern brown bandicoots persist, fossicking in people’s gardens and dining from dog’s bowls by night.

Species of flying fox survive in our inner cities and darken the dusk sky as they leave their colony for their nightly foraging.

In most major capitals, some possum species are so common as to be an annoyance to many as they bound over roofs and devour prized roses.

Less raucous but arguably more striking sugar gliders and striped possums occupy urban parks, while a range of species of pygmy possums and hopping mice live on in our parks and reserves.

A diverse array of kangaroo species still bound through rural landscapes, sharing paddocks with wombats, echidnas, dingoes and koalas. Platypuses fish for yabbies in farm dams nearby.

Australia is still blessed with spectacular and globally unique mammals. But we can do better.

Where to next for Australia’s mammals?

As part of the federal government’s National Environmental Science Programme, approximately A$30 million is being devoted to a Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Australia’s native mammals will undoubtedly be a focus of the hub, as many species are on the brink of extinction.

However, one thing our history of mammal extinctions has taught us is that complacency is our worst enemy. Common species go extinct, and can do so rapidly.

It’s not just about conserving threatened species. The decline of eastern quolls, and many other similarly rapid declines of common species, tell of the need to be vigilant.

On the other hand, species that are regionally extinct should not be forgotten when assessing how our conservation dollar is best spent. This is particularly true for species that perform important functional roles that benefit other species (or entire ecosystems), such as native predators. Just as complacency is to be avoided, an aversion to taking calculated risks and trying new approaches in conservation also jeopardises our species’ chances of survival. We urgently need to go further and be bold if our landscapes are to be restored.

The revival of apex predators across Europe, species such as wolves, bears and lynx, demonstrates that biodiversity change is not a one way street. Indeed, few would have predicted a predator renaissance in Europe 50 years ago. Yet, European society has deemed that predators are important to conserve and they are actively restoring them.

There are emerging signs that Australians are up to the task too.

The western quoll, a species that once occurred in every mainland state (now restricted to southwestern Western Australia), has been reintroduced to the Flinders Ranges, and is reproducing.

There is growing support for ambitious projects such as the reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils onto mainland Australia, both for their own conservation and to help control invasive predators, such as red foxes and feral cats. The eastern quoll also persists in Tasmania and so their reintroduction to mainland Australia remains a possibility.

Even dingoes are being recognised for considerable conservation values, and at times, their economic benefits.

Organisations are being assembled to specifically promote and support the recovery of many of our iconic apex predators.

It is time for the public, governments and non-government organisations to capitalise on this momentum and support audacious projects that seek to rewild Australia and restore its natural glory.

Let us hope that a future not so far away will see our landscapes reinvigorated by a resurgent mammal fauna.

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

The Conversation

 

The Conversation: We have more parks than ever, so why is wildlife still vanishing?

By Bob Pressey, James Cook University and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University.

Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest – but we need to make sure parks are actually protecting wildlife from threats. Rita Willaert/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest – but we need to make sure parks are actually protecting wildlife from threats. Image credit: Rita Willaert via Flickr

While we can never know for sure, an extraordinary number of animals and plants are threatened with extinction — up to a third of all mammals and over a tenth of all birds. And the problem is getting worse.

At the same time, we have more land and sea than ever in protected areas (“parks”) — more than 200,000 protected areas covering about 15% of the world’s land area and 3% of the oceans.

So why are protected areas making so little difference?

This is a vital question about the future of nature that should be discussed at Sydney’s World Parks Congress, beginning today.

This once-in-a-decade Congress, led by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), will be attended by thousands. A sobering reality will lie behind the excitement and networking: while protected-area systems expand, we are losing the planet’s species at an alarming rate.

One reason is that protected areas are only one of our tools, and will never do the job alone. IUCN could say, though, that it’s doing the best it can.

But another reason, more confronting for IUCN, is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places.

Protecting the leftovers

Just about anywhere people have looked, the majority of protected areas are residual — leftover areas of the world pushed to the margins where they least interfere with extractive activities such as agriculture, mining, or forestry.

On land, protected areas are mainly remote or high, cold, arid, steep, and infertile. Similar patterns are emerging in the sea.

