Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


James Watson, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

Habitat loss is the most insidious of all threats facing land-living wildlife, and protected areas like national parks are one of the best ways to combat the destruction. But in research published recently in Conversation Letters, we show that in some places the pace of protected areas isn’t keeping up with the losses.

We found that since 1992, an area of natural habitat two-thirds the size of Australia has been converted to human use (such as farms, logging or cities). Half of the world’s land area is now dominated by humans.

When we looked at specific habitats (or “ecoregions”), we found that in almost half of them, more habitat has been lost than has been protected. Of developed nations, Australia is performing the worst.

This week, 196 signatory nations of the Convention of Biological Diversity, including Australia, are meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss their progress towards averting the current biodiversity crisis.

While topics will vary widely from dealing with climate change, invasive species and illegal wildlife trade, a chief issue will likely be one that has been central to the convention since its ratification at Rio in 1992: how best to deal with habitat loss.

The view from space

Human activity affects the planet on a scale so vast it can be easily seen from space. Whether it’s deforestation in the Amazon, urban development in Asia, or mining in the Arctic, humans have modified Earth’s land area dramatically.

For almost all wild species on Earth, once the places they live have been dramatically altered, they are unable to survive in the long term. The number of vertebrate species extinctions has been 53 times higher than normal since 1900, and the majority of them are associated with direct habitat loss.

The best tool we have at our disposal to combat habitat loss, alongside strict land regulation, is the creation of large, well-connected protected areas, especially in places that are likely to be at risk of future destruction.

When well managed and strategically placed, protected areas work at protecting biodiversity from destructive actives such as agriculture, mining and urbanisation.

In the two and a half decades since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a dramatic increase in protected areas. Now 15% of the land is placed under protection – an area greater than South and Central America combined.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it may not be enough.

Half Earth

Using the latest update of the global human footprint, we discovered that while 75% of the world has a clear human footprint, more than 50% of the world’s land area has been significantly converted to human dominated land uses.

The degree of degradation varies across the major ecosystems. Some areas such as the tundra have been only slightly modified. Other ecosystems have been decimated: 90% of mangroves and sub-tropical forests have been converted to human uses.

Concerningly, since the convention was ratified in 1992, an extra 4.5 million square kilometres of land has been converted from natural habitat to human land uses. And much of this loss occurred in areas that already faced considerable losses in the past.

As a consequence, almost half of the world’s 800 ecoregions – those places that have distinct animal and plant communities – should be classified at very high risk, where 25 times more land has been converted than protected.

Forty-one of these ecoregions are in crisis, where humans converted more than 10% of the little remaining habitat over the past two decades and there is almost nothing left to protect.

41 of the world’s ecoregions are in crisis.

These crisis ecoregions are concentrated in Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), and Africa (Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola). It’s crucial that we establish protected areas in these places, but conflict and corruption make them some of the hardest places for conservation to work.

Australia: world expert in land clearing

While crisis ecoregions are mostly confined to the developing world, arguably the most concerning outcome of our research is that in many developed countries, like the United States and Canada, the proportion of protected areas to habitat loss is slipping.

And Australia is the worst performing developed nation of them all. Habitat loss greatly outpaced protection in 20 of Australia’s most wildlife-rich ecoregions. The most threatened ecoregions now include savannas in the southeast and southwest of Australia, and southeast temperate forest ecosystems.

Our analysis shows massive habitat loss occurred in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia during the past two decades, driven by land clearing for pasture, agriculture and urbanisation.

Australia has extremely high land-clearing rates and is the only developed nation now containing a deforestation front.

Arguably, things will continue to get worse without land-clearing law reform, but this is challenging, as shown by the recent failure of Queensland’s vegetation law changes and the poor vegetation-offset reforms in New South Wales.

Time for global action

As nations meet in Mexico to discuss their progress towards the Convention of Biological Diversity’s 2020 strategic plan, it is now time for them to undertake a full, frank and honest assessment on how things are progressing.

