The following article was on page 14 of today's Sydney Morning Herald. In
light of the new report by the Federal Government's National Land and Water
Resources Audit, the article eloquently describes what many of us have
already become all too well aware of. Worth a read.
How to become extinct
April 23 2003
With nearly 1600 species under threat,
Australia's biological diversity is shrinking.
James Woodford writes that at least $4.5
billion is needed just to restore vegetation.
IN 1990 camel man, amateur historian and
Central Australian legend Phil Gee and his wife
Ifeta discovered a population of black-footed
rock wallabies in the Davenport Ranges in
northern South Australia. A decade later, the
ecologists John Read and Katherine Moseby
went back to check how the beautiful little
wallabies were doing and set themselves up for
a weekend of quiet observing.
But the young scientists were stunned to
discover that before anyone had taken the
opportunity to study the colony they were all
dead. All that was found were a few dried
droppings, a mummified carcass and cobwebs
covering the crevices in which the animals once
Read is a passionate observer of desert wildlife
and felt a personal responsibility for the loss.
"What had gone wrong?" he asks in his new
book Red Sand, Green Heart. "What had
happened to these wallabies that had been
isolated from tourists, cattle, mines, pollution
and even donkeys? Katherine and I suspected
that their population had been restricted to an
unviably small level by the high numbers of
predators and competitors ...
"After reading accounts of mammals in the
1930s that have since become extinct, I was
frustrated that little had been done to save these
creatures. So many excuses could be made. In
those days outback residents were so busy
trying to survive that they were probably not
aware of the impending demise of these
species. Back then no one had the money,
knowledge or support to conserve the critters
that lived out in the boondocks. But what about
Read says he used to imagine how he could
have done things differently had he been alive
70 years ago: "What a joke. I was around in
exactly the circumstances that I had dreamed of
and the result had been no better."
On that weekend Read received his
membership into the club of frightened
Australian scientists who have witnessed an
The passing of the Davenport rock wallaby is
just one small act in the catastrophic collapse
of Australia's biodiversity - possibly the single
greatest environmental disaster that the
continent faces. A new report on biodiversity, by
the Federal Government's National Land and
Water Resources Department, warns that no
other place on the planet has lost so many
The simple answer to what is causing the crisis
is homelessness. The habitat that our
extraordinarily evolved species depend upon is
being destroyed for agriculture and
development, degraded by new management
regimes or invaded by feral residents.
"The most widespread processes threatening
ecosystems are vegetation clearing,
fragmentation of remnant vegetation, grazing
pressure, exotic weeds, feral animals, firewood
collection, salinity and other changed hydrology,
and altered fire regimes," says the Australian
Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002
In its assessment, the Federal Government
directly fingers the land clearing practices of
NSW and Queensland as being the single
biggest destroyer of biodiversity: "Urgent action
is required to halt the clearing of all threatened
ecosystems as well as broad-scale clearing
within the Murray-Darling Basin."
It is only in recent years that the threat posed by
firewood collection in southern and eastern
Australia has been realised. For the insects and
animals at the bottom of the food chain both
home and the next meal is often a rotting log.
Unfortunately, conservation has focused almost
totally on national parks, but they comprise less
than 10 per cent of Australia - about 71.5 million
hectares on both public and private lands -
which means that 90 per cent has been
neglected. Also, only about 12 per cent of the
national parks were found by the audit to have a
"very good standard of management".
"The standard of management of most of
Australia's protected areas indicates that more
can be done," the assessment says. "In most
bioregions [53 per cent], the standard of
management is only fair, though any resource
degradation is retrievable, and in 14 per cent it
is poor, where permanent resource degradation
The management of less than a quarter of all
reserves was considered by the report's
authors to be "good".
No matter what improvements are made to
parks, until the remaining 90 per cent of the
continent is managed with consideration to the
survival of native species then extinction will
remain synonymous with Australia.
Outside national parks, wetlands are being
destroyed, ancient forests cleared, rivers
drained for irrigation and native animal
populations crushed by the presence, in their
millions, of creatures such as sheep and foxes.
The line of plants and animals in the queue for
extinction is now 1595 species long. Nearly
3000 types of ecosystems are considered
threatened. More than one-third of our nationally
significant wetlands are in decline.
