UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.

Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.

A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.

Covid-19 graphic
Microbes can pass from animals to humans, causing disease pandemics.
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Humans costs are mounting

The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:

…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.

The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpazees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).

The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.

But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.

Doctor giving injection to patient
Governments are focused on pandemic responses such as developing vaccines, rather than prevention.
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As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:

…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.

The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.




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It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.

People wearing masks in a crowd
The cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention.
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A way forward

The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:

• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation

• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption

• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.

Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:

  • education policies

  • labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured

  • providing incentives for sustainable behaviour

  • increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.

People inspecting haul of wildlife products
Cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent pandemics.
AP

An Australian response

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.

However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.

For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.

The government cut funding of environmental studies courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce so called “green tape” in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic will be led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.




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Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.

But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.

Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.

As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Adjunct Professor University of Western Australia, Institute of Agriculture

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

How much the budget undervalued conservation: 16 World Heritage sites received less than Sydney Harbour



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Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The proportion of Earth’s surface designated as “protected” has expanded over the past decade. But new findings show these areas have failed to improve the state of the environment, casting doubt on government commitments to biodiversity conservation.

Our global research published in Nature yesterday found between 2010 and 2019, protected areas expanded from covering 14.1% to 15.3% of global land and freshwater environments (excluding Antarctica), and from 2.9% to 7.5% of marine environments.




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However, 78% of known threatened species and more than half of all ecoregions on land and sea remain without adequate protection. In Australia, we found nearly half of land-based ecoregions and threatened species have inadequate protections.

“Adequate” protection is different for individual species, but typically requires 10-100% of a species’ geographic range to be under some form of protection.

The Coalition government’s federal budget allocated A$233.4 million to six Commonwealth-run national parks — but most will be spent on tourism infrastructure upgrades. What’s needed is more staff and equipment to restore, enrich and maintain natural ecosystems, and to secure our most iconic natural places.

The best and worst performing countries

Our global assessment examined how nations are tracking a decade after committing to UN targets for area-based conservation: at least 17% of land and 10% of ocean must be protected by 2020.

Best-performing countries include Botswana, Hungary and Thailand. Botswana’s protected area estate adequately covers 86% of its ecoregions and 83% of its threatened species.

Chobe National Park in Botswana covers 1,170,000 hectares of savannah, woodland and marsh ecosystems. It was designated in 1968.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

The worst performing countries — such as Indonesia, Canada and Madagascar — have a long way to go to meet these targets. For example, only 3% of Canada’s ocean waters are under formal protection.

But there are alarming and consistent problems with management. Globally, as much as 90% of marine protected areas have inadequate or below optimum on-site staff capacity. On land, some 47% of protected areas suffer from inadequate staff and budget resources. And the global budget shortfall for protected areas likely exceeds the multi-billion dollar mark.

Threatened species in Australia

Australia’s protected area estate is not immune to these management shortfalls. Between 1997 and 2014, there were more than 1,500 legal changes in Australia that eased restrictions, reduced boundaries or eliminated legal protections in protected areas.

Our research also showed less than 1% of the geographic ranges of the orange-bellied frog (Geocrinia vitellina), carpentarian dunnart (Sminthopsis butleri) and upriver orange mangrove (Bruguiera sexangula) — all threatened species — are protected.




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Many of Australia’s savanna ecoregions also have poor levels of protection, including the Mitchell grass downs (less than 3% of its range is protected), Brigalow tropical savanna (less than 5% protected) and southeast Australian temperate savannas (less than 4% protected).

But it’s not all bad news. We found around 36% of Australia’s oceans are protected and 76% of our marine ecoregions have adequate protection.

Protected areas cover 19% of Australia’s land and 36% of its oceans.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

Previous studies also suggest protected areas governed by Indigenous Australians and local communities effectively reduce deforestation pressure and support similar numbers of species to those inside nationally designated protected areas.

How should funds be used?

Protecting our wild places will not come cheap. One estimate suggests an effective global land-based protected area network would cost US$76 billion annually.

This level of investment would ensure each protected area has sufficient staff, resources and equipment to conserve local species and ecosystems. The spending is justified, given the direct value generated by visits to protected areas around the world is valued at US$600 billion per year.




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In Australia, effective conservation typically requires mimicking land and sea use practices that were in place before Europeans arrived, which involves actively managing disturbances such as fire and invasive species.

Funds should also be used to track the biodiversity outcomes of protected areas to make sure they’re meeting their objectives.

Beyond budgets, national governments around the world must be more ambitious when negotiating the next round of international environmental targets, due in mid-2021. These negotiations will define national conservation agendas for the next decade.

Governments must adopt policies that make biodiversity conservation a greater part of broader land and sea management plans. They can, for example, embrace new models for land and sea stewardship that reward good behaviour by farmers, developers and miners.

Budget breakdown

In Australia, most national parks are funded and run by state governments. The federal government, through Parks Australia, is responsible for Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Christmas Island, Pulu Keeling, Booderee and Norfolk Island.

The Commonwealth also plays a key role in funding and managing Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites, including K’gari and the Ningaloo Coast.

Of the A$329.2 million allocated in the budget to protect iconic places, A$233.4 million (71%) is set aside for tourism infrastructure in non-World Heritage national parks in Australia.




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We calculate this provides about A$18,000 for every hectare of Booderee National Park and national parks on Christmas Island, Norfork Island and Pulu Keeling. Most of this will likely be spent on improving visitor amenities or ensuring nearby businesses can stay open, rather than directed to measures such as invasive species control or fire management.

Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million — less than the $40.6 million promised to maintain and restore historical sites across Sydney Harbour.

