Australia under fire for failing to protect threatened animals

Ecologist says Australia has a 'dreadful' track record in planning, monitoring and responding to threats to endangered species
Oliver Milman 26 Nov 13;

Australia is failing to protect its endangered species due a “dreadful” track record in planning, monitoring and responding to threats, a group of leading conservationists has warned.

A paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment states that monitoring is a “critical part” of effective species conservation, but that “many species are being monitored until they go extinct”.

“Management intervention should be triggered when it becomes apparent that a monitored species is in decline,” the paper said. “Most conservation monitoring programs lack pre-planned interventions and a clear statement about how the information derived from monitoring will help to conserve the species.”

Professor David Lindenmayer, an ecologist at the Australian National University and one of the paper’s authors, told Guardian Australia that the conservation situation in Australia was “dreadful” when compared to other countries.

“In the vast majority of cases, we don’t even do the monitoring,” he said. “We roll out billion dollar environmental programs and don’t even measure whether they are successful or not.

“Both sides of politics have been completely derelict in this area. There isn’t enough monitoring as it’s the last thing to get funding and the first thing to get cut. When it is done, it’s done unbelievably badly and there are no trigger points to intervene.”

According to Lindenmayer’s study, of 122 recovery plans for 191 Australian species, only five made reference to monitoring programs with defined interventions to prevent an animal becoming extinct.

The failure to properly deploy these trigger points – for when population or habitat shrinks, or if disease is introduced – has led to the extinction of the Christmas Island bat, as well as the virtual wiping out of the quokka, greater glider and several species of Queensland-dwelling frogs.

Elsewhere in the world, a failure of monitoring and intervention has placed severe threats upon the Sumatran rhino and Iberian lynx, as well as the extinction of the west African black rhino.

“We need to take action and do it early, otherwise these animals end up in captive breeding programs which are often a colossal waste of money,” said Lindenmayer.

“In the case of the Leadbeater’s possum in Victoria, there are maybe 2,000 left and the trajectory has been distinctly downwards for some time. Around five years ago was the time to log the forests less as it was a severe threat that was robustly shown with science. But nothing has been done.

“People think monitoring is expensive, but it only need be 5% to 10% of the conservation budget. We don’t have to monitor everything – we can do it smartly, in a well-targeted way.”

Australia has one of the worst extinction rates for mammals in the industrialised world, with the Department of Environment currently listing 188 species as endangered or critically endangered.

The Coalition government has said it wants a more “business-like” approach to species conservation, pledging to introduce a threatened species commissioner to stem the flow of losses.

A spokesman for Greg Hunt, the environment minister, told Guardian Australia there was a “lack of focus on outcomes around threatened species” under the previous Labor government.

“It has been frustrating to see numerous plans on threatened species that have sat on the shelf to gather dust,” he said.

“The ultimate goal of implementing a threatened species commissioner is to reduce the number of species on the threatened species list by targeting areas where we can make a difference.”

Lindenmayer said it was “too early to judge” whether the Coalition would improve matters, but added that the threatened species commissioner role needed clout for it to succeed.

“If you’re the threatened species commissioner, you’re going to have to tell the Victorian government to log the central highlands far less and not put cattle in alpine grazing areas,” he said. “You’ll also have to tell the Tasmanian government to control sugar gliders, because they are chewing their way through swift parrots.

“You will need to be able to say these things as that’s what the science tells us. The role will need to be endowed with the balls to take on whatever state and territory and ensure that changes are made.”

Experts: do more to save species
CEED Science Alert 27 Nov 13;

Three leading Australian environmental scientists have called for a substantial change to the way the world responds to wildlife that is going extinct.

In a paper provocatively entitled “Counting the books while the library burns”, the researchers produce evidence that many wildlife programs round the world are monitoring species to the point of extinction – often without taking the necessary action to save them.

Professor David Lindenmayer and Dr Maxine Piggott of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and the Australian National University, and Assoc. Professor Brendan Wintle of CEED and the University of Melbourne warn in the journal Frontiers of Ecology that some conservation programs are standing by and watching species die out.

Their work, funded through Australia’s National Environmental Research program (NERP), highlights the growing challenge of saving almost 20,000 endangered animals, birds and reptiles from extinction – and proposes a new action plan.

“Of the 63,837 species assessed worldwide using the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria, 865 are extinct or extinct in the wild and 19,817 are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable to extinction,” the researchers say. “Since the start of the 21st century alone, at least 10 species of vertebrates are known to have gone extinct, although this is likely to be a substantial underestimate.”

Prof. Lindenmayer says that monitoring is vital to effective conservation, to understand the ecology as well as the numbers of a species – but monitoring alone is not enough, especially if it shows the species is in decline.

The team’s study cites 34 cases – mainly mammals and amphibians – from all around the world where the species became locally or totally extinct while it was being monitored. Examples include the Channel Island Fox, the Vancouver Island Marmot, the West African Black Rhino and the Christmas Island Pipistrelle bat.

They also used the case of Booderee National Park, in NSW, where the greater glider – which was originally quite common, underwent a disastrous decline and disappeared totally in 2007. This followed the local extinction of the yellow-bellied glider in the same park in the 1980s.

“The original monitoring plan for Booderee did not include trigger points for action – maybe because of lack or resources or uncertainty over why these animals were becoming extinct. But on the basis of this experience we feel it is possible to include triggers in many future conservation monitoring programs,” Prof. Lindenmayer says.

The team is now recommending a new approach be adopted globally:

• All conservation monitoring programs should contain well-defined trigger points for pre-planned action
• Management intervention should occur when it becomes clear that a monitored species is in decline
• Conservation science should document and learn from cases where there was a failure to save a species.

“We have drawn attention to some cases where a species was monitored passively until it suffered local, regional, or global extinction due to the absence of a pre-planned intervention program,” the team say.

“This is not meant as a criticism of ecological or conservation monitoring, since these are critical for understanding the ecology of a species, determining its threat status, and evaluating conservation options. However, our analysis indicates that many existing conservation monitoring programs are not as effective as they could be at collecting information and prompting relevant actions.”

In future, they recommend, all monitoring programs should be designed to trigger specific management action designed to save the species at risk.

The Environmental Decisions Hub is funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program (NERP). The Hub’s research aims to assist Australian governments in their environmental management and decision making.