This means recognising that the current situation, where nations only report on protected area expansion, clearly tells half the story – and it is jeopardising the chance for halting the biodiversity crisis.

Australia must take the lead. It is time for this nation – one of the most wildlife-rich in the developed world – to account fully for both conservation gains and losses, and as such formally report on how much habitat is being destroyed. This is the necessary first step to identify ways to mitigate these losses and prioritise conservation actions in those regions that are at risk.

At the same time, all nations must recognise that the integrity of habitat within existing protected areas must be maintained, especially in those areas that contain imperilled species. Allowing activities which cause habitat loss to occur in protected areas is a backwards step for conservation, and governments must enforce their own environmental policies to stop this.

A good example is Springvale Station in Queensland, where mining is being considered within a newly purchased protected area, clearly threatening its biodiversity.

We need to change how we report on, and deal with, habitat loss, otherwise the mission of the convention – to stop the global extinction crisis – will fail.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, Postdoctoral Researcher in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

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

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Anglers have helped detect a shift in the habitat of black marlin


Tom Bridge, James Cook University; Andrew Tobin, James Cook University, and April Reside, James Cook University

We know that climate change is driving changes in the world’s oceans. Currents are shifting, temperatures are climbing and the availability and dynamics of nutrient upwelling is changing.

But the question is whether marine species can adapt at the rate at which these changes are occurring?

The coastal waters of south-eastern Australia are a climate change hotspot, warming at a rate three to four times the global average. This is in part due to an increase in the strength and southward penetration of the East Australian Current (EAC), which carries warm water from the tropics down Australia’s east coast.

In response, numerous marine species have been documented extending their distributions polewards, affecting the functioning of coastal and marine ecosystems in south-eastern Australia. This will have knock on effects for local communities and fisheries, many of which are not well prepared.

With so many species on the move and changes happening so quickly, scientists have enlisted the help of citizen scientists – such as recreational SCUBA divers and fishers – to help record when, where and how often species are sighted. Initiatives such as Redmap have helped scientists identify many tropical species shifting their ranges south.

Tagging program

Another successful example of citizen science is the New South Wales state government’s gamefish tagging program. This world-leading gamefish tagging program, established in 1974, asks recreational anglers to tag and release gamefish and provide information on the species, size, and release location which is sent back to the Department of Primary Industries (DPI).

More than 400,000 fish from at least 20 different species have been tagged, and more than 7,000 recaptures recorded.

All black marlin tag release locations recorded in the NSW DPI tagging program within the south-west Pacific Ocean.
Authors, Author provided

This has enabled us to investigate whether there had been any geographical shifts in suitable habitat for the highly-mobile black marlin (Istiopmax indica) in the previous 16 years.

The black marlin is one of the most keenly sought gamefish species targeted by recreational anglers in Australia, with more than 54,000 records of tagged black marlin within the NSW DPI’s database.

Big business

An annual aggregation of large adults, some weighing more than 500kg, occurs off the northern Great Barrier Reef each spring, forming the basis of a charter fishery that will celebrate its 50th year of operation in 2016.

At the other end of the spectrum, juvenile black marlin from 15kg to 40kg undertake an annual migration southward along the east coast in association with the EAC.

Anglers target these juveniles off Cairns and Townsville in late winter, south-east Queensland in late spring, and Port Stephens, NSW, in late summer. Depending on the behaviour of the EAC, juvenile black marlin may even extend as far south as Bermagui, NSW, in some years.

But our research, published in October in Global Change Biology, aims to identify any changes in the distribution of marlin habitat through time. We used the release positions of black marlin in the NSW DPI database and satellite-derived data such as sea surface temperature and current velocity.

The extensive spatial and temporal coverage of the tagging data allowed us to model the geographic distribution of black marlin habitat in the South-West Pacific for 192 consecutive months from 1998 to 2013.

On the move

We found variability in the location of suitable black marlin habitat across months and years.