Kakadu National Park
Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million.
Shutterstock

A further $23.6 million was promised for compliance, enforcement and monitoring activities across Australia’s marine parks. Enforcing no-take marine protected areas improves species populations and biomass, but this funding boost is grossly inadequate. It equates to just 1 cent for every hectare of Commonwealth-run marine parks.

It’s hard to see how these measures will prevent further ecosystem degradation or species extinctions, when conservation of Australia’s biodiversity heavily relies on protected areas.




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In response to this article, a spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said investment in protecting national parks went beyond infrastructure spending, however infrastructure did assist people to “access parks in a responsible manner”.

Ley’s spokesperson said protecting biodiversity was “a core aspect of park operations” and included eradicating invasive species, and interaction with the National Environmental Science Program and the office of the threatened species commissioner.

In addition to national parks, Australia “also has the world’s largest network of Indigenous protected areas, which the government is already in the process of expanding,” the spokesperson said.The Conversation

Sean Maxwell, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

The first step to conserving the Great Barrier Reef is understanding what lives there


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Tom Bridge, James Cook University; Andrea Quattrini, Smithsonian Institution; Andrew Baird, James Cook University, and Peter Cowman, James Cook University

Look at this photo of two coral skeletons below. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same species, or at least closely related, but looks can be deceiving. These two species diverged tens of millions of years ago, probably earlier than our human lineage split from baboons and macaques.

Two white branches of coral
The skeletons of two staghorn coral species with the same ‘bottlebrush’ growth form. They might look similar, but they’re not closely related.
source, Author provided

Scientists have traditionally used morphology (size, shape and colour) to identify species and infer their evolutionary history. But most species were first described in the 19th century, and based solely on features of the coral skeleton visible under a microscope.

Morphology remains important for species recognition. The problem is we don’t know whether a particular morphological feature reflects species ancestry, or evolved independently.

Our new study examined the traditional ideas of coral species and their evolutionary relationships using “phylogenomics” – comparing thousands of DNA sequences across coral species.

Our results revealed the diversity and distributions of corals are vastly different to what we previously thought. It shows we still don’t know many fundamental aspects about the corals on Great Barrier Reef.




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And after three mass bleaching events in five years, not having a handle on the basics could mean our attempts to intervene and help coral survive climate change may have unexpected consequences.

An international team of scientists have developed a new genetic tool that can help them better understand and ultimately work to save coral reefs.

How do we know which species is which?

Despite being one of the best-studied marine ecosystems on Earth, there are fundamental knowledge gaps around the Great Barrier Reef, including:

  1. how many coral species live there?
  2. how do we identify them?
  3. where are they found across the vast Great Barrier Reef ecosystem?

Finding the answers to these questions starts with accurate “taxonomy” – the science of naming and classifying living things.

Identifying species based on how similar they look may seem straightforward. As Darwin famously said, closely related species often share morphological features because they inherited them from a common ancestor.




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However, this can be misleading if two unrelated species independently acquire similar features. This process, called convergent evolution, often occurs when different species are faced with similar ecological challenges.

A classic example of convergent evolution is dolphins and the prehistoric ichthyosaurs. These animals are unrelated, but share many similarities since they both occupy a similar ecological niche.

Ichthyosaurs dominated the world’s oceans for millions of years.

At the other end of the spectrum, morphology can vary considerably within a single species. An alien taxonomist visiting Earth could be forgiven for describing the Chihuahua and the Irish Wolfhound as two distinct species.

Bringing coral taxonomy into the 21st century

We used molecular phylogenetics, a field of research that uses variations in DNA sequences to reconstruct genealogies. From corals to humans, molecular phylogenetics has revolutionised our understanding of the origins and evolution of life on Earth.

Molecular approaches have revolutionised our understanding of the diversity and evolution of corals, shedding light on deeper branches in the coral “tree of life”. But within hyper-diverse, ecologically-important coral groups, such as the staghorn corals from the genus Acropora, we are still in the dark.




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Our new technique addresses this by comparing thousands of key regions across coral genomes (the entire genetic code of an organism) to help identify species in this ecologically important group for the first time. This method will also allow us to identify morphological features that do reflect shared ancestry and help us recognise species when diving in the reef.

About a quarter of all coral species on the Great Barrier Reef are staghorn corals, and they provide much of the three-dimensional structure fishes and many other coral reef animals rely on, just like trees in a forest.

Staghorn coral
Staghorn coral from the Houtman Abrolhos Islands.
Thomas Bridge, Author provided

Unfortunately, staghorn corals are also highly susceptible to threats such as thermal bleaching and crown-of-thorns seastar predation. The future of reefs will be heavily influenced by the fate of staghorn corals.

The risk of ‘silent extinctions’

While we don’t yet know how many coral species occur on the Great Barrier Reef or how widespread they are, many species appear to have far smaller ranges than we previously thought.

For example, we now know some of the corals on Lord Howe Island are endemic to only a few reefs in subtropical eastern Australia and occur nowhere else, not even on the Great Barrier Reef. They evolved in isolation and bleach at much lower temperatures than corals on tropical reefs.

An aerial view of Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island is home to the world’s southern-most coral reef.
Shutterstock

This means Lord Howe Island’s corals are of far greater conservation concern than currently recognised, because one severe bleaching event could cause the extinction of these species.




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The risk of “silent extinctions”, where species go extinct without even being noticed, is one of the reasons behind the Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal Plan for Taxonomy, which has led to the ambitious goal to document all Australian species in the next 25 years.

