Yes, kangaroos are endangered – but not the species you think

Karl Vernes, University of New England

Do you know what kind of animal the mala, nabarlek, or boodie is? What about the monjon, northern bettong, or Gilbert’s potoroo?

If you answered that they are different species of kangaroo – the collective term for more than 50 species of Australian hopping marsupials – you’d be right. But you’d be in the minority.

Include nearby New Guinea, and the number of kangaroo species jumps to more than 70. Kangaroos are so diverse that they have been dubbed Australia’s most successful evolutionary product.

But sadly, not everyone is aware of this great diversity, so most kangaroo species remain obscure and unknown.

Read more:
Bans on kangaroo products are a case of emotion trumping science

This is brought into sharp relief by a new movie that premieres nationally this week called Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story. The filmmakers set out to expose the kangaroo industry, painting a picture of gruesome animal cruelty, an industry cloaked in secrecy, and the wholesale slaughter of an Australian icon.

The film, which includes brutal footage, also includes the claim that Australia’s kangaroos may be heading down the path of extinction.

The film has already screened in the United States and Europe to sold-out premieres, opening first in those places because they are important markets for kangaroo products.

But foreign audiences also probably know less about Australia’s major kangaroo species or the complexities of the kangaroo industry, and may perhaps be more easily swayed towards the filmmakers’ point of view.

Many US reviews have been positive about the film, although one review described it as “frustratingly one-sided”.

Most Australians, whatever their view on the kangaroo industry, would surely agree that if kangaroos are to be harvested, it should be done with minimal suffering. But are Australia’s kangaroos really at risk of extinction?

The iconic red kangaroo. Large kangaroos are typically widespread and secure, unlike many of their smaller cousins.
Karl Vernes

On mainland Australia, four species are sustainably harvested, largely for their meat or fur: the eastern grey, western grey, common wallaroo, and Australia’s most famous icon (and largest marsupial), the red kangaroo.

The best scientific survey data, based on millions of square kilometres surveyed by aircraft each year, puts the combined number of these four kangaroo species currently at around 46 million animals.

This is a conservative estimate, because only the rangelands where kangaroos are subject to government-sanctioned harvest are surveyed. There is almost as much kangaroo habitat again that is not surveyed.

Of the estimated population, a quota of roughly 15% is set for the following year, of which barely a quarter is usually filled. Quotas are set and enforced by state governments, with the aim of sustaining population numbers.

For example, of 47 million animals estimated in 2016, a quota of 7.8 million animals was set for the following year, but only 1.4 million of these animals (3.1% of the estimated population) were harvested.

The wildlife management community is pretty much unanimous that the four harvested species are widespread and abundant, and at no risk of extinction.

Are non-harvested species at risk?

But what of the other forgotten 95% of kangaroo species? The conservation prognosis for these – especially the smaller ones under about 5.5kg in weight – is far less rosy.

The nabarlek – a small endangered rock wallaby from Australia’s northwest – has become so rare that its mainland population in the Kimberley seems to have disappeared. It is now only found on a few islands off the coast.

The boodie – a small burrowing species of bettong – was one of Australia’s most widespread mammals at the time of European arrival, but is extinct on the mainland and now found on just a few islands.

Gilbert’s potoroo holds the title of Australia’s most endangered mammal, clinging precariously to existence in the heathlands around Albany on Western Australia’s south coast. One intense wildfire could wipe out the species in the wild.

Meanwhile, if the alarming increasing impact of cats on our northern Australian wildlife continues, recent modelling suggests that the northern bettong – a diminutive kangaroo that weighs barely a kilogram – will disappear.

Read more:
Australian endangered species: Gilbert’s Potoroo

The list goes on: mala, bridled nail-tail wallaby, parma wallaby, woylie, banded hare-wallaby, long-footed potoroo, Proserpine rock-wallaby – all of these and more could slip to extinction right under our noses.

The culprits are the usual suspects: cats, foxes, land-use change – and our collective apathy and ignorance. Australia holds the title for the worst record of mammal extinctions in modern times, and kangaroos, unfortunately, contribute many species to that list.