Residual protected areas, by definition, make least difference to conservation.

Meanwhile, biodiversity continues to be lost in landscapes and seascapes suitable for clearing, logging, grazing, fishing, and extraction of minerals, oil, and gas.

Residual protection also gives the false appearance of progress because many people equate the number of protected areas and their extent with success.

These figures are only “good news” if they tell us about the difference these parks make to conservation. They don’t.

Failing to stop the losses

The most rigorous estimates of the difference that protected areas make are small.

By 2008, only 7% of Costa Rica’s much-lauded protected-area system would have been deforested in the absence of protection.

Globally, in 2005, the loss of native vegetation prevented by protected areas was 3% of their extent.

These numbers get to the very purpose of protected areas. They are small because protected areas are mainly residual.

Aiming for the wrong targets

Protected areas that make little or no difference should be a major concern for IUCN, especially because targets for protection endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity at best obscure and at worst encourage the failure of protected areas to make a difference.

The Convention’s targets are meant to guide decisions on protected areas to 2020. The only unambiguously quantitative target (number 11) says nothing about making a difference. It aspires to 17% of land and 10% of the sea under formal protection.

The result has been a rush to proclaim large, remote protected areas where they are easiest to establish and make least difference. The story is familiar in conservation and beyond: provide a simplistic metric that implies success, and it will be manipulated to achieve high scores.

Another of the Convention’s targets (number 5) gets closer to the real purpose of protected areas, but remains problematic: “By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation [are] significantly reduced.”

But there are problems here too. Before we halve the rate of loss, we need to know what the “baseline” rate of loss is — and over what period it should it be measured. Should it be measured in the past, when loss might have been slower, or now? Habitat loss also varies across the world — does that mean that reduction in loss rates of some areas can offset faster losses elsewhere?

Several kinds of tropical forests, for example, housing most of the world’s terrestrial species, are being lost rapidly. For these, even a halving of the rate of loss will mean mass extinction.

Australia setting a bad example

IUCN’s mission is hindered by recalcitrant governments.

Australia, as host of the World Parks Congress, will show off its conservation wares. The display window is less impressive than when Australia genuinely led global conservation thinking from the 1970s to 1990s.

Our protected areas on land, such as those in the host state, are strongly residual (claims of an improving trend are based on inadequate data).

Australia’s marine parks, which are directed more at satisfying total protected area than protecting threatened marine biodiversity, show other countries how not to protect the sea.

And the only quantitative targets in Australia’s Strategy for the National Reserve System — for protected extent and coverage of regional ecosystems — leave plenty of scope for more parks that make little or no difference.

Not content with marginalising protection, Australian governments are weakening what’s there. Parks on land are being opened up for livestock grazing, industrial logging, mining, “conservation hunting”, and commercial development.

No-take zones in marine parks are being opened up for fishing. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is in jeopardy and the plan to fix it is destined to fail.

Four steps to make parks work

Here are four ways for IUCN to lead the way to parks that make a bigger difference:

  1. Stop using targets that give the illusion of conservation progress. These include the number and extent of protected areas and percentages of countries, states, or regions covered. At best they will inadvertently obscure the real signal. At worst they will be used perversely to dress up residual protection.
  2. Measure success as the difference protected areas make relative to no protection. This is “impact evaluation” in fields such as medicine, education, and development aid, where difference means saving and improving human lives. If saving species is also important, evaluating the impact of protected areas is essential.
  3. Establish an IUCN Task Force to develop ways for evaluating the impact of protected areas, considering both biodiversity and human livelihoods. Assess the impact of current protected areas to provide lessons for management and future planning. And test approaches to setting priorities as the predictions they are.
  4. Develop targets for the impact of protected areas: how much threat should be averted and how much loss should be avoided?

Ultimately, the success of conservation depends on what natural resources are left unexploited by humans so that other species can survive.

Protection that does not avoid the loss of species and ecosystems merely gives the appearance of conservation progress under exploitative business-as-usual.

Real conservation – the kind that makes a difference – depends on IUCN’s leadership. Every year of delay means irreversible, avoidable loss of biodiversity.