Intervening now may have unexpected consequences

In April, the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program concept feasibility study found 160 possible interventions to help save the Great Barrier Reef. Proposed interventions include moving corals from warm to cooler waters, introducing genetically-engineered heat-tolerant corals into wild populations, and the harvest and release of coral larvae.

Bleached coral
The Great Barrier Reef has undergone yet another mass bleaching event.
Shutterstock

What could go wrong? Well-intentioned interventions may inadvertently threaten coral communities, for example, through introduction or movement of diseases within the Great Barrier Reef. Cane toads are a famous example of unintended consequences: introduced in the 1930s to control an insect pest, they are now wreaking havoc on Australian ecosystems.

Any intervention affecting the ecology of a system as complex as the Great Barrier Reef requires a precautionary approach to minimise the chance of unintended and potentially negative consequences.

What we need, at this time, is far greater investment in fundamental biodiversity research. Without this information, we are not in a position to judge whether particular actions will threaten the resilience of the reef, rather than enhance it.The Conversation

Tom Bridge, Senior Curator – Corals, James Cook University; Andrea Quattrini, Researcher, Smithsonian Institution; Andrew Baird, Professorial fellow, James Cook University, and Peter Cowman, Research Fellow in Ecosystem Dynamics, James Cook University

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

Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up



Glossy black cockatoo populations on Kangaroo Island have been decimated. But a few precious survivors remain.
Flickr

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

That a billion animals may die as a result of this summer’s fires has horrified the world. For many conservation biologists and land managers, however, the unprecedented extent and ferocity of the fires has incinerated much more than koalas and their kin.

The scale of the destruction has challenged what is fundamentally an optimistic worldview held by conservationists: that with sufficient time and money, every species threatened by Australia’s 250 years of colonial transformation cannot just be saved from extinction, but can flourish once again.

The nation’s silent, apocalyptic firescapes have left many conservation biologists grieving – for the animals, the species, their optimism, and for some, lifetimes of diligent work.

So many of us are wondering: have lives spent furthering conservation been wasted? Should we give up on conservation work, when destruction can be wrought on the environment at such unprecedented scales?

The answer is, simply, no.

A brushtail possum with ears and legs burnt in a bushfire in January.
STEVEN SAPHORE

Acknowledge the grief

Federal government figures released on Monday showed more than half of the area occupied by about 115 threatened species has been affected by fire. Some of these species will now be at significantly greater threat of extinction. They include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the East Lynne midge orchid.

Some field ecologists lost study populations of species that had been researched and monitored for decades. Anecdotally, the fires have affected the best known population of the northern corroboree frog. Others lost substantial amounts of field equipment such as long-established automatic cameras needed to monitor wildlife responses to fire.




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Of course, action is an effective therapy for grief. There is plenty to do: assess the extent of damage, find and nurture the unburned fragments, feed the survivors, and limit further damage to burned but recovering areas of native vegetation.

The official recovery response has been swift. Victoria,
New South Wales and now the Commonwealth have all issued clear statements about what’s happened and how they’re responding. The determination and unity among government agencies, researchers and conservation groups has been remarkable.

A dead koala after the Kangaroo Island bushfires.
David Mariuz/AAP

However, busyness may just be postponing the grief. Many universities have rightly offered counselling to affected staff – as, presumably, have other institutions. Many researchers are bereft and questioning their chosen vocation.

But as we grieve, we must also remember that decades of conservation work has not been in vain. Some populations and species may indeed have been lost in the recent fires – we shall not know until long after the smoke clears. But the conservation efforts of the past mean fewer species have been lost than would have been the case otherwise.

Focus on survivors

Take the subspecies of glossy black cockatoos endemic to Kangaroo Island. Up to 80% of the area the cockatoos occupy has been burnt – but some survivors have been sighted.

Decades of work by researchers, conservation managers and the community had reportedly brought the cockatoos’ numbers from about 150 to 400. Without this extraordinary effort,
there would have been no cockatoos to worry about during these fires, no knowledge of how to help survivors and no community of cockatoo lovers to pick up the work again.

Or take the southern corroboree frog. At Melbourne Zoo, a giant black and yellow frog guards the entrance to a facility where the species is being bred for release. This success is the result of decades of research into this highly imperilled species.




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The captive colony was established exactly because a catastrophic event could overwhelm the species in the wild. This fire season is the latest in a sequence of existential threats.

This hard-won knowledge of threats is also improving the nature and speed of fire response. For example, there is now far greater awareness of the damage introduced predators can wreak, especially after severe fires when animals are exposed and vulnerable in a burnt landscape. Control of feral cats and foxes will be critical. Effective fox control immediately following fires in 2003 was likely to have been critical in the persistence and then recovery of the endangered Eastern Bristlebird.

Introduced herbivores such as deer and horses will remove food resources for native herbivores, damage fire-sensitive soils, and weeds will take advantage of the cleared ground. Managing these threats at large scale soon after fires have been extinguished will be needed.

A wildlife volunteer nurses a rescued flying fox earlier this month.
Stephen Saphore/AAP

Outside the fire zones

The conservation focus of late has, understandably, been on areas burnt. But it is also critical to continue conservation efforts away from the fire zones.

A recent analysis of the 20 species of mammals and birds most likely to become extinct in the next 20 years showed they are scattered across the
country
, mostly in places far from those recently burnt.

The bushfires require large-scale urgent action. But we must not withdraw attention and resources from species elsewhere that need saving. If anything, now we know the unprecedented scale of threats such as fire, more conservation funds are required across the board to prepare for similar events.

A rare pygmy possum found after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.
David Mariuz/AAP

We must not give up

Biodiversity loss is mounting across the world. If this generation is to pass on its biological inheritance to the next, more conservation science and management is urgently needed.