The report includes the following devastating
case study of an area just a few hours' drive
from Sydney: "The natural temperate
grasslands that are one of the dominant
ecosystems in the Murrumbateman [on the
Canberra/NSW border] subregion is the most
threatened ecosystem in Australia, having
declined by 99.5 per cent since European
settlement." Plant and animal species have
collapsed and yet officially approved clearing
still occurs there.
Another case study details the impact of
wetland destruction north of Dubbo: "For the
Macquarie marshes, the building of dams and
diversions upstream have significantly reduced
the frequency of flooding and the numbers of
breeding pairs of ibis, egrets and herons have
declined by about 100,000 every 11 years.
Similarly, the number of waterbird species
breeding in the Barmah-Millewa forest on the
Murray River has declined. On the lower
Murrumbidgee floodplain, waterbird numbers
declined by more than 80 per cent over a
19-year period from an average of more than
100,000 to less than 20,000 waterbirds ...
"The most commonly listed threats associated
with this decline are: increased fragmentation,
overgrazing, feral animals and weeds, changed
fire regimes and changed hydrology with many
of these threats having a combined impact on
riparian zones." Although the situation with birds
generally does not seem to be as grim as
mammals - 29 species are dramatically
declining - the assessment warns of what it
calls an "extinction debt". In other words we
have done the damage to the environment and
it is now only a matter of time before a suite of
species will perish. These birds are the "flying
dead" - no longer reproducing, which means
that once the adults succumb the species will
disappear. The job of repaying the debt is an
enormous one that will consume vast amounts
of cash and resources.
"Overall the clearing of land for agriculture
appears to have had the greatest non-climatic
influence on bird abundance in Australia. Some
species have been lost as soon as habitat is
destroyed, but others persist for decades in
remnants. Species in the latter group will
generally decline over time because of loss of
habitat or lack of recruitment from other areas."
The report also highlights that, considering
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on
earth, Australians have given scant regard to
sustainably using rivers. It assessed 209,118
kilometres of Australian rivers. "Over 85 per cent
of river length was classified as having
undergone some environmental modification,
including catchment disturbance, reduced
riparian vegetation, hydrological disturbance
and increases in the load of suspended
sediments and nutrients," the report says.
NSW has a staggering 97 per cent of its rivers
modified. The Northern Territory by comparison
has the smallest - 34 per cent.
Who cares? The report highlights the fact that
nature-based tourism is estimated to make up
4.7 per cent of gross domestic product in direct
terms and 11 per cent indirectly. There is much
more to experiencing Australian wildlife than
seeing kangaroos, emus and galahs - all
species that thrive in our presence. As tourists
and the public become more sophisticated in
their appreciation of nature they increasingly
want to see some of our more unique
creatures. Imagine how much a Tasmanian
tiger would be worth for tourism today.
Also, the Australian landscape and its wildlife
are entangled to a degree that we are only just
beginning to understand - many animals
provide fundamental environmental services
such as pollination of plants, turning over soil
and controlling insect pests.
More than anything, however, it is the simple
pleasure of protecting something that is
beautiful and wild that makes the job of
preserving our flora and fauna so important.
The assessment report describes this as the
"aesthetic" value of biodiversity.
Late last year my family was invited to dinner at
a friend's place on the South Coast of NSW.
Between the main course and dessert our host
asked us to follow him outside into a deepening
dusk. My children were beside themselves with
excitement as we followed through a remnant
patch of forest red gums and into a small
clearing where we were told to stop and watch
the crowns of the trees quietly.
Soon a miniature marsupial emerged, a sugar
glider, seemingly oblivious to our presence. To
everyone's amazement the ball of fluff flung
itself skywards like a base jumper - except
rather than fall to the ground, it magically began
to glide through the air, far into the night, landing
30 metres away without the slightest sound.
Will my children have the same opportunity to
show their children such a wonder of the
Sugar gliders are not endangered. But that
cannot be taken for granted - until 1920
museum collectors went to Coogee when they
wanted to collect eastern quoll specimens.
Today the native cats at Coogee have been
replaced by thousands of the domestic variety.
-Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2003
Also see: "In a ravaged land, 1600 species at risk"
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