Bizarrely distributed and verging on extinction, this ‘mystic’ tree went unidentified for 17 years



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Flowers of the mystical Hildegardia australiensis. I.D. Cowie, NT Herbarium.
Author provided (No reuse)

Gregory John Leach, Charles Darwin University

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Almost 30 years ago, the specimen of a weird tree collected in the southern part of Kakadu National Park was packed in my luggage. It was on its way to the mecca of botanical knowledge in London, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

But what was it?

With unusual inflated winged fruits, it flummoxed local botanists who had not seen anything like it before. To crack the tree’s identity, it needed more than the limited resources of the Darwin Herbarium.

Later, we discovered a fragmentary specimen hidden in a small box at the end of a little-visited collection vault in the Darwin Herbarium. And it had been sitting there quietly since 1974.

Most of the specimens inside this box just irritate botanists as being somewhat intractable to identify. It’s known as the “GOK” box, standing for “God Only Knows”.

Together with the resources of Kew Gardens, the species was finally connected with a genus and recognised as a new species.

A year later, it was named Hildegardia australiensis.



The Conversation

Mysterious global distribution

The species is the only Australian representative for an international genus, Hildegardia. Under Northern Territory legislation, it’s listed as “near threatened”, due to its small numbers and limited distribution.

The genus Hildegardia was named in 1832 by Austrian botanists Schott and Endlicher. They named it after Hildegard, the 11th-century German abbess and mystic, the “Sybil of the Rhine”.

The genus retains some of this mystical and elusive nature. It’s rare with small isolated populations, traits that seem to dominate for all bar one of the species in the genus.

Twelve species of Hildegardia are recognised: one from Cuba, three from Africa, four from Madagascar and one each from India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

This bizarre global distribution is even more unusual in that almost the entire generic lineage seems to be verging on extinction.

The Australian species fits this pattern of small fragmented populations and, despite being a reasonably sized tree at up to 10 metres tall, remained unknown until 1991.

Rarely seen and hard to find

Generally, Hildegardia species are tall, deciduous trees of well-drained areas, often growing on rocky hills.

Their trunks have a smooth, thin bark, which smells unpleasant and exudes a gum when wounded. Most species have heart-shaped leaves and bear a profusion of orange-red flowers when leafless. These are followed by strange, winged fruits with one or two seeds.

Hildegardia australiensis would have to be one of the most rarely seen trees in Australia in its natural habitat. It is native to the margins of the western Arnhem Land Plateau with scattered populations on limestone and sandstone scree slopes.

These are all difficult locations to visit, so if you really want to see it, a helicopter is recommended. Fortunately it is easy to grow and has found its way into limited cultivation.

Several trees have been in the Darwin Botanic Gardens since the early ’90s and a few are known to have been planted in some of the urban parks in greater Darwin. The plantings have been more to showcase a rare and odd-looking tree rather than any great ornamental value.

Growing on ‘sickness country’

In the NT the tree is so poorly known that it has no common name other than the default generic name of Hildegardia.

It appears to have no recorded Indigenous uses, which is perhaps not surprising as much of its distribution is in “sickness country”.

This is country with uranium deposits and was avoided by the traditional owners. Rock art showing figures with swollen joints has been interpreted as showing radiation poisoning.

But it does have one claim to fame. A heated debate between conservationists and miners was sparked during a proposed development of the Coronation Hill gold, platinum and palladium mine in Kakadu National Park.

The main population of H. australiensis is only a stone’s throw from Coronation Hill and the species became one of the key identified biodiversity assets that could have been threatened by development of the mine.

The area around Coronation Hill, or Guratba in the local Jawoyn language, is also of considerable spiritual significance to the Jawoyn traditional landowners and forms part of the identified “sickness country”. A creation deity, Bula, rests and lays dormant under the sickness country and should not be disturbed.

Eventually, these concerns culminated in the Hawke government decision on June 17 1991 to no longer allow the mine development.




Read more:
The Price of God at Coronation Hill


So are the seeds edible?