History does not have to repeat itself. Conservation programs have been severely set back, and people are right to mourn the severe impacts on biodiversity. But they should also take solace that their earlier efforts have not been wasted, and should recommit to the fight for recovery.




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In future fire seasons, the emergency response is likely to be better prepared to protect natural assets, as well as life and property. For example, the extraordinary emergency operation to protect the Wollemi pine in NSW could be carried out for multiple species.

Those involved in conservation should lose neither hope nor ambition. We should learn from these fires and ensure that losses are fewer next time.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

Battlefields around the world are finding new purpose as parks and refuges



Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, site of a savage Civil War battle on Sept. 17, 1862.
NPS

Todd Lookingbill, University of Richmond and Peter Smallwood, University of Richmond

The horrors of war are all too familiar: lives lost, homes destroyed, entire communities forced to flee. Yet as time passes, places that once were sites of death and destruction can become peaceful natural refuges.

One of the deadliest battles fought on U.S. soil, for example, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Tens of thousands of men were killed or wounded in three days of fighting. Over 150 years later, millions of visitors have toured Gettysburg Battlefield.

Across the U.S., 25 national battlefield and military parks have been established to protect battlefield landscapes and memorialize the past. Increasingly, visitors to these sites are attracted as much by their natural beauty as their historical legacy.

Our new book, “Collateral Values: The Natural Capital Created by Landscapes of War,” describes the benefits to society when healthy natural habitats develop on former battlefields and other military landscapes, such as bases and security zones. Environmental scientist Gary Machlis coined the phrase “collateral values” – a spin on the military expression “collateral damage” – to describe the largely unintended and positive consequences of protecting these lands.

These benefits include opportunities for picnicking, hiking and bird watching. More importantly, former military lands can support wildlife conservation, reduce water and air pollution, enhance pollination of natural and agricultural areas and help regulate a warming climate.

Watershed adventure camp at Staunton River Battlefield State Park, Virginia.
Virginia State Parks, CC BY

From battlefields to parks

In addition to federally protected sites, hundreds of battlefields in the U.S. are preserved by states, local governments and nonprofits like the American Battlefield Trust. Collectively, these sites represent an important contribution to the nation’s public lands.

Preserved battlefields include old fort sites, like the 33 that have been designated public lands in Oklahoma and Texas, marking wars fought between European settlers and Native Americans. They also include coastal defense forts built in the first half of the 1800s along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. While some battlefield parks are quite large, others are small sites in urban settings.

Internationally, the United Kingdom has an active program to preserve its battlefields, some centuries old. Other Western European countries have preserved World War I and World War II battlefields.

For example, one of the most brutal battles of WWI was fought in Verdun, France. That trench warfare site is now 25,000 acres of regenerated forest that attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. It protects a biologically rich landscape, including wetlands, orchids, birds, bats, newts, frogs, toads, insects, mushrooms and “survivor trees” that still bear scars of war.

Landscape in Verdun Forest.
Lamiot, CC BY-SA

Borders: The Iron Curtain

The largest, most ambitious plan in Europe for transforming a military border centers on the Iron Curtain – a line of guard towers, walls, minefields and fences that stretched for thousands of miles, from Norway’s border with the Soviet Union above the Arctic Circle down to the Mediterranean coastal border between Greece and Albania.

Communist Russia and its allies claimed they had to build a system of military barriers to defend against the NATO alliance of Western European countries and the U.S. But keeping their own citizens in was equally as important. Hundreds died trying to escape.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 ended the Cold War, and the utility of the Iron Curtain and associated military facilities. With the fall of the Berlin Wall that divided the city into halves, a reunified Germany began to develop its section of the Iron Curtain into a system of conservation areas and nature trails, known as the European Green Belt initiative.

One great challenge of this project was balancing the values of conserving nature while preserving the tragic historical legacy of conflict. Most efforts to build collateral values on former landscapes must grapple with this trade-off.

Iron Curtain Greenway: Europeans are creating a system of parks and natural areas stretching across the continent, all connected by the greenswards that have grown along the former Iron Curtain.
European Green Belt Association, CC BY

Other militarized borders around the globe are also becoming conservation sites. For example, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea has been strictly off-limits for people for decades, allowing it to grow into the most important, albeit unofficial, biodiversity reserve on the Korean peninsula.

Similarly, forests have grown up in the extensive minefield created along the Iran-Iraq border during those nations’ war in the 1980s. These forests support Asian leopards and other rare wildlife species. There are proposals to formally protect them as nature reserves.

Hope after tragedy

As open space becomes scarce in many parts of the U.S., Civil War battlefield parks have become havens for grassland birds like this grasshopper sparrow.
NPS/Sasha Robinson

The ecosystems of protected areas, such as parks and preserves, provide vital benefits for humans and nature. Unfortunately, the world is in danger of losing at least one-third of its protected areas to development and other threats. Recognizing the collateral values that have developed on protected former battlefields and border zones may help reduce degradation and loss of these lands.

One recent study estimates that nearly 1 million square miles – 5% of the Earth’s dry land surface – is currently designated as military training areas. These zones could be protected with relatively little investment when combined with social, cultural and political goals, such as memorializing historical events, and could become ecologically valuable places.

No one should forget the brutality of the conflicts that gave rise to these landscapes. However, given the scale of threats to natural habitats around the world, conservationists cannot ignore opportunities to cultivate and preserve natural places – even those that arise from the horrors of war.

This article has been updated to provide the correct location of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.

