Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection



Maya the detection dog was part of a team sniffing out koalas.
Marie Colibri/USC

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, University of the Sunshine Coast

In a country like Australia – a wealthy, economically and politically stable nation with multiple environmental laws and comparatively effective governance – the public could be forgiven for assuming that environmental laws are effective in protecting threatened species.

But our new research, published recently in Animal Conservation, used koala-detecting dogs to find vulnerable koalas in places developers assumed they wouldn’t live. This highlights the flaws of environmental protections that prioritise efficiency over accuracy.

The dog squad: from left to right, Baxter, Billie-Jean, Bear, Charlie and Maya sniffed out vulnerable koalas to see how many are living in areas due to be developed in Queensland.
Author provided

Environmental impact assessments

Every new infrastructure project must carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to see whether it will affect a threatened species. If this is the case, the logical next step is to try to avoid this by redesigning the project.

But this rarely happens in reality, as we saw recently for the endangered black-throated finch.




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More often, when the EIA suggests an unavoidable impact the response is to identify mitigation and compensation measures, often in the form of “offsets”. These are swathes of comparable habitat assumed to “compensate” the impacted species for the habitat lost to the development.

To take koalas as an example, developers building houses might be required to buy and secure land to compensate for lost habitat. Or a new road might need fencing and underpasses to allow koalas safe passage across (or under) roads.

Koalas can be found in many environments, from the bush to cities.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

These steps are defined in environmental regulations, and depend on the results from the original EIA.




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An issue of assumptions

With koala numbers still declining, we investigated whether current survey guidelines for EIA were indeed adequate.




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For an EIA to be effective, it is fundamental the environmental impact of a future development can be accurately anticipated and therefore appropriately managed. This relies, as a first step, on quantifying how the project will affect threatened species through ecological surveys of presence and extent of threatened species within the project’s footprint.

There are government guidelines to prescribe how these ecological surveys are performed. Every project has time and budget constraints, and therefore survey guidelines seek efficiency in accurately determining species’ presence.

Dr Romane Cristescu performing a koala survey with detection dog Maya.
Marie Colibri

As such, the Australian guidelines recommend focusing survey effort where there is the highest chance of finding a species of concern for the project. This sounded very logical – until we started testing the underlying assumptions.

We used a very accurate survey method – detection dogs – to locate koala droppings, and therefore identify koala habitat, in the entire footprint of proposed projects across Queensland. We did not target our efforts in areas we expected to be successful – therefore leaving out the bias of other surveys.

Unpredictable koalas

We found koalas did not always behave as one would expect. Targeting effort to certain areas, the “likely” koala habitat, to try increase efficiency risked missing koala hotspots.

In particular, the landscape koalas use is intensely modified by human activity. Koalas, like us, love living on the coast and in rich alluvial plains. That means we unexpectedly found them right in the middle of urban areas, along roads that – because they have the final remaining trees in dense agricultural landscapes – are now (counterintuitively) acting as corridors.

This koala was found in a built-up area not captured by traditional surveys.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast



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Assumptions about where koalas live can massively underestimate the impact of new infrastructure. In one case study, the habitat defined by recommended survey methods was about 50 times smaller than the size of the habitat actually affected.

If surveys miss or underestimate koala habitat while attempting to measure development impact, then we cannot expect to adequately avoid, mitigate or compensate the damage. If the first step fails, the rest of the process is fatally compromised. And this is bad news for koalas, among many other threatened species.

All parts of the landscape are important

What is needed is a paradigm shift. In a world where humans have affected every ecosystem on Earth, we cannot focus on protecting only pristine, high-quality areas for our threatened species. We can no longer afford to rely on assumptions.

This might seem like a big, and therefore expensive, ask. Yet ecosystems are a common resource owned by all of us, and those who seek to exploit these commons should bear the cost of demonstrating they understand (and therefore can mitigate) their impact.

The alternative is to risk society having to shoulder the environmental debt, as we have seen with abandoned mines.




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The burden of proof should squarely reside with the proponent of a project to study thoroughly the project impact.