This article was co-authored by Dr Piero Visconti, Board Member of the European Section of the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C.

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

The Conversation

Herald Sun: Predators such as sharks essential for world’s health

Sharks are critical to keeping environments in balance. Image credit: Terry Goss [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Sharks are critical to keeping environments in balance. Image credit: Terry Goss [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

We have good reason to fear sharks and lions.

None of us wants to be an animal’s next meal.

And a number of recent fatal shark attacks in Western Australia have intensified the issue of human-predator conflict.

In response, the WA Government has introduced a shark cull to create “safe zones” for beachgoers – with the first killing on the weekend.

Thousands of people, including surfers, have since rallied against the move.

So what are the broader consequences of losing sharks and other large predators?

Landmark research in the international journal Science this month reviewed the conservation status and ecological roles of the world’s 31 largest carnivores.

Our study suggests that we should be greatly concerned about the ongoing loss of predators.

We studied lions, tigers, African wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs, wolves, lynx, otters, bears, hyenas and dingoes. The study spans all continents except Antarctica.

Alarmingly, roughly 75 per cent of all predators are declining and headed towards extinction.

So unless genuine and urgent efforts are made to conserve these animals, many of them could be gone for ever.

What happens when predators decline or, worse, disappear? In short, wherever we looked, we saw major environmental problems.

Research on Australia’s top predator, the dingo, tells a compelling story.

Over much of the continent, this native predator is shot and poisoned to protect livestock.

But science has now shown that by killing dingoes we make life easier for introduced foxes, cats, goats and pigs, as well as native kangaroos.

This has many impacts: most importantly the net loss of our native animals.

And in many cases, we actually lose more stock after killing dingoes. More sophisticated solutions to managing dingoes are available, like the use of livestock guardian dogs.

Globally, when top predators are lost, the number of mammals grazing on vegetation goes up, causing soil erosion, lower carbon sequestration and loss of habitat for native animals. Predators can also prevent the spread of disease.

In Africa, we are also seeing children forgoing an education to stay home and help their families protect crops from raids by rising numbers of Olive baboons, once kept in check by leopards and lions.

So what about sharks?

Like other top predators, they are critical to keeping environments in balance.

When large sharks are culled, numbers of rays and smaller fish species increase dramatically. Because these smaller species feed on commercially valuable fish, the economic impacts can be huge.

If endangered and legally protected species such as great white sharks are targeted and killed under government orders, we are surely within our rights to request a full cost-benefit analysis.

We need to make sure millions of taxpayer-funded dollars are not being wasted or even making things worse.

Persecuting sharks is not the answer. The management of any wildlife should be based on sound scientific evidence, not political rhetoric.

Clearly, predators have far-reaching ecological, economic and social benefits that are grossly underappreciated.

There is no doubt predators pose challenges, such as wolves attacking livestock and sharks attacking humans. But education and new management practices offer alternatives to culling.

When sharks were culled in Hawaii there was no long-term benefit because shark attacks occurred immediately after.

This is because many species of shark are migratory – some travelling thousands of kilometres. This means killing sharks in a local area only is doomed to fail.

Public education programs about sharks and installing shark exclusion nets is more sensible.

It is telling that many recent victims of shark attacks have come out to protest against the planned shark cull in WA.

Clearly, many people, including those most deeply affected, want smarter solutions to coexisting.

With all of this in mind, governments must find and encourage better ways for people and predators to live together. Failure to do so places us all at risk.

This post was originally published in the Herald Sun. Click here to read the original article, including reader comments

HeraldSun350x78

Science live chat: protecting the world’s predators

A live chat with Science journal associate editor, Sacha Vignieri.

In this 48-minute Google+ Hangout, we ask: what is it about large predators that makes them so important in ecosystems? How can we ensure their continued survival in a world with increasing human encroachment? And what would a world without predators look like if we fail?

Watch on the Science website

Watch on YouTube

The Conversation: Should we move Tasmanian Devils back to the mainland?