Todd Lookingbill is a member of the American Association of Geographers

The association is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

Todd Lookingbill, Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment, University of Richmond and Peter Smallwood, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Richmond

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

Non-native species should count in conservation – even in Australia



Australia is home to many new species, including wild camels found nowhere else on Earth.
Author provided

Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney; Chelsea Batavia, Oregon State University; Danielle Celermajer, University of Sydney; Daniel Ramp, University of Technology Sydney; Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney, and Esty Yanco, University of Technology Sydney

As the world struggles to keep tabs on biodiversity decline, conservation largely relies on a single international database to track life on Earth. It is a mammoth and impressive undertaking – but a glaring omission from the list may be frustrating conservation efforts.




Read more:
In defence of invasive alien species



The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List aims to be a “complete barometer of life”. But non-native wildlife is excluded from the list.

Our study, published today in the journal Conservation Biology, questions the wisdom of this omission. It means, for example, vulnerable species facing existential threats in their “home country” may be exterminated freely in another. Excluding these animals, such as wild camels in Australia, and rare Australian frogs living overseas, distorts conservation science.

What counts as ‘native’?

The concept of “native” draws a sharp line between species that count and those that don’t. It is essentially an ethical choice, and a disputed one at that. Regardless of whether one defends or disputes the concept, it is problematic to use a moral term to filter a critical source of scientific data.

Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.

The invisible components of biodiversity – those populations excluded from conservation’s definition of life – can be found in trash lists, where they are described as invasive, aliens, pests, and feral.

So what does the world look like if we include all wildlife in biodiversity assessments? We rummaged around in the “trash piles” to find out.

When all life counts

By focusing on Australian non-native vertebrate species – amphibians, birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles – we did something many conservationists would find unthinkable. We added unloved species such as feral cats, cane toads, the Indian myna, and carp to Australia’s biodiversity counts.

We created maps showing the range of 87 species whose ancestors were introduced into Australia, and 47 species native to Australia that were introduced elsewhere, since European colonisation.

Many of these so-called invasive species are at risk of extinction in their native ranges; 32% are assessed as threatened or decreasing in the Red List. For 15 of them, non-native ranges provide a lifeline.

Australia’s vertebrate species that are threatened or near threatened in their native ranges with significant populations overseas. From left-to-right: Indian hog deer, banteng, wild cattle, wild water buffalo, wild camel; wild goat, carp, wild donkey, brumby, Mozambique tilapia; European rabbit, Javan rusa, sambar deer, and (emigrants) green and golden bell frog, growling grass frog.
Arian Wallach et al

Not only does Australia contribute to the survival and flourishing of these species, but immigrant vertebrates have also added 52 species to the number of vertebrate species in Australia (after accounting for extinctions).

This number in no way indicates that non-native species replace or make up for those that have been lost. And it does not exonerate humans of their role in causing extinctions. But the current data do not even allow us to acknowledge that these species exist.

Because they are not counted in conservation, these non-native populations are subjected to mass eradication programs. Paradoxically, in assessing how such programs are justified, we found conservation is the most frequently cited reason for killing these wild animals.

Dromedary camels were extinct in the wild for some 5,000 years until they “went feral” in Australia, where they are now endemic. Rather than celebrating what is arguably the most extraordinary rewilding event in the world, wild camels were declared a pest. Between 2009 and 2013, Australia spent A$19 million to gun down 160,000 individuals of a species found nowhere else on Earth in the wild.

Likewise, 89% of the global distribution of Javan rusa, a deer species vulnerable to extinction, is in Australia. As pest, they are culled and hunted for sport.

Stated motivations for killing Australia’s immigrant vertebrate wildlife, shown as percentages of species targeted per taxonomic group. Numbers above bars indicate absolute number of species targeted.

Nativism not only renders countless species invisible, along with their unique and fascinating ecologies; it also exposes them to unfettered, unscientific, unmonitored, and unlamented mass killing programs.




Read more:
From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world


Mass killing of non-native species, if questioned at all, is generally explained as protecting native species. But ecology is complex. One cannot simply assume that all non-native populations, in all contexts, do nothing but harm.

Where non-native species do contribute to the loss of native species, humans need to confront the ethical complexities and shoulder real responsibility, rather than simply reach for a gun as a first solution.

In many situations changing harmful human behaviours, like persecuting apex predators such as dingoes, can solve problems that appear to be caused solely by non-native species.

Irrespective of whether we value non-native species or not, there is no scientific justification for expunging large swaths of the living world from conservation data. Smuggling ethically dubious distinctions into data harms conservation science, and has grave repercussions.




Read more:
The toad we love to hate


Persisting with the assumption that we have the right to pick and choose which species “count” looks like playing God. By now, we should have learned we must not.The Conversation

Arian Wallach, Lecturer, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Chelsea Batavia, Postdoctoral research associate, Oregon State University; Danielle Celermajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney; Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and Esty Yanco, PhD Candidate, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney

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

Trophy hunting – can it really be justified by ‘conservation benefits’?



Cecil the lion, before he was a trophy.
Shutterstock/paula french

Melanie Flynn, University of Huddersfield

Killing animals for fun is an activity which divides opinion. It can also be a highly emotive issue, with high profile cases like the death of Cecil the lion sparking global media coverage and outcry. There were even calls for the American dentist who admitted killing Cecil to be charged with illegal hunting.

But despite the strong feelings it occasionally provokes, many people may be unaware just how common trophy hunting is. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) reports that between 2004 and 2014, a total of 107 countries participated in the trophy hunting business. In that time, it is thought over 200,000 hunting trophies from threatened species were traded (plus a further 1.7m from non-threatened animals).