Population modelling paints a grim picture for the northern bettong.
Karl Vernes, Author provided

The theatrical trailer for Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story’ features a voiceover from a concerned kangaroo activist, who says:

If Australians really knew what happens out there in the dark, they would be horrified.

Indeed they might. But it’s not just the treatment of the abundant big four kangaroos that are harvested (yet secure) that should attract attention.

The ConversationIf we also look at the other 95% of kangaroo species that need our urgent attention, we might just be able to do something about their dwindling numbers – and the real kangaroo extinction crisis – before it’s too late.

Karl Vernes, Associate Professor, School of Environmental & Rural Science, University of New England

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


Ivory up in flames, but who really noticed? How messages on elephant poaching might be missed

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The world’s biggest burn of illegal ivory.
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The tusks of more than ten thousand elephants went up in flames in Kenya on April 30, 2016 – the world’s largest ever ivory burn. It was meant as a powerful display against poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

But did those flames reach their intended target?

Currently, governments, donors and NGOs aren’t monitoring the impact of these ivory burns. So we tracked the media coverage of the Kenyan burn, with the results published this month in Conservation Biology.

Read more:
Publish and don’t perish – how to keep rare species’ data away from poachers

Who got the message?

We had a simple question in mind with this research: did news of this burn make its way to ivory consumers and elephant poachers, and if so was the message one that denounced poaching?

The answer is a bit nuanced. Certainly the news of the ivory burn was strong (loud and clear) locally in Kenya and Tanzania and heavily amplified by news outlets across the western world (81% of online articles on the burn were produced in the United States).

Filming the destruction of the ivory.
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

Unfortunately, we found low coverage of the burn in China, Vietnam and other countries where demand for illegal ivory is highest.

Of the 1,944 online articles that covered the burn in the countries sampled, only 61 where produced in mainland china. Additionally, more than half of the coverage in China was in English language publications, which may not reach or resonate with all key ivory consumers.

The good news is, media stories around the ivory burn delivered an anti-poaching message. They stressed the importance of burns, ivory trade bans and law enforcement to catch poachers, smugglers and dealers, as key steps to saving elephants.

To burn or not to burn?

The authors on our research paper are a group of scientists and conservationists with diverse backgrounds, across Africa, North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Our values are as diverse as our experiences.

Most of us feel a bit of sadness because watching elephant tusks engulfed in flames is a reminder of elephant slaughter.

For some of us though, the sadness is tempered by feelings of hope and justice – this is ivory that will never go into the hands of illegal dealers and ivory consumers and, as such, acts as a major deterrent.

But for others, the response was upsetting – animals had been murdered, and to add insult to injury, their remains wasted.

In the Kenyan burn, the ivory was estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (A$128 million) on the black market.

These stockpiles of ivory are an unfortunate reality. Ivory is harvested by elephant poachers. Between 2007 and 2014 an estimated 144,000 elephants were killed. If we are lucky, these poachers are caught and their ivory confiscated. Piles of seized ivory accumulate in massive stockpiles across Africa.

So this poses a difficult situation. What should we do with all that ivory?

The haul of illegal ivory, before the burn. Could it be put to better use?
Daniel Stiles, Author provided

We’d all, obviously, rather see ivory where it belongs, on live elephants. In an ideal world ivory would only be collected, if at all, from elephants that died from natural causes and so trade in this product would not be a problem.

But the world isn’t ideal. Even though the price of ivory has declined, elephant tusks have been known to fetch up to US$10,000 (A$12,800). With the financial incentive to poach so high, it sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem.

Ivory for conservation

Some of us believe that destroying ivory sends a strong message against poaching and illegal ivory trade – by saying that ivory is only valuable on a living elephant.

These members of our group think that we might as well burn these stockpiles, to demonstrate that trade should never be supported (as it cannot be adequately policed). They are heartened by the adoption of ivory trade bans by China and the United States.

But others in the group think destroying a quantity of ivory – worth far more on the black market than Kenya’s entire annual wildlife management budget – squanders an opportunity to sell the ivory.