A koala found in the wild while performing an Environmental Impact Assessment.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

This is where the issue lies – proponents of projects are under time and budget constraints that push them to look for efficiencies. In this tug of war, the main losers tend to be the threatened species. We argue that this cannot continue, because for many threatened species, there is no longer much room for mistakes.

The environmental regulations that define survey requirements need to prioritise accuracy over efficiency.

A review of Australian’s primary environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is due to begin by October this year. We call on the government to use this opportunity to ensure threatened species are truly protected during development.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Dr David Dique and Russell L. Miller to this research and the two original papers this piece is based upon (feature paper and response).The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, PhD Candidate, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

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

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Here’s how your holiday photos could help save endangered species



Zephyr_p/Shutterstock

Kasim Rafiq, Liverpool John Moores University

Animal populations have declined on average by 60% since 1970, and it’s predicted that around a million species are at risk of extinction. As more of the Earth’s biodiversity disappears and the human population grows, protected landscapes that are set aside to conserve biodiversity are increasingly important. Sadly, many are underfunded – some of Africa’s most treasured wildlife reserves operate in funding deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In unfenced wilderness, scientists rarely have an inventory on the exact numbers of species in an area at a particular time. Instead they make inferences using one of many different survey approaches, including camera traps, track surveys, and drones. These methods can estimate how much and what kind of wildlife is present, but often require large amounts of effort, time and money.

Camera traps are placed in remote locations and activated by movement. They can collect vast quantities of data by taking photographs and videos of passing animals. But this can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run and once in the wild, cameras are at the mercy of curious wildlife.

Track surveys rely on specialist trackers, who aren’t always available and drones, while promising, have restricted access to many tourism areas in Africa. All of this makes wildlife monitoring difficult to carry out and repeat over large areas. Without knowing what’s out there, making conservation decisions based on evidence becomes almost impossible.

Citizen science on Safari

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – 42m people visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone. Many come for the unique wildlife and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data with their phones and cameras. Photographs on social media are already being used to help track the illegal wildlife trade and how often areas of wilderness are visited by tourists.

Despite this, tourists and their guides are still an overlooked source of information. Could your holidays snaps help monitor endangered wildlife? In a recent study, we tested exactly this.

Partnering with a tour operator in Botswana, we approached all guests passing through a safari lodge over three months in the Okavango Delta and asked them if they were interested in contributing their photographs to help with conservation. We provided those interested with a small GPS logger – the type commonly used for tracking pet cats – so that we could see where the images were being taken.

We then collected, processed, and passed the images through computer models to estimate the densities of five large African carnivore species – lions, spotted hyaenas, leopards, African wild dogs and cheetahs. We compared these densities to those from three of the most popular carnivore survey approaches in Africa – camera trapping, track surveys, and call-in stations, which play sounds through a loudspeaker to attract wildlife so they can be counted.

The tourist photographs provided similar estimates to the other approaches and were, in total, cheaper to collect and process. Relying on tourists to help survey wildlife saved up to US$840 per survey season. Even better, it was the only method to detect cheetahs in the area – though so few were sighted that their total density couldn’t be confirmed.

Thousands of wildlife photographs are taken every day, and the study showed that we can use statistical models to cut through the noise and get valuable data for conservation. Still, relying on researchers to visit tourist groups and coordinate their photograph collection would be difficult to replicate across many areas. Luckily, that’s where wildlife tour operators could come in.

Tour operators could help collect tourist images to share with researchers. If the efforts of tourists were paired with AI that could process millions of images quickly, conservationists could have a simple and low-cost method for monitoring wildlife.

Tourist photographs are best suited for monitoring large species that live in areas often visited by tourists – species that tend to have high economic and ecological value. While this method perhaps isn’t as well suited to smaller species, it can still indirectly support their conservation by helping protect the landscapes they live in.