Trophy hunters themselves pay vast sums of money to do what they do (IFAW claims upwards of $US100,000 for a 21-day big game hunting trip). But reliable data on the economic benefits this brings to the countries visited remains limited and contested.

Now the UK government has announced it is considering banning the trade of hunting trophies from endangered species – making it a crime to bring them back into the country.

Advocates of trophy hunting – including major conservation organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wide Fund for Nature – argue that hunting wild animals can have major ecological benefits. Along with some governments, they claim that “well-managed” trophy hunting is an effective conservation tool, which can also help local communities.

This argument depends in part on the generation of significant income from the trophy hunters, which, it is claimed, can then be reinvested into conservation activities.

The broad idea is that a few (often endangered) animals are sacrificed for the greater good of species survival and biodiversity. Local human communities also benefit financially from protecting animal populations (rather than seeing them as a threat) and may reap the rewards of employment by hunting operations, providing lodgings or selling goods.

Indeed, research on trophy hunting does show that it can produce substantial financial benefits, is likely to be supported by local communities, and can be associated with conservation gains.

But it remains unclear in exactly what circumstances trophy hunting produces a valuable conservation benefit. We cannot assume a scheme that works in one country, targeting one species, under a specific set of circumstances, is applicable to all other species and locations.

Also, the purported benefits of trophy hunting rely on sustainable management, investment of profits, and local community involvement. But given the levels of perceived corruption and lack of effective governance in some of the countries where trophy hunting is carried out, one wonders how likely it is these conditions can be met.

And if trophy hunting is really so lucrative, there is every chance the profits will instead be used to line the pockets of rich (possibly foreign) operators and officials.

Death and suffering

This brings us to the question of ethics. Just because an intervention has the potential to produce a social benefit, does not mean the approach is ethical. And if it is not ethical, should it be considered a crime?

This is something of regular concern for social policy. If the evil that a programme introduces is greater than the evil it purports to reduce, then it is unethical to implement it.

I would argue that even if convincing evidence does exist that trophy hunting can produce conservation benefits, it is unethical to cause the death and suffering of individual animals to save a species.

In common with many green criminologists, I take a critical approach to the study of environmental and animal-related crime. This means that I am interested in behaviour that can be thought of as harmful, and may be worthy of the label “crime”, even if it has not been formally criminalised.

When considering global harms and those that impact heavily on the most powerless in society, this approach is particularly important.

Conservation is concerned with biodiversity and animal populations. Contrast this with an animal rights or species justice perspective, where instead of focusing on rights that benefit humans over all other species, the interests and intrinsic rights of individual and groups of animals are considered.

From this viewpoint, trophy hunting undoubtedly causes harm. It brings pain, fear, suffering and death. Add to this the grief, mourning and fracturing of familial or social groups that is experienced by animals such as elephants, whales, primates and giraffes. In light of these harms, trophy hunting is surely worthy of the label “crime”.

Allowing trophy hunting also perpetuates the notion that animals are lesser than humans. It turns wildlife into a commodity, rather than living, feeling, autonomous beings – beings that I have argued should be viewed as victims of crime.

Anthropocentric views also facilitate and normalise the exploitation, death and mistreatment of animals. The harmful effects can be seen in intensive farming, marine parks and “canned hunting”, where (usually lions) are bred in captivity (and sometimes drugged) as part of trophy hunting operations. Where money can be made from animals, exploitation, and wildlife crime, seem likely to follow.

Instead, local communities must be involved in decisions about conservation and land management, but not at the expense of endangered species, or of individual animals hunted for sport. Alternative conservation approaches like photo tourism, and schemes to reduce human-animal conflict must be embraced.

Getting a good shot.
Shutterstock/Villiers Steyn

Banning trophy hunting would provide a much needed incentive to develop creative conservation approaches to wildlife protection and human-animal co-existence. And there is still substantial conservation income to be earned without resorting to trophy hunting.

So governments around the world should introduce bans on trophy imports – alongside providing support for alternative, ethical developments that benefit both wild animals and local communities. Anything less is complicit support of a crime against some of the world’s most vulnerable wildlife.The Conversation

Melanie Flynn, Senior lecturer in Criminology, University of Huddersfield

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

Some good conservation news: India’s tiger numbers are going up



Spotting tigers in the wild is a difficult task.
Author provided

Matt Hayward, University of Newcastle and Joseph K. Bump, University of Minnesota

Indian tiger numbers are up, according to one of the most detailed wildlife surveys ever conducted. Tiger populations have risen by 6%, to roughly 3,000 animals.

The massive survey may set a new world standard in counting large carnivores. The encouraging results validate India’s impressive investments in tiger conservation.




Read more:
Tigers confirmed as six subspecies, and that is a big deal for conservation


A mammoth effort

Large, solitary predators hate being seen. They owe their entire existence to being able to avoid detection by prey and sneak close before attacking.

Hence, when we want to count tigers, the tigers don’t help. But accurate population numbers are fundamental to good conservation. Every four years since 2006, the Indian government conducts a national census of tigers and other wildlife.

The efforts the project team undertakes to derive the tiger population estimate are nothing short of phenomenal: 44,000 field staff conducted almost 318,000 habitat surveys across 20 tiger-occupied states of India. Some 381,400 km² was checked for tigers and their prey.

(There is an application in with the Guinness Book of World Records to see if this is the largest wildlife survey ever conducted anywhere in the world.)

The team placed paired camera traps at 26,760 locations across 139 study sites and these collected almost 35 million photos (including 76,523 tiger and 51,337 leopard photos). These camera traps covered 86% of the entire tiger distribution in India. Where it was too dangerous to work in the field (14% of the tigers’ distribution) because of political conflict, robust models estimated population numbers.