The money could then be used to conserve elephants and other endangered wildlife (although pro-trade proponents acknowledge that there are implementation issues regarding corruption and policing efficacy).

To these members of our group, burning the ivory would be like burning cash in front of a person with no food or shelter.

Deep down inside, we all have one common goal, to save elephants.

Illegal ivory could be used to aid elephant conservation.
Flickr/The Rohit, CC BY-NC

Rather than arguing based on our emotions, that’s why we carried out the latest research – a first step towards helping us decide whether ivory burns will reduce poaching.

Read more:
Can Britain make an ivory ban work? Only if it learns from America’s experience

With the most recent ivory destruction event, in Melbourne, Australia, now is the time to think deeply about the efficacy of these ivory destruction events.

We need messages to be targeted towards the most important audiences, and we need to monitor consumer behaviour – not just the media coverage – in response to these events.

The ConversationThe scientific evidence for which action best saves elephants – burning or using regulated ivory sales to fund conservation – is still inconclusive. But as long as we move forward with ivory destruction, let’s make sure we monitor its impact.

Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, PhD Candidate – Wildlife Cameraman, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

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

Your drive to the shops makes life pretty noisy for whales

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Living alongside humans gets noisier all the time.
Katrina Burgers/

Andrew J. Wright, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

As unlikely as it may seem, your drive to the supermarket is responsible for a lot of noise pollution in our oceans – and a lot of stress to marine life as a result.

Of course, it’s not the specific sound of your car trundling along the street that the fish and whales hear. But many of the products that feature in your weekly shop – from the goods you buy, to the petrol you burn, to your car’s component parts – contribute to marine noise pollution.

Read more:
Noise from offshore oil and gas surveys can affect whales up to 3km away

The fuel

Let’s start with the oil. Before we can drill the oil or turn it into fuel to drive our cars, oil companies have to discover it.

Companies look for oil using high-pressure airguns. These machines are towed across the surface of the ocean, firing off sounds to determine the make-up of sediment layers in the seafloor. These are some of the loudest human-created sounds – researchers working in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean have been able to record the sounds produced from coastal oil surveys.

Rex Virtual Drilling.
Chooywa/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

These sounds are problematic for marine life. Whales and other animals that rely heavily on sound for communicating and finding food are most affected. Hearing is to these animals much the same as vision is to humans. Unusually loud sounds can disturb whales’ behaviour and, if they are close enough, can damage their hearing. There is even some suggestion that the airguns can cause whale strandings, although this is not yet completely certain.

Currently, one-third of all oil comes from offshore sources and this proportion is expected to increase. This can only mean more bad news for our marine life.

The car

What about the metal box that consumes all the oil? Parts for the car are sourced from all over the world and have to be shipped across our oceans. In turn, the raw materials needed to make these parts are usually shipped in from yet more places. The commercial shipping needed for all this represents another problematic source of ocean noise.

The relative density of commercial shipping routes in our oceans.
B.S. Halpern/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The contributions of individual ships may seem trivial in comparison to the loud noise from airguns. However, the world merchant fleet includes around 52,000 ships. Collectively, these increase the ambient noise levels in our oceans. In fact, the amount of low-frequency sound in some parts of our oceans has doubled each decade over the past 60 years.

Humans perceive only some of this sound, because of the very low pitches involved. But these sounds are well within the frequency range used by baleen whales. Recent work suggests that this constrains the communication ranges in whales, causing chronic stress and potentially interrupting mating behaviour.

Parts of the ocean are filling up with man-made noise, and that presents many dangers to marine life.
B. Southall/NMFS and NOAA

The groceries

Oh, and most of your groceries are shipped around the world at some point too, as are many other consumer items – including the battery in your hybrid car, if you have one. Around 90% of world trade is carried by commercial ships at some stage. Not all of this ends up in your shopping bag, but a large proportion enters the consumer market at some point.

Certain grocery items, such as fish, originate from the oceans themselves. Like cargo ships, fishing vessels produce noise from their engines and propellers, but they also have noisy fish-finding sonars and winches as well.