On an annual basis, conditions favoured by black marlin occurred off north Queensland at the start of spring and gradually shifted south along Australia’s east coast from October to April. This coincided with the peak availability of black marlin to recreational anglers and also to a seasonal pulse in the EAC.

From May to August, suitable habitat retreats back towards the equator as cold water currents push north over winter. We also identified a strong effect of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), with black marlin habitat extending up to 300km further south during La Niña phases.

In addition to the large variability on shorter timescales, we also found that suitable marlin habitat has shifted south at a rate of about 88km per decade across all seasons, independently of the influence of ENSO.

Heading south

We found that habitat is shifting faster during summer months (111km per decade) in contrast to the rest of the year (77km per decade). This suggests that suitable habitat is extending south quicker than it is contracting at its northern edge.

Poleward shift in the distribution of suitable black marlin habitat across all three seasons from 1998-2013.
Authors, Author provided

This result adds to the growing body of evidence showing that many species’ habitat is shifting polewards in response to climate change.

Considering that all highly mobile tuna and billfish species respond to a similar suite of environmental factors, numerous species are likely responding to climate change.

What does this mean for Australian fishers, black marlin and similar pelagic species? These are questions that still need answering.

What is clear from this study is that mobile fish species are not immune from the impacts of climate change, and that long term data sets from recreational fishers are valuable tools in discerning such changes.


This article was co-authored by Dr Julian Pepperell, a marine biologist and an external co-supervisor of honours and PhD students, and his JCU honours student Nick Hill.

The Conversation

Tom Bridge, Postdoctoral research fellow, James Cook University; Andrew Tobin, Sen Research Fellow, Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture, James Cook University, and April Reside, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Spatial Ecology, James Cook University

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

Gorillas: Rarest Have Lost Half Their Habitat in 20 Years


The link below is to an article that reports on the loss of half the habitat for the world’s rarest Gorillas in the last 20 years. 

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/1001-great-apes-habitat.html

Blackbutt Reserve


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

Since I was unable to visit Gap Creek Falls the other day, I decided I might pop in to have a look at the new animal enclosures at Blackbutt Reserve near Newcastle. I will say straight off the bat that I do have something of a prejudice against Blackbutt Reserve, as I see the place as nothing like a natural bush setting, it being far too ‘corrupted’ by human activity, weeds and the like. Having said that it is a good place for a family or group outing/event. It certainly has its place, but it is not a true nature reserve (in my opinion).

Visitor Centre

ABOVE: Visitor Centre

I do think that some well designed animal and bird enclosures at Blackbutt could lift the value of the reserve dramatically and make it a really great place for families, especially young families. There are opportunities for educational visits for kids, possible environmental…

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China: Giant Pandas and Climate Change


The link below is to an article reporting on the growing crisis facing the world’s Giant Panda population. With fewer than 1600 Giant Pandas left in the wild, climate change is set to reduce their remaining habitat by half.

For more, visit:
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57410505/half-of-giant-panda-habitat-may-vanish-in-70-years-scientists-say/

Nepal: Rhino Population Growing


More good news on the threatened species front with news that the rhino population in Nepal is growing. Despite the growth in the Rhino population, rhinos are still threatened by poaching and reduced habitat. Still, it is good news.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0427-hance_rhinos_nepal.html
http://www.thehimalayantimes.com/fullNews.php?headline=Rhino+population+up:+Census+report&NewsID=285243

 

Kenya: Mountain Bongo Facing Extinction


With less than 120 individuals left in Kenya, the world’s largest antelope is facing extinction in the wild within a matter of years. Kenya is the only country in the world where Mountain Bongo exist in the wild. They are threatened by poachers, habitat destruction and a collapsing gene pool.

There is possible good news for the Mountain Bongo, with increasing captive populations, including a growing breeding population in Kenya which may one day be reintroduced to the wild.

For more visit:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=mountain-bongo-faces-extinction-aft-2011-04-15