This Tasmanian Devil needs a holiday. How about the mainland? Flickr/sillypucci

This Tasmanian Devil needs a holiday. How about the mainland? Image by sillypucci [CC BY-NC 3.0] via Flickr

In almost all parts of the world our environment is under siege and we are losing the battle to save many species from extinction. The most common threats behind this unfolding catastrophe are habitat loss and modification, invasive species, and climate change. What can we do?

Usually we focus on treating the symptoms — planting trees or shooting pest animals — but these treatments often fail. Perhaps we need radical new solutions for fixing broken ecosystems.

One such solution could be introducing (or reintroducing) species to ecosystems. There is now a serious and broad-based proposal to release Tasmanian Devils into the wild at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, saving devils from extinction in Tasmania, and restoring damaged ecosystems on the mainland.

What is rewilding?

We can look at the Tasmanian Devil proposal in terms of an ecological concept known as rewilding. In essence, rewilding seeks to restore ecological function to habitats by introducing or reintroducing species that could perform vital roles.

Perhaps the best example comes from Yellowstone National Park in the US, where wolves were returned after a 70-year absence. Wolves are crucial to Yellowstone’s ecosystems. Without them herbivores like deer and moose flourish, and prevent trees from producing saplings (see video below).

In Australia, the Tasmanian Devil is an ideal candidate for reintroduction to the mainland.

Saving devils

Tasmanian Devils used to inhabit mainland Australia. When exactly they went extinct on the mainland is uncertain, with dates ranging from 5,000 to as recent as 500 years ago. But in 1881 Frederick McCoy, the first director of the National Museum, noted that Tasmanian Devils (or perhaps that should be “mainland” devils) are very common in the most recent cave deposits in Victoria. These fossils are identical to living devils in Tasmania.

Why they became extinct is more mysterious. Various theories have attributed blame to climate change, over-hunting by Aboriginal Australians, and dingoes.

But whatever the cause, current conditions at Wilson’s Promontory closely resemble those in Tasmania, and have likely remained unchanged for thousands of years, with no dingoes and plenty of prey. So we can be sure that the devils would fit in.

But why move them now?

One excellent reason is that there is a genuine risk that devils could become extinct in the wild by 2025, as a result of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). A mainland population would act as a large, wild insurance population, outside of Tasmania where DFTD is present.

How would the mainland benefit?

So we know Tasmanian Devils have been on the mainland before, and that moving them might help save the species from extinction. But what could devils offer the mainland?

One of the biggest benefits devils could offer is in the control of the red foxes, feral cats and overabundant herbivores (such as wombats, rabbits and wallabies). Evidence for this comes from Tasmania. Following the decline of devils due to DFTD, species such as the feral cat have been increasing. This in turn is associated with a halving in population size of a smaller, native predator, the Eastern Quoll (once present, but now extinct in Victoria).

Some have also suggested that the reason foxes have only recently established themselves in Tasmania is not solely due to humans introducing them, but because devils declined around the same time. Prior to DFTD, devils may have been acting as a first line of defence against foxes by killing their cubs.

Currently we spend a lot of money managing foxes on mainland Australia through baiting programs. But are we going to do this forever? Devils may provide a 24-7 predator control service, free of charge.

Focusing on foxes also ignores the fact that there is no effective control of probably Australia’s most damaging feral animal, cats. As noted above, devils are capable of limiting cats too.

Another issue at Wilson’s promontory is an over-abundance of herbivores including wombats, swamp wallabies, rabbits, kangaroos and hog deer. All of these increased rapidly following the removal of dingoes in the 1940s.

In high numbers these herbivores can radically alter habitats, making them unsuitable for other species. We can shoot herbivores to keep them down, or we could introduce a natural predator such as Tasmanian Devils.

What’s next?

Parks Victoria and an ambitious multi-institutional research hub, the Wildlife Biodiversity Co-operative Research Centre are behind the new proposal to move devils to Wilson’s Promontory. Planning is underway for a comprehensive proposal to the Victorian and Tasmanian governments, and thorough consultation with the public.

With this in mind I urge our leaders to be bold and act now. There are always risks with moving species, but not taking calculated risks to conserve our wildlife is perhaps even worse. A devil reintroduction should be viewed as a positive and strategic national decision, and one for which future generations will thank us.