Read more:
10 tips for eating locally and cutting the energy used to produce your food

The solutions

The good news is that noise pollution, unlike chemical pollution, dissipates quickly. This means that the future for underwater noise remains bright. If you want to give the whales a break, just drive a little less, or support higher efficiency standards for vehicles. This will not only reduce oil consumption, but also the wear and tear on your car, meaning that fewer replacement parts will need to be shipped in.

Time for a rethink?
Joe Goldberg/flickr, CC BY-SA

You can also buy locally produced items and support the local economy too. That way everyone wins.

The ConversationNo matter how connected we think everything is, the situation is generally even more complicated than we can imagine. So next time you walk to the shops and buy an apple grown in your state, you should allow yourself a moment to feel good about yourself, safe in the knowledge that you have helped to make the oceans a tiny bit quieter.

Andrew J. Wright, Marine Mammal Researcher, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

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


Friday essay: species sightings

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An echidna in the Western Granites at Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

John Kinsella, Curtin University

A Rare Sight

The bird seen first time here
in forty years sings lightly
on the wire, you turn to touch
the shoulder of a friend
and turning back together
find nothing but sky
and wire trembling.

Brushtail possum evidenced. We had not seen one here in nine years, and there might not have been a sighting long before this. But there might have been. A possum or possums may have been driven out, removed from the roof cavity — there are, sadly, people who will do this and then exterminate them. But this too is conjecture, we’re only going here on the general condition of the bush block when we arrived — the 170 years of colonial erosion, the running of cattle and sheep and horses, the fencing, cropping (to a lesser extent because we are on the rocky northern face of a valley — that happens on the other side of the hills, a couple of kilometres away), and the machinery of colonial domestic presence — house, sheds, driveway, firebreaks.

Once, this area in the Western Australian wheatbelt, like nearby Goomalling (“Place of possums”), was prime habitat for brushtail possums. Even now residual and remnant York gum and jam tree woodland, granite boulders and granite outcrops, in patches of greater and lesser density, provide enough for native fauna to retain a hold.

Since we’ve been at Jam Tree Gully, we have removed internal fences, planted trees and — through not farming animals — allowed the beginning of a return of undergrowth. It’s an agonisingly slow process; this year is the first in nine years that we have actually seen, through self-generation, the reappearance of the shy sun orchid (a single example), scarlet runner (running postman) and a native fern.

Looking south across Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

I am talking about Ballardong Noongar boodja (country), and not “ours” but by the colonial reality of surveys and land titles, “allocated” as our domestic jurisdiction, the act of survey and property hierarchising entitlement (though mining companies believe they have even more entitlement than that, as, of course, does the state, as anyone can tell you who had “their” land reclaimed as part of the Cathedral Avenue widening of the road from York to Quairading and the destruction of hundreds of old-growth salmon gums, wandoos and York gums). As far as I and my family are concerned, we have an obligation to return this land to a health that though distant from its pre-colonial state of health, at least gestures towards it.

One of the dominant linguistic behaviours of our family residency in the area, of our presence, is to discuss what other living things we see every day, and how they relate to the country we see them on. Our son Tim, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, walks the block every day and reports back, verbally and on film, about what he’s observed. These are intricate and informed observations, cross-referenced with what is likely to be seen, differences in, say, behaviour (mating plumage, nesting processes, shifts in song, etc), numbers, and implication. Like his parents, Tim sees language as part of presence, and these observations are an essential part of his own poetry-making.

John Kinsella.
Tracy Ryan

Similarly, I spend my time out on the block doing restorative tasks and acts, and working their language into the matrix of my writing. The language is in flux because rather than a taxonomy, a nomenclature of seeing and presence, what happens is that experience of habitat loss, and attempts at habitat restoration, place words, syntax and utterance as we have it under pressure.

Something else emerges, an active language of presence that needs to critique the ironies of its own impact, of its own vicarious (and direct) participation in the ongoing dynamics of dispossession and acquisition.