The line between true wilderness and landscapes modified by humans is becoming increasingly blurred, and more people are visiting wildlife in their natural habitats. This isn’t always a good thing, but maybe conservationists can use these travels to their advantage and help conserve some of the most iconic species on our planet.The Conversation

Kasim Rafiq, Postdoctoral Researcher in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Liverpool John Moores University

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

More than 28,000 species are officially threatened, with more likely to come



A giant guitarfish caught in West Papua is hung from a fishing boat. Guitarfish are in trouble, according to the IUCN Red List.
Conservation International/Abdy Hasan, Author provided

Peter Kyne, Charles Darwin University

More than 28,000 species around the world are threatened, according to the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The list, updated on Thursday night, has assessed the extinction risk of almost 106,000 species and found more than a quarter are in trouble.

While recent headline-grabbing estimates put as many as 1 million species facing extinction, these were based on approximations, whereas the IUCN uses rigorous criteria to assess each species, creating the world-standard guide to biodiversity extinction risk.




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In this update, 105,732 species were ranked from least concern (little to no risk of extinction), to critically endangered (an extremely high risk of extinction) and extinct (the last individual of a species has expired).

This Red List update doesn’t hold a lot of good news. It takes the total number of threatened species to 28,338 (or 27% of those assessed) and logs the extinction of 873 species since the year 1500.

These numbers seem small when thinking about the estimated 1 million species at risk of extinction, but only around 1% of the world’s animals, fungi and plants have been formally assessed on the IUCN Red List. As more species are assessed, the number of threatened species will no doubt grow.

More than 7,000 species from around the world were added to the Red List in this update. This includes 501 Australian species, ranging from dragonflies to fish.

The shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) has been assessed as near threatened due to poor water and river management, land clearing, nutrient run-off, and recurring drought.

The Australian shortfin eel is under threat from drought and land clearing.

Twenty Australian dragonflies were also assessed for the first time, including five species with restricted ranges under threat from habitat loss and degradation. Urban and mining expansion pose serious threats to the western swiftwing (Lathrocordulia metallica), which is only found in Western Australia.

Plight of the rhino rays

I coordinate shark and ray Red List assessments for the IUCN. Of particular concern in this update is the plight of some unique and strange fishes: wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes, collectively known as “rhino rays”.

This group of shark-like rays, which range from Australia to the Eastern Atlantic, are perilously close to extinction. All six giant guitarfishes and nine out of 10 wedgefishes are critically endangered.

Bottlenose wedgefish in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Credit: Arnaud Brival

While rhino ray populations are faring comparatively well in Australia, this is not the case throughout their wider Indo-Pacific and, in some cases, Eastern Atlantic ranges, where they are subject to intense and often unregulated exploitation.

The predicament of rhino rays is driven by overfishing for meat and their valuable fins. Their meat is often eaten or traded locally and, along with other sharks, rays and bony fishes, is an important part of coastal livelihoods and food security in tropical countries. Their fins are traded internationally to meet demand for shark fin soup. The “white fins” of rhino rays are highly prized in the trade and can fetch close to US$1,000 per kilogram.




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This exploitation for a high-value yet small body part places the rhino rays in the company of the rhinoceroses in more than name alone.

Bottlenose wedgefish in the Kota Kinabalu fish market in Malaysia.
Peter Kyne

Two species in particular may be very close to extinction. The clown wedgefish (Rhynchobatus cooki) from the Indo-Malay Archipelago has been seen only once in over 20 years – when a local researcher photographed a dead specimen in a Singapore fish market.

The false shark ray (Rhynchorhina mauritaniensis) is known from only one location in Mauritania in West Africa, and there have been no recent sightings. It’s likely increased fishing has taken a serious toll; the number of small fishing boats in Mauritania has risen from 125 in 1950 to nearly 4,000 in 2005.

This rising level of fishing effort is mirrored in the tropical nations of the Indo-West Pacific where most rhino rays are found.

Effective rhino ray conservation will require a suite of measures working in concert: national species protection, habitat management, bycatch reduction and international trade restrictions. These are not quick and easy solutions; all will be dependent on effective enforcement and compliance.




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The challenges of saving rhino rays illustrate the larger, mammoth task of tackling our current extinction crisis. But the cost of inaction is even larger: precipitous loss of biodiversity and, eventually, the collapse of the ecosystems on which we depend.