Millions of photos were analysed to create an accurate count of India’s tiger population.
Author provided

Count the tigers

Collecting this volume of data would be an utter waste of time if it were poorly analysed. The teams took advice from some of the world’s foremost experts to sort the photos: pattern matching experts who could identify whether a photo of a tiger taken in the monsoon matched that of a tiger taken in the dry season while walking at a different angle, machine learning experts to speed up species identification, and spatial analysis experts to estimate the populations of tigers and their prey.

The research team took this advice and coupled it with their own knowledge of tiger ecology to develop a census that is unique among large carnivore studies.

We were fortunate enough to be among the non-Indian scientists invited to review this process. Peer review is a crucial part of any scientific endeavour, and especially important as early Indian tiger surveys were notoriously unreliable.

Actual numbers

So how did they do? A total of 2,461 individual tigers older than one year of age were photo-captured. The overall tiger population in India was estimated at 2,967 individuals (with an error range of roughly 12%).

Out of this, 83.4% were estimated from camera-trap photos, and the rest estimated from robust modelling. Tiger numbers have increased by 6% per year, continuing the rate of increase from the 2014 census. This is a wonderful success for Indian conservation efforts.

However not all is rosy. There has been a 20% decline in areas occupied by tigers in 2014 to today, although tigers have moved into some new areas (some 8% of their Indian range is new). The coordinators of the tiger survey – Yadvendradev Jhala and Qamar Qureshi – conclude that while established and secure tiger populations in some parts of India have increased, small, isolated populations and those along corridors between established populations have gone extinct.

This highlights the need for conservation efforts to focus on improving connectivity between isolated populations, while incentivising the relocation of people out of core tiger areas, reducing poaching and improving habitat to increase prey resources.

This will be no easy task with India’s burgeoning population, but investment from private sector tourist corporations in land acquisition along corridors and the creation of community conservancies could supplement government funding for expanding protected corridors.




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Curious Kids: why do tigers have whiskers?


The success of India’s census has led the governments of Nepal and Bangladesh to employ the same project team to help estimate their own tiger populations. These methods can – and should – be employed for other iconic, charismatic species that can be individually identified, such as jaguars in South and Central America; leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas in Africa, and possibly even quolls in Australia.


This article was co-authored by Chris Carbone, Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London.The Conversation

Matt Hayward, Associate professor, University of Newcastle and Joseph K. Bump, Associate Professor, Gordon W. Gullion Endowed Chair in Forest Wildlife Research and Education, University of Minnesota

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

Dog owners could take the lead on dingo conservation with a ‘Fido fund’



Dingo puppers. A small levy on dog costs could help create more ethical management of dingoes.
Shutterstock

Neil R Jordan, UNSW and Rob Appleby, Griffith University

Humans and dogs go way back. From wolf totems to the big bad wolf of fact and fairy tale, through sheepdogs, lap dogs, and labradoodles, our relationships with these animals are complex, emotionally charged and sometimes contradictory.

The split between humanity’s lavishing of affection on domestic dogs and our contrasting animosity towards their wild relatives is well-documented. But what of domestic dogs and dingoes?

Our research, published today, found similarly contrasting relationships in Australia, where the dingo, Australia’s native dog, is frequently killed for management. We suggest that an inexpensive “dingo conservation levy” on domestic dog costs could fund more ethical management of dingoes. In this way our affection for domestic dogs could be harnessed to improve conservation outcomes for their wild relatives.

Dingoes have an ecotourism appeal in places like K’gari (Fraser Island)
Shutterstock

Canine economics

Australians collectively spend over A$10 billion each year on their domestic dogs – housing, feeding, and sometimes even giving them the status of honorary family members. Meanwhile, government and landowners jointly spend at least A$30 million on large-scale exclusion fencing and lethal control of dingoes.

Industry funded research suggests that dingoes killing livestock, especially sheep, and efforts to control dingoes, cost at least A$145 million annually. What’s more, such losses also come with psychological stress, which you can’t always put a price on.

Other research suggests dingoes, as top predators, provide considerable economic benefits. For example, dingoes prey upon kangaroos and other herbivores that may compete with livestock for food and water. In fact, some estimates suggest dingoes improve gross margins by $0.83 per hectare in this context.

They also help biodiversity by suppressing feral cats and foxes, and dingoes have considerable ecotourism appeal in locations like K’gari (Fraser Island) and Kakadu National Park.

Managing dingoes

Australia’s current approach to dingo management highlights the paradox of an animal viewed both as a valuable native predator that should be conserved, and as a pest to be destroyed. And this makes it a nightmare to manage.

The dingo fence stretches for thousands of kilometres in the Australian outback to try to keep dingoes away from sheep and livestock.
Shutterstock

Current dingo management relies heavily on exclusion fencing and lethal control, and around 200kg of 1080 powder (poison) is administered to baits and peppered across the continent annually.

Countless bullets are also fired, and traps set, as the lion’s share of management budgets is allocated to business as usual. To break this deadly cycle, there is a clear need to provide farmers and governments with good evidence that different approaches could work. This can only be done through substantial parallel investment in robust, independent experimental tests of alternative approaches.

Despite broad support in society for non-lethal management, accessing sufficient funds to support such a transition remains challenging.

A modest dingo conservation levy could fund this. With a levy on the A$10 billion domestic dog industry, we could harness humanity’s affinity for domestic dogs to improve conservation and welfare outcomes for their wild counterparts.