Neologisms and new nomenclature might be one outcome, but more often it’s a shift in what constitutes the observing eye and voice, what makes the self in the process. In poetics, we talk about the “I” in the context of the unified self and challenging the primacy of personal observation when language itself creates at the very least a simulacrum of self in which the poem is a cybernetic producer of opinions, surprise correlations and yokings, undoings and interjections. The poem itself is alive — made by the writer, it takes on a life of its own.

So, does this mean I am suggesting the poem itself, for example, channels the disturbances and distresses of country? Well, yes, up to a point.

The wasp making its mud cells and inserting caterpillars or spiders, stunned but alive with a wasp egg laid inside their bodies, to be eaten alive — in a state of life suspended — by wasp grubs, which break out of their dark cells into the light.
It’s a poem that needs no explanation if “made” — it works on levels of allegory, symbol, a glimpse of habitat, and so on. Or maybe something a little more acceptable to a readership which ultimately looks for affirmation of connection with the natural world while benefiting from capitalist exploitation of place (look around us), an echidna moving rapidly downhill, its quills liquid in the fractured light of late afternoon sun streaming over the rim of valley, through the York gum canopy.

Read more:
Australia’s species need an independent champion

We don’t see echidnas often here, but we see evidence of their diggings for ants and termites almost daily. And we see their scats. In fact, coming across scats is how we identify so much, including the brushtail possum. Scats, footprints, scratchings and sounds, especially at night. These languages are outside direct encounter, and often outside a description we might offer. Echidna sightings are coming less often, though evidence of their presence remains strong.

The poem interprets this as avoidance and strategy on the part of the echidna — we respect the not-seeing, and delight in the evidence of presence. Same with kangaroos. But in the case of eagles, the (illegal) killing of an eagle in a pair that were resident for many, many years, is an undoing that is hard to resolve under habitat-loss pressure. It is brutal. But writing about this loss, about the wrong done, cannot be a fait accompli — it must believe in the imagined presence as likely “return” as species, at least.

Roos at Jam Tree Gully just before the fences came down.
John Kinsella

All life we see on the block is vulnerable to human violence — thrill-killings of animals are sadly not uncommon, and there seems a strong link between far-right politics of patriotism and shooting around the district.

Scramble-biking, bush-bashing and remorseless clearing are changing habitat around the zone we “protect” at a far greater pace than when we arrived. It’s easy to use the “fly-in fly-out” dynamic as a distraction for the massive abuse that mining is in Australia, and to separate social issues of employment and purpose when discussing the obvious (“clear-cut”) environmental abuses of miners and their protectors, but nonetheless it is a real impact on ecologies that needs to be factored in.

The psychology of the mine

The impact of flying, the obvious impacts of the mines themselves, but also the psychology of purchasing a country property within a couple of hours’ reach of the city airport to use as a base. So many of the farmlets and blocks around where we live appear to have been bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers (real estate ads often overtly pitch to FIFO buyers, and I offer anecdotal evidence of conversations direct and indirect with and involving neighbours), and in many circumstances the psychology of the mine looks as if it has been brought to those blocks — substantial bush clearing, clear indifference to wildlife, and a psychology of control, ownership and what manifests by intent or default as a disrespect of Aboriginal land rights.

Of course, such attitudes to country are not unique to FIFO miners, far from it, and they have found around them a context of receptivity to such ways. And I do not blame the individual miners for this per se, but I do blame the mining companies and those who facilitate the abuses of land by those miners. A work psychology too readily becomes a life psychology.

An Inland Thornbill at Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

In creating writing that acts as witness to species loss, we too easily become contributors to the archive, to the seedbank of metaphors that substitute for the real thing. It’s like repugnant natural history collections that give us a record of so many lost species when the very process of collecting has been a part of that species loss. Science bears many moral ironies that I feel an active, restorative poem should not. I am not saying a poem shouldn’t ironise the limitations of its own production, its impacts on ecologies; in fact, the opposite. I am saying it should be aware of them and critique its own role in the destruction.

A poem having a role in destruction? I hear you wonder. How so? Because industrialised consumer life is impacting and many, even the most environmentally-minded, make their art through the tools of exploitation.