This article was co-written by Caroline Pollock, Program Officer for the IUCN’s Red List Unit.The Conversation

Peter Kyne, Senior Research Fellow in conservation biology, Charles Darwin University

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

A deadly fungus threatens to wipe out 100 frog species – here’s how it can be stopped


Deborah Bower, University of New England and Simon Clulow, Macquarie University

What would the world be like without frogs? Earth is in its sixth mass extinction event and amphibians are among the hardest hit.

But in the island of New Guinea, home to 6% of the world’s frog species, there’s a rare opportunity to save them from the potential conservation disaster of a chytrid fungus outbreak.

The amphibian chytrid fungus is a microscopic, aquatic fungus that infects a protein in frog skin. It interferes with the balance of electrolytes and, in turn, effectively gives frogs a heart attack.




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If the amphibian chytrid fungus invades New Guinea, we estimate 100 species of frogs could decline or become extinct. This disease, which emerged in the 1980s, has already wiped out 90 species of frogs around the world.

The New Guinean horned land frog, Sphenophryne cornuta, with young. These frogs are under threat from a fungus that has wiped out 90 frog species around the world.
Stephen Richards

Collaborating with 30 international scientists, we developed a way to save New Guinea’s frog species from a mass extinction, one that’s predictable and preventable. We need urgent, unified, international action to prepare for the arrival of the deadly fungus, to slow its spread after it arrives and to limit its impact on the island.

It’s rare we can identify a conservation disaster before it occurs, but a long history of amphibian declines in Australia and South America has equipped us with the knowledge to protect areas where the amphibian chytrid fungus is yet to reach.

Why we should care about frogs

Like Australian frogs, New Guinea frogs may be particularly vulnerable to the chytrid fungus. These frogs share a close genetic relationship suggesting that, if exposed, New Guinea frogs may respond similarly to Australian ones, where around 16% of frog species are affected.

Impacted frogs include corroboree frogs, Australian lacelid frogs and green and golden bell frogs.




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Losing so many species can have many terrible impacts. Tadpoles and frogs are important because they help recycle nutrients and break down leaf litter. They are also prey for larger mammals and reptiles, and predators of insects, invertebrates and small vertebrates. They help keep insect plagues, such as those from flies and mosquitoes, in check.

Frogs are also an important source of human medical advancements – they were even used for a human pregnancy test until the 1950s.

A call to action to protect frogs

Frogs are one of the most threatened groups of species in the world – around 40% are threatened with extinction.

And species conservation is more expensive once the species are threatened. They can be more costly to collect and more precious to maintain, with a greater need for wider input from recovery groups to achieve rapid results.

In our study, we highlight the increased costs and requirements for establishing captive breeding for two species of closely related barred frog, one common and one threatened. We determined that waiting until a species is threatened dramatically increases the costs and effort required to establish a successful breeding program. The risks of it failing also increase.

Our research draws on lessons learned from other emerging diseases and approaches taken in other countries. By addressing the criteria of preparedness, prevention, detection, response and recovery, we detail a call for action to protect the frogs of New Guinea. It will require dedicated funding, a contingency plan for the likely, eventual arrival of the disease and a task force to oversee it.




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This task force would oversee active monitoring for disease and prepare an action plan to implement on the disease’s arrival. We have already begun to establish facilities that can handle captive breeding and gene banking for frogs in collaboration with PNG counterparts.

The need for amphibian conservation in New Guinea also presents an opportunity for investment and training of local scientists. More species unknown to science will be described and the secret habits of these unique frogs will be discovered before they are potentially lost.

Conservation in New Guinea is complicated

The island of New Guinea is governed by Papua New Guinea on the eastern side and Indonesia on the western side. So it will take a coordinated approach to reduce risks in both countries for successful biosecurity.

Historically, New Guinea has had little import or tourism. But as the country develops, it becomes more at risk of emerging diseases through increased trade and and entry of tourists from chytrid-infected regions, especially with little biosecurity at entry ports.

What’s more, many species there are unknown to science and few ecological studies have documented their habitat requirements. Unlike Australia, many of New Guinea’s frogs have adapted for life in the wet rainforest.