It is not often we can achieve win-wins in conservation, but helping prevent the extinction of the Tasmanian devil by re-establishing a mainland population, and restoring desperately needed ecosystem function to habitats, may just be the best conservation win-win waiting to happen.

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

The Conversation

Relaxed laws imperil Australian wildlife

This letter was originally published in Nature on behalf of 21 co-signatories. DOI

Policy and legislative changes by Australia’s state governments are eroding the vital protection of the country’s unique biodiversity.

Reserves are being opened up to ecologically disruptive activities, such as grazing by domestic livestock, logging, mining, recreational hunting and fishing, and commercial development. Protected habitats on private and leasehold land are imperilled too. Queensland and Victoria, for example, are relaxing hard-won laws that limit vegetation clearance on private land, further accelerating the loss of regional biodiversity.

Collectively, these actions increase the pressure on biodiversity conservation in protected areas, many of which are already showing biodiversity loss (for example, the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia). Ecological connectivity is being lost, which will hamper the dispersal of species and their ability to respond to climate-change effects.

Species extinctions are primed to increase. Too many of the country’s unique fauna and flora have been wiped out over the past two centuries (see, for example, C. Johnson Australia’s Mammal Extinctions; Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), including the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus murrayi) in 2009.

There could be no worse time to weaken reserve protection and relax laws designed to reduce habitat loss.

Australian Geographic: Extinction – is it really that bad?

Perhaps society’s biggest challenge, and arguably our largest failure, is the continuing loss of species from Earth.

We still have little idea of how many species exist on Earth. Only a fraction have been formally described, and even fewer assessed for their conservation status.

How do we conserve what we don’t know exists?

Thylacinus cynocephalus, the extinct Tasmanian Tiger

Thylacinus cynocephalus, the extinct Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine

If Earth were a house, it would be as though we had listed the contents of only one room, and even then were not aware of their true value, while simultaneously the house was being demolished.

Read my article in Australian Geographic

The Conversation: Extinction – just how bad is it and why should we care?

The state of extinction, what we know about declining species, and why biodiversity is so important.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise. Image:  putneymark [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise. Image: putneymark [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

“Dad, the world is missing amazing animals. I wish extinction wasn’t forever”.

Despite my wife and I working as biologists, our five-year-old son came to make this statement independently.

He is highlighting what I and many others consider to be society’s biggest challenge, and arguably failure: the continuing loss of species from Earth.

Read more at The Conversation

Australian Geographic: Australia’s most endangered species

Home to some of the most extravagant, eccentric and dangerous animals, Australia also has some of the most endangered wildlife in the world.

Our unique marsupials and monotremes are a source of pride, but Australia also has the dubious honour of the highest extinction rate of any nation.

The orange-bellied parrot, Neophema chrysogaster, is one of Australia's most endangered species. Image: JJ Harrison [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The orange-bellied parrot, Neophema chrysogaster, is one of Australia’s most endangered species. Image: JJ Harrison [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

“Importantly, research clearly shows that biodiversity contributes significantly to our survival, well-being and enjoyment of life, so when we lose species at the rates that we’re currently witnessing, we should be gravely concerned,” says Dr Euan Ritchie an ecologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.

Read about Australia’s 10 most critically endangered species, and why keystone species are often apex predators.

The Conversation: Farming endangered species to save them – extinction by another means?

When we talk of conserving an animal species, what do we actually mean? We might think of a rhinoceros (or any other species, for that matter) pursuing its natural way of life in its native environment, perhaps in a reserve or national park. And why should we want to conserve species? Our thinking may not go much beyond the idealistic position that they have a right to exist and that we (and our children and grandchildren) have a right to see them.

Is the only way to save the rhinos to commodify it? Image by Trisha M Shears [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is the only way to save the rhino to commodify it? Image by Trisha M Shears [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is all well and good, but behind the scenes and out of the range of the spotlight there surely lurks a shadow. Do we conserve a species because we value it in its own right? More often than not, a declining species may be saved because it offers a tangible commodity to be exploited; and it recovers simply because we have found a different way of exploiting it.

Read more at The Conversation