It becomes a question of genuinely weighing up the cost in terms of the benefit to the environment. Does getting the message out there regarding habitat destruction cost more morally and literally than not doing so? The notion of “costs” needs to be placed under pressure before we begin. An economics of the figurative needs to be held accountable, scrutinised.

Read more:
More sightings of an endangered species don’t always mean it’s recovering

Which brings me back to the language of participation, observation and instruction I intimated when talking of our son Tim and writing what’s happening on the block. My partner Tracy and I are often confronted with the horror of having to say, “We saw a lot of those (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, trees, shrubs, flowers etc) when we were kids, but not often now, or not at all.”

In many cases, flora and fauna we knew as children are now endangered or verging on extinction, not only within the physical areas with which we were most familiar, but across their range.

An example is the brown bittern, which I used to see and hear as a child when around swampy areas, and which is now almost extinct, certainly in the Northam region. Yet Tracy and I, travelling with Tim, had the remarkable experience of very likely seeing (unconfirmed sighting) a black or brown bittern between Toodyay and Perth last year. Tim, a most observant person, didn’t see it because he was studying something else outside the opposite window, and has been quizzing us about the sighting ever since. He has done a vast amount of research, and we have considered all other possibilities (too big for a little bittern, not the right size and shape for a night heron, a bird I know well), and so on. It was really, a notifiable sighting. Not in the sense of an “invasive species” (the irony!), but as an almost extinct species.

Echidna in the Western Granites.
John Kinsella

Would such notification lead to an invasiveness that affected its habitat more, or would it lead to protection? I consider recent sightings of night parrots in northern Australia, and wonder. The “understanding” to “save” can be so destructive — life, persisting against the odds, suddenly disturbed, fetishised, made vulnerable with over-attention. The “leave alone and stay away” approach can often be more effective. At least until the bulldozers arrive, which I’ve learnt over my life is eventually.

So, what do we do? Write a poem of resistance, of embodying the bird but not appropriating it in a poem, of keeping an eye on habitat and acting if it looks under threat?. Where a creature once was, a creature might be. Belonging and the marks of the endemic cannot be erased entirely with all the brutal means of survey and development, though the modus operandi of the state and its private apparatuses is to achieve that, and to convince us it’s been achieved. They want no comeback, to retrospective protections, and certainly no memorialising that cedes authority.

Brushtail possum evidenced. The nature of our interaction yet to be decided — largely by possum, but also by us. Possum enters poems, enters essays, enters stories. But does it become just a word, just an idea separated from its living life, it’s actuality? So easily, yes. Yet tense has a lot to do with it. As an active presence, not a thing of the past, and as a generator of sounds, movement and language. It is not an addition to here; it is here. It is not an exercise of painting a landscape; it is the land.

Read more:
Hidden housemates: when possums go bump in the night

Language used in the poem needs to be alive to the visceral, to a future in which it is not archival but an active presence, a declaration of rights. How can this be achieved? That poem is trying to write itself at the moment, and is finding its feet, its fur, its eating-places and shitting-places. There is an obligation in how we write, and a social implication in all we write.

In the community of the poem, which is both inside the text and outside, a knowledge of species loss and its prevalence might inform an observing, interaction with and imagining of a creature (or plant) as not only at risk, and on the verge of loss, but also as a resistance to collecting, archiving and relegating. The creature isn’t “was” but “is”, always now. We, the readers and hearers, participate in the speech-making of the poem, participate in this “imagining, and acting, in a world”. There’s one biosphere of many worlds. In our writings we need to make the leaps, the segues, the conversations between the one and the many. Brushtail possum evidenced. Listen, listen — on the roof, now, tomorrow!

The ConversationThis is an edited version of a paper given at the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 48th Annual Symposium, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, held November 15 to 17, 2017, in Western Australia. The poem A Rare Sight is from John Kinsella’s The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Press, 1995).

John Kinsella, Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University

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


‘Epic Duck Challenge’ shows drones can outdo people at surveying wildlife

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A drone image of a breeding colony of Greater Crested Terns. Researchers used plastic bird decoys to replicate this species in an experiment that compared different ways of counting wildlife.
Jarrod Hodgson, CC BY-ND

Jarrod Hodgson, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, and Lian Pin Koh, University of Adelaide

Ecologists are increasingly using drones to gather data. Scientists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. Drones have also been labelled as game-changers for wildlife population monitoring.