It wouldn’t need to be prohibitively expensive either.

A levy on the sale of pet dogs, dog food, or both, of only about 0.3% of the amount that pet owners spend on this annually – or A$7.36 per dog – would generate A$30 million each year.

That is similar to the lowest estimates of current national spending on dingo control, which means we would potentially see the current spending doubled.

Why should dog owners pick up the tab?

Applying a levy to all dog owners may seem unfair, and perhaps it is. But as Australia’s “dingo problem” is, arguably, at least in part caused by domestic dogs gone feral, such a levy would seem no more unfair on conscientious dog owners than third-party insurance is on careful drivers.

Given that pet owners tend to view wild animals more positively and show more concern for their welfare, such a levy might actually be well received by dog-owners anyway.

An alternative approach might be to seek the voluntary involvement of pet-food manufacturers in such a scheme, giving consumers choice over whether to support it.

Dog-lovers generally also love wild animals, and may be happy to pick up the costs for ethical dingo conservation.
Shutterstock

A dingo conservation levy – perhaps supplemented by a voluntary fund for donors without dogs – might also be more acceptable and attractive if it were clear the funds would be specifically channelled towards research and uptake of non-lethal tools.

Generally, we are broadly in favour of any techniques designed to reduce the animosity towards dingoes, reduce the costs and negative impacts of living alongside them, and boost the positive effects dingoes have on ecosystems.

As some have already argued, they are all dogs at the end of the day. Perhaps then it is time that we treated them as such.


We would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Mike Letnic, Henry Brink, Brad Purcell and Hugh Webster to this article.The Conversation

Neil R Jordan, Lecturer, UNSW and Rob Appleby, PhD student at the Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

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

Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


April Reside, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Nearly 20 years ago, Australia adopted national environmental legislation that was celebrated widely as a balanced response to Australia’s threatened species crisis. In the same year, Queensland introduced its Vegetation Management Act. Together, these laws were meant to help prevent further extinctions.

But have they worked?

A famous finch

We investigated whether these laws had successfully protected the habitat of the endangered southern black-throated finch.

Our study found that, despite being nominally protected under federal environmental law, habitat for the species has continued to be cleared. Just three out of 775 development applications that potentially impacted the endangered southern black-throated finch were knocked back, according to our new research.




Read more:
Queensland coal mines will push threatened finch closer to extinction


Defining exactly what is habitat for the black-throated finch is tricky – we don’t have oodles of data on their habitat use over time, and the extent of their sightings has declined substantially. But Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, and we recorded all of the vegetation types in which the southern black-throated finch has been seen.

We then mapped the extent of this habitat in three different time periods: historically; at the advent of the environmental laws (2000); and current day.

Clear danger

We found that most of the black-throated finch’s habitat had been cleared before 2000, mainly for agriculture before the mid-1970s. The black-throated finch hasn’t been reliably seen in New South Wales since 1994 and is listed there as “presumed extinct”.

We looked at all the development proposals since 2000 that were referred to the federal government due to their potential impact on threatened species. 775 of these development proposals overlapped areas of potential habitat for the black-throated finch.

Only one of these projects – a housing development near Townsville – was refused approval because it was deemed to have a “clearly unacceptable” impact to the black-throated finch.

In addition to these projects, over half a million hectares of the cleared habitat were not even assessed under federal environmental laws.

We estimate that the species remains in just 12% of its original range. Yet despite this, our study shows that the habitat clearing is still being approved within the little that is left.

So in theory, Australia’s and Queensland’s laws protect endangered species habitat. But in practice, a lot has been lost.

Critical habitat

The highest-profile development proposal to impinge on black-throated finch habitat loss is Adani’s Carmichael coalmine and rail project. Adani has been given approval to clear or otherwise impact more than 16,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat, a third of which Adani deemed “critical habitat” But there are four other mines in the Galilee Basin that have approved the clearing of more than 29,000 ha in total of black-throated finch habitat.

But it’s not just the mines. In 2018 the federal government approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat for a housing estate and a sugar cane farm, both near Townsville. Several solar farms have also been proposed that would clear black-throated finch habitat around Townsville.

To further complicate matters, the black-throated finch’s habitat is also threatened with degradation by cattle grazing. The finch needs year-round access to certain grass seeds, so where grazing has removed the seeding part of the grasses, made the ground too hard, or caused the proliferation of introduced grasses such as buffel, the habitat suitability can decrease until it is no longer able to support black-throated finches.

So while they are losing their high-quality habitat to development, a lot of their habitat is being degraded elsewhere.

Heavy cattle grazing degrades habitat for the southern black-throated finch by removing edible grass seeds.
April Reside

The federal government has placed conditions on approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat, often including “offsetting” of any habitat loss. But securing one part of the black-throated finch’s habitat in exchange for losing another still means there is less habitat. This is particularly problematic when the lost habitat is of very high quality, as is the case for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine lease.

Little by little

Our research suggests there is a real danger of the black-throated finch suffering extinction by a thousand cuts – or perhaps 775 cuts, in this case. Each new development approval may have a relatively modest impact in isolation, but the cumulative effect can be devastating. This may explain why a stronger environmental response has not occurred so far.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


So how can we prevent the black-throated finch from going extinct? The finch is endangered because its habitat continues to be lost. So its recovery relies upon halting the ongoing loss of habitat – and ultimately, increasing it. Achieving this would require a political willingness to prioritise endangered species protection.

Australia has already lost hundreds of its unique plants and animals forever. In just the last few years, we have seen more mammals and reptiles disappear to extinction. If we continue on our current path, the southern black-throated finch could be among the next to go.The Conversation

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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