Rather than developing into tadpoles that live in water, more than 200 frog species in New Guinea hatch from their eggs as fully formed baby frogs. It’s difficult for us to predict how the amphibian chytrid fungus will affect these frogs because Australia has only a handful of these types of species.

We don’t know how to remove the amphibian chytrid fungus from large areas once it has invaded, so strict biosecurity and conservation contingency planning is needed to protect New Guinea’s frogs.




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For example, all incoming goods into New Guinea should be inspected for possible hitchhiker frogs that could carry chytrid. Camping or hiking equipment carried by tourists should also be closely inspected for attached mud, which could harbour the pathogen, as is the case in Australia.

International researchers have experience in emerging amphibian diseases. Papua New Guineans and Indonesians have traditional and ecological expertise. Together we have the opportunity to avert another mass decline of frogs. Without taking action, we could lose a hundred more species from the world and take another step towards mass extinction.The Conversation

Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England and Simon Clulow, MQ Research Fellow, Macquarie University

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

Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat



Barking Owls are one of Australia’s 1,770 threatened or endangered species.
Navin/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Andy Sheppard, CSIRO and Linda Broadhurst, CSIRO

This week many people across the world stopped and stared as extreme headlines announced that one eighth of the world’s species – more than a million – are threatened with extinction.

According to the UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which brought this situation to public attention, this startling number is a consequence of five direct causes: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species.




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It’s the last, invasive species, that threatens Australian animals and plants more than any other single factor.

Australia’s number one threat

Australia has an estimated 600,000 species of flora and fauna. Of these, about 100 are known to have gone extinct in the last 200 years. Currently, more than 1,770 are listed as threatened or endangered.

While the IPBES report ranks invasive alien species as the fifth most significant cause of global decline, in Australia it is a very different story.

Australia has the highest rate of vertebrate mammal extinction in the world, and invasive species are our number one threat.

Cats and foxes have driven 22 native mammals to extinction across central Australia and a new wave of decline – largely from cats – is taking place across northern Australia. Research has estimated 270 more threatened and endangered vertebrates are being affected by invasive species.

Introduced vertebrates have also driven several bird species on Norfolk Island extinct.

The effects of invasive species are getting worse

Although Australia’s stringent biosecurity measures have dramatically slowed the number of new invasive species arriving, those already here have continued to spread and their cumulative effect is growing.

Recent research highlights that 1,257 of Australia’s threatened and endangered species are directly affected by 207 invasive plants, 57 animals and three pathogens.

These affect our unique biodiversity, as well as the clean water and oxygen we breath – not to mention our cultural values.

When it comes to biodiversity, Australia is globally quite distinct. More than 70% of our species (69% of mammals, 46% of birds and 93% of reptiles) are found nowhere else on earth. A loss to Australia is therefore a loss to the world.

Some of these are ancient species like the Wollemi Pine, may have inhabited Australia for up to 200 million years, well before the dinosaurs.




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But invasive species are found in almost every part of Australia, from our rainforests, to our deserts, our farms, to our cities, our national parks and our rivers.

The cost to Australia

The cost of invasive species in Australia continue to grow with every new assessment.

The most recent estimates found the cost of controlling invasive species and economic losses to farmers in 2011-12 was A$13.6 billion. However this doesn’t include harm to biodiversity and the essential role native species play in our ecosystems, which – based on the conclusions of the IPBES report – is likely to cost at least as much, and probably far more.

Rabbits, goats and camels prevent native desert plant community regeneration; rabbits alone impacting over 100 threatened species. Rye grass on its own costs cereal farmers A$93M a year.

Aquaculture diseases have affected oysters and cost the prawn industry $43M.

From island to savannah

Globally, invasive species have a disproportionately higher effect on offshore islands – and in Australia we have more than 8,000 of these. One of the most notable cases is the case of the yellow crazy ants, which killed 15,000,000 red land crabs on Christmas Island.




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Nor are our deserts immune. Most native vertebrate extinctions caused by cats have occurred in our dry inland deserts and savannas, while exotic buffel and gamba grass are creating permanent transformation through changing fire regimes.