But once the take-off dust settles, how do we know if drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach?

To answer these questions we created the #EpicDuckChallenge, which involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.

As we report today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way.

Jarrod Hodgson standing in one of the replica colonies of seabirds constructed for the #EpicDuckChallenge.
S. Andriolo

Assessing the accuracy of wildlife count data is hard. We can’t be sure of the true number of animals present in a group of wild animals. So, to overcome this uncertainty, we created life-sized, replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals.

From the optimum vantage and in ideal weather conditions, experienced wildlife spotters independently counted the colonies from the ground using binoculars and telescopes. At the same time, a drone captured photographs of each colony from a range of heights. Citizen scientists then used these images to tally the number of animals they could see.

Counts of birds in drone-derived imagery were better than those made by wildlife observers on the ground. The drone approach was more precise and more accurate – it produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals.

Comparing the vantages: drone-derived photographs and the ground counter’s view.
J. Hodgson

The difference between the results was not trivial. Drone-derived data were between 43% and 96% more accurate than ground counts. The variation was due to how many pixels represented each bird, which in turn is related to the height that the drone was flown and the resolution of the camera.

This wasn’t a surprise. The experienced ground counters did well, but the drone’s vantage point was superior. Observing photos taken from above meant the citizen scientists did not have to contend with obscured birds that often occur during ground counts. The imagery also benefited the citizen scientists as they could digitally review their counts as many times as they needed. This reduced the likelihood of both missing an individual and counting an individual more than once.

The scientists were assisted by many volunteers, without whom the #EpicDuckChallenge would not have been possible.
J. Hodgson

However, even though it proved to be more accurate, making manual digital counts is still tedious and time-consuming. To address this, we developed a computer algorithm in the hope that it could further improve efficiency without diminishing data quality. And it did.

We delineated a proportion of birds in each colony to train the algorithm to recognise how the animal of interest appeared in the imagery. We found that using 10% training data was sufficient to produce a colony count that was comparable to that of a human reviewing the entire scene.

This computerisation can reduce the time needed to process data, providing the opportunity to cut the costs and resources needed to survey wildlife populations. When combined with the efficiencies drones provide for surveying sites that are hard to access on foot, these savings may be considerable.

Using drone monitoring in the field

Our results have important implications for a range of species. We think they are especially relevant to aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigatebirds, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds like pelicans.

Other types of animals that are easily seen from above, including hauled-out seals and dugongs, are highly suited to drone monitoring. The nests or tracks of animals, such as orangutans and turtles, can also be used to infer presence.

Additional experiments will be useful to assess the ability of drones to survey animals that prefer to stay hidden and those within complex habitats. Such assessments are of interest to us, and researchers around the globe, with current investigations focused on wildlife such as arboreal mammals and cetaceans.

We are still learning about how wildlife react to the presence of drones, and more research is required to quantify these responses in a range of species and environments. The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance, and where close proximity is not possible or desirable.

Read more:
How drones can help fight the war on shark attacks

The world is rapidly changing, with many negative outcomes for wildlife. Technology like drones can help scientists and managers gather data fast enough to enable timely assessment of the implications of these changes.

The ConversationWhen monitoring wildlife, increasing the accuracy and precision of animal surveys gives us more confidence in our population estimates. This provides a stronger evidence base on which to make management decisions or policy changes. For species and ecosystems threatened with extinction or irreparable damage, such speedy action could be a literal lifeline.

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, Senior Research Scientist / Section Head, and Lian Pin Koh, Professor, University of Adelaide

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


Pesticide bans might give us a buzz, but they won’t necessarily save the bees

Caroline Hauxwell, Queensland University of Technology

Public pressure is growing in Australia to ban the sale of pesticides called neonicotinoids because of their harmful effects on bees.