Australia’s forests, particularly rainforests, are also under siege on a number of fronts. The battle continues to contain Miconia weed in Australia – the same weed responsible for taking over 70% of Tahiti’s native forests. Chytrid fungus, thought to be present in Australia since 1970, has caused the extinction of at least four frog species and dramatic decline of at least ten others in our sensitive rainforest ecosystems.

Myrtle rust is pushing already threatened native Australian Myrtaceae closer to extinction, notably Gossia gonoclada, and Rhodamnia angustifolia and changing species composition of rainforest understories, and Richmond birdwing butterfly numbers are under threat from an invasive flower known as the Dutchman’s pipe.

Australia’s rivers and lakes are also under increasing domination from invasive species. Some 90% of fish biomass in the Murray Darling Basin are European carp, and tilapia are invading many far north Queensland river systems pushing out native species .

Invasive alien species are not only a serious threat to biodiversity and the economy, but also to human health. The Aedes aegypti mosquito found in parts of Queensland is capable of spreading infectious disease such as dengue, zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.

And it’s not just Queensland that is under threat from diseases spread by invasive mosquitoes, with many researchers and authorities planning for when, not if, the disease carrying Aedes albopictus establishes itself in cooler and southern parts of Australia.




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What solutions do we have?

Despite this grim inventory, it’s not all bad news. Australia actually has a long history of effectively managing invasive species.

Targeting viruses as options for controlling rabbits, carp and tilapia; we have successfully suppressed rabbit populations by 70% in this way for 50 years.

Weeds too are successful targets for weed biological control, with over a 65% success rate controlling more than 25 targets.

The IPBES report calls for “transformative action”. Here too Australia is at the forefront, looking into the potential of gene-technologies to suppress pet hates such as cane toads.




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Past and current invasive species programs have been supported by governments and industry. This has provided the type of investment we need for long-term solutions and effective policies.

Australia is better placed now, with effective biosecurity policies and strong biosecurity investment, than many countries. We will continue the battle against invasive species to stem biodiversity and ecosystem loss.The Conversation

Andy Sheppard, Research Director CSIRO Health & Biosecurity, CSIRO and Linda Broadhurst, Director, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, CSIRO

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

Fixing Australia’s extinction crisis means thinking bigger than individual species



The endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland is an ecological community that have shrunk to 6% of their original area.
Pete the Poet/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Stuart Collard, University of Adelaide; Patrick O’Connor, and Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide

The world’s largest assessment of biodiversity recently shared the alarming news that 1 million species are under threat of extinction.

Australia’s extinction record is poor compared to the rest of the world, and our investment into conservation doesn’t do enough to restrain the growing crisis.

Currently, 511 animal species, 1,356 plant species and 82 distinct “ecological communities” – naturally occurring groups of native plants, animals and other organisms – are listed as nationally threatened in Australia. And these numbers are increasing.




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While much conservation effort focuses on protecting individual species, we are failing to protect and restore their habitats.

Our ongoing research into environmental investment programs shows that current levels of investment do not even come close to matching what’s actually needed to downgrade threatened ecosystems.

One of the programs we evaluated was the 20 Million Trees Program, a part of the Australian government’s National Landcare Program. For example, we analysed investment targeted at the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.

Fewer than three square kilometres of woodland were planted. That’s less than 1% of what was needed to move the conservation status of these woodlands by one category, from critically endangered to endangered.

Many Australian species live in endangered woodlands.
Shutterstock

Restoring communities

Conservation efforts are often focused on species – easily understood parts of our complex and interrelated ecosystems.

In recent years, some effective measures have been put in place to conserve species that are teetering on the edge of extinction. We have, for instance, seen the appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner and the release of a Threatened Species Strategy and Prospectus.

But we don’t often hear about the 82 threatened ecological communities in which many of these species live.

Temperate eucalypt woodlands once covered vast areas of southern Australia before being cleared to make way for agriculture. The Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia, for instance, have been reduced to 2% of their former glory through land clearing and other forms of degradation.

These woodlands provide critical habitat for many plant and animal species, among them declining woodland birds such as the Diamond Firetail and Jacky Winter.

The habitat of Diamond Firetails is under threat.
Andreas Ruhz/Shutterstock

Focusing on the conservation and restoration of our threatened communities (rather than individual species) would create a better understanding of how much effort and investment is required to curb the extinction crisis and improve the outcomes of biodiversity restoration.




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A problem of scale

Large-scale restoration investment programs are often touted in politics, particularly when these have a national focus. And many recent restoration programs, such as the Environment Restoration Fund, National Landcare Program, Green Army and 20 Million Trees, are important and worthwhile.

But in the majority of cases the effort is inadequate to achieve the stated conservation objectives.

Underlying threats to the environment often remain – such as vegetation clearing, genetic isolation and competition from introduced pests and weeds – and biodiversity continues to decline.




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The 20 Million Trees program, for example, is the most recent national initiative aimed at restoring native vegetation systems, attracting A$70 million in investment between 2014 and 2020.

To place the scale of this investment into context, we analysed the impact of the 20 Million Trees program on the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.

The restoration priority for this community should be to enhance the condition of existing remnant areas. But improving its conservation status would also require more effort to increase the area of land the woodland covers.

Even if the full six-year budget for 20 Million Trees (A$70 million) was used to replant only this type of woodland, it would still fall short of upgrading its conservation status to endangered. We estimate that moving the community up a category would require a minimum investment of A$150 million, excluding land value.

And Peppermint Box Grassy Woodland is just one of the threatened ecological communities listed for conservation. There are 81 others.




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Although any effort to improve the status of threatened ecosystems (and species) is important, this example shows how current levels of effort and investment are grossly inadequate to have any substantial impact on threatened communities and the species that live there.

Our estimates relate to how restoration activities affect land cover. But ensuring they are also of adequate quality would need more long-term investment.

Boosting investment

Investment in biodiversity conservation in Australia is falling while the extinction crisis is worsening.

Protecting and restoring ecological communities will preserve our unique native biodiversity and develop an environment that sustains food production and remains resilient to climate change. But failure to invest now will lead to extinctions and the collapse of ecosystems.

To make genuine inroads and have an enduring impact on Australian threatened species and ecosystems, restoration programs must be clear on the amount they expect to contribute to conservation and restoration objectives, along with co-benefits like carbon sequestration.

The programs must be at least an order of magnitude larger and be structured to produce measurable outcomes.The Conversation

Stuart Collard, Research Fellow, The Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide; Patrick O’Connor, Associate Professor, and Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide

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

Despite its green image, NZ has world’s highest proportion of species at risk



File 20190429 194606 lj1e80.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
About 74% of New Zealand’s land birds, including the endemic takahe, are either threatened or at risk of extinction.
AAP/Brendon Doran, CC BY-ND

Michael (Mike) Joy, Victoria University of Wellington and Sylvie McLean, Victoria University of Wellington

A recent update on the state of New Zealand’s environment paints a particularly bleak picture about the loss of native ecosystems and the plants and animals within them.

Almost two-thirds of rare ecosystems are threatened by collapse, according to Environment Aotearoa 2019, and thousands of species are either threatened or at risk of extinction. Nowhere is the loss of biodiversity more pronounced than in Aotearoa New Zealand: we have the highest proportion of threatened indigenous species in the world.

This includes 90% of all seabirds, 84% of reptiles, 76% of freshwater fish and 74% of terrestrial birds. And this may well be an underestimate. An additional one-third of named species are listed as “data deficient”. It is likely many more would be on the threatened list had they been assessed. Then there are the species that have not been named and we have no idea about.




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Why biological diversity matters

Biodiversity is a word that means different things to different people. Its use has exploded recently as more people appreciate the magnitude of its decline and its importance to people’s future.

Popularly biodiversity is understood as the number of species in a given country or ecosystem. For scientists, the concept is deeper. It includes genetic and ecosystem diversity and has crucial components such as endemicity (species found nowhere else), native diversity (the proportion of native species) and keystone species (species that are crucial to ecosystem function).