The retail chain Bunnings will stop selling the Confidor pesticide brand for homes and gardens by the end of 2018.

Read more:
Ten years after the crisis, what is happening to the world’s bees?

Neonicotinoids along with fipronil, another systemic insecticide that has also been blamed for bee deaths, are widely used in Australia on major crops such as maize, canola and cotton.

Between them they account for up to 30% of global insecticide sales. Will banning these insecticides stop the decline of bees worldwide?

Mites and disease

Insects are in trouble. A recent study found an 80% decline in flying insects, including butterflies, moths and wild bees, in German nature reserves. This has prompted questions about the impact of large-scale intensive agriculture.

Colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees dramatically disappear from honey bee hives, increased hugely in the decade up to 2013, particularly in the United States and Europe. This caused international concern and led to a ban on neonicotinoids and fipronil by the European Union in 2013.

Read more:
Sometimes science can’t see the wood for the bees

However, there are no reports of colony collapse disorder in Australia, according to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which regulates the use of pesticides and monitors the effect of insecticides on bees. Why not?

We don’t fully understand the causes of colony collapse in honey bees, but it appears that a likely culprit is the Varroa mite and the lethal viruses it transmits. This parasite feeds on both larvae and adult bees, and has been blamed for infecting vast numbers of bees with several viruses including deformed wing virus.

Read more:
Explainer: Varroa mite, the tiny killer threatening Australia’s bees

Australia’s honey bees, in contrast to the rest of the world, are still free of Varroa mites. A CSIRO survey of 1,240 hives across Australia found that deformed wing virus is also not present. The absence of both the mite and the viruses it carries may help to explain why colony collapse has not (yet) been observed in Australia.

Pesticide and fungicides, oh my!

While there is clear evidence of harm to bees from the use of neonicotinoids and fipronil, particularly from drift during application, their role as the direct cause of colony collapse is not proven.

And while they can be harmful, neonicotinoids are not necessarily the biggest chemical threat to bees. Perhaps surprisingly, fungicides appear to be at least as significant.

One study found that bees that eat pollen with high levels of fungicide are more likely to be infected with a pathogen called Nosema. Other research showed that presence of the fungicide chlorothalonil was the best predictor of incidence of Nosema in four declining species of bumblebees. What’s more, the toxicity of neonicotinoids to honey bees doubles in the presence of common fungicides.

This is not to say that Australian bees are safe, or that neonicotinoids are not harmful. Australia has more than 5,000 native bee species, and studies suggest that the main impacts of neonicotinoids are on wild bees rather than honey bees in hives. The combination of widescale use of multiple agrochemicals, loss of plant and habitat diversity, and climate change is a significant threat to both wild and domesticated bees.

And if the Varroa mite and the viruses it carries were to arrive on our shores, the impact on Australia’s honey bees could be catastrophic.

Banning pesticides affects farmers

The EU insecticide ban left Europe’s farmers with few alternatives. Surveys of 800 farms across the EU suggest that farmers have adapted by increasing the use of other insecticides, particularly synthetic pyrethroids, as well altering planting schedules to avoid pests, and increasing planting rates to compensate for losses. Most farmers reported an overall increase in crop losses, in costs of crop protection and in time needed to manage pests.

A ban on fipronil and neonicotinoids would create similarly significant problems for Australian farmers, increasing costs and reducing the efficacy of crop protection. As in Europe, they would potentially increase use of synthetic pyrethroids, organophosphates and carbamates, many of which are even more harmful to bees and other insects.

Read more:
Give bees a chance: the ancient art of beekeeping could save our honey (and us too)

Reliance on a more limited range of insecticides could also worsen the incidence of insecticide resistance and destabilise Australia’s efforts to balance resistance management and pest control with preserving beneficial insects.

Further development of these sophisticated pest management strategies, with emphasis on the use of less harmful alternatives such as microbial and biological controls, offers a route to a more effective, long-term solution to the decline in insects and bee health.

The ConversationA ban on neonicotinoids might give campaigners a buzz, but it might not save the bees.

Caroline Hauxwell, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology

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


The Orcas of Tromso, Norway