Globally, biodiversity in all its guises is undergoing an unprecedented decline. Estimates are that we are now losing species at more than 1,000 times the background or natural rate. People are also moving species outside their native ranges, and this results in a global biological homogenisation and has helped a small number of species to thrive in human-dominated habitats across the world.

The classification of threat status, globally and in New Zealand, is complex. There are multiple levels, ranging from “nationally critical” to “at risk”. When describing levels of biodiversity decline, it is simpler to look at the proportion of species listed as “not threatened”.

In New Zealand, only around 18% of beetles, 26% of freshwater fish, 38% of marine mammals, 12% lizards, 5% of snails and 50% of plants are listed as not threatened or not at risk. This is a rather dire situation, especially given the 100%-pure slogan used to market Aotearoa New Zealand overseas.

Ineffective legal protection

Another important facet of biodiversity decline is that New Zealand has many endemic species, with around 40% of plants, 90% of fungi, 70% of animals and 80% of freshwater fish found nowhere else. If they are lost here they are lost entirely.

In a recent report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Department of Conservation could not say whether New Zealand’s biodiversity is declining or not. One quarter of the nearly 4,000 species currently classified as threatened or at risk have only been assessed once and there is no way to know whether their conservation status has changed. Of the remaining roughly 3,000 threatened or at risk species, 10% had worsened to a more threatened ranking. Only 3% had improved.

The numbers above show the failure of legislation intended to protect biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Wildlife Act (1953) purportedly gives absolute protection to all wildlife. But it is not enforced in any meaningful way, and therefore has had no impact on biodiversity conservation.

The Native Plants Protection Act (1934) stipulates that native plants have protection on conservation land but makes no mention of protection outside that and, in any case, is not enforced. Native fish are not covered by the Wildlife Act and the Freshwater Fisheries Act affords them no protection either.

Human impact on land

Apart from ineffective species protection, another factor is the loss of habitat and ecosystems through land-use change for agricultural and urban intensification. The first changes happened with Polynesian arrival, and then again after European colonisation, including massive forest clearance and wetland drainage. More recently, the expansion of dairy farms has contributed to significant biodiversity losses.

Freshwater fish are a good example. The increase in the proportion of threatened species has gone from around one-quarter in the early 1990s to three-quarters now. This recent loss reveals the failure of successive governments to protect biota, their habitats and ecosystems. Lowland coastal forests and wetlands in particular continue to be degraded by human activity.




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New Zealand’s urban freshwater is improving, but a major report reveals huge gaps in our knowledge


Indigenous terrestrial vegetation cover is now less than 30%, down from approximately 90% in pre-human times. One-third of the country is covered in exotic grasslands.

About one-third of the country is putatively protected by being within the conservation estate. This sounds impressive, but it obscures the true state of protected areas. The ecosystem types in the estate are far from a representative selection. It mostly contains areas that are too steep to farm and too inhospitable to live in.

The failure to protect habitats is reflected in the reduction in ecosystem diversity: 62% of the ecosystems classified as rare are now listed as threatened, and more than 90% of wetlands have been destroyed. This loss is not confined to the past. Estimates are that 214 wetlands (1,250 ha) were lost between 2001 and 2016, and a further 746 wetlands declined in size.

Marine conservation

Protection levels of marine habitats are even worse. New Zealand’s marine area is 15 times larger than its land area, but marine biodiversity is poorly regulated. Only 0.4% is covered by “no-take” marine reserves.




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As a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), New Zealand is obligated to reduce biodiversity loss. We have committed to achieving SDG 14 (life under water) and SDG 15 (life on land). The former stipulates that we “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. The latter that we “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.

There is no sign of any real achievement in reducing biodiversity loss. While New Zealand produced a national biodiversity strategy in 2000, it has been largely ineffective at improving the state of biodiversity. As the OECD noted, the strategy and plan lack clarity and clear implementation pathways.

We have tried writing plans with no teeth. Now it is time for action from all levels of society. Cities and regions need to ensure parks and protected areas are adequately managed. Government must work to update ineffective legislation and commit to enforcing the law.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington and Sylvie McLean, Masters Student in Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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