While there appears to be no known uses of the Australian species, the tree may have hidden potential.

The closely related trees Sterculia and Brachychiton are well known as bush tucker plants and good sources of fibre. The local Top End species Sterculia quadrifida, for instance, is commonly known as the Peanut Tree and is a highly favoured bush tucker plant.

The fibre potential of H. australiensis is being explored by internationally acclaimed Darwin-based papermaker, Winsome Jobling. Cyclone Marcus whipped through Darwin in 2018 and one of the casualties was a planted tree of H. australiensis in the Darwin Botanic Gardens.

Thankfully, material was salvaged. Winsome has material stored in her freezer awaiting extraction and processing to see what the fibre potential is.

H. barteri, an African species in the Hildegardia genus, has a broad distribution through half-a-dozen African countries. And the West African locals have a number of uses for it, from eating the seeds to using the bark as fibre for ropes. But we don’t know just yet if the flesh or seed in the Australian species is edible.

Whether the Australian species might also harbour such useful properties still awaits some testing and research. Fortunately, with the creation deity Bula watching over the natural populations, the species, unlike many of its close relatives, appears secure in the wild.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregory John Leach, Honorary Fellow at Menzies School of Health Research, Charles Darwin University

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

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For the first time we’ve looked at every threatened bird in Australia side-by-side



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Success with conservation of Kangaroo Island’s Glossy Black-Cockatoos can now be compared with other bird conservation efforts around the country.
Ian Sanderson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Alienor Chauvenet, Griffith University; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University; Elisa Bayraktarov, The University of Queensland; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Ian Leiper, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, La Trobe University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Southern Cross University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Molly K Grace, University of Oxford; Paul McDonald, University of New England, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

Glossy Black-Cockatoos used to be common on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island until possums started eating their eggs and chicks. After volunteers helped protect nest hollows and erect safe nest boxes, the population more than doubled.

But how do you measure such success? How do you compare cockatoo nest protection with any other investment in conservation?

Unfortunately, we have few ways to compare and track the different efforts many people may be making to help conserve our natural treasures.

That’s why a group of us from a dozen Australian universities along with scientists and private researchers around the world have created metrics of progress for both our understanding of how to manage threats of different intensity, and how well that management has been implemented. We also provide guidance on what still needs doing before a threat no longer needs active management.

For the first time, we looked at every threatened bird in Australia to see how well – or not – they are managed. Hopefully, we can use this to avoid compounding our disastrous recent track record of extinctions in Australia.




Read more:
For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day


The state of Australian birds

What we did differently was collect the same data across different species, which meant we could compare conservation efforts across all bids.

The mallee emu-wren is unique to Australia and endangered due to habitat loss.
Nik Borrow/Flickr

When we applied these metrics to Australia’s 238 threatened bird species, the results were both encouraging and daunting. The good news is that we understand how to reduce the impact of about 52% of the threats – although of course that means we know little about how to deal with the other 48%.

But the situation is decidedly worse when we consider how effectively we are putting that research into practice. Only 43% of threats are being managed in any way at all – and just a third of the worst threats – and we are achieving good outcomes for just 20%.

But at least we now know where we are. We can celebrate what we have accomplished, appreciate how much needs doing, and direct our efforts where they will have the greatest benefit.

The threats to our birds

Introduced mammals, particularly cats, have been (and continue to be) a significant threat to Australian birds. Although we have successfully eradicated feral animals on many islands, saving many species, they remain a grave threat on the mainland.

The effect of climate change is becoming the top priority threat for the future. About half of all threatened birds are likely to be affected by increases in drought, fire, heat or sea level. Given the policy prevarication at a global level, targeted research is essential if birds are to be helped to cope.

By looking at multiple species, we can also identify what helps successful conservation. Monitoring, for instance, has a big impact on threat alleviation – better monitored species receive more attention.

The orange-bellied parrot is amongst Australia’s most critically endangered birds.
sompreaw/Shutterstock

There is also – unsurprisingly – a strong connection between knowledge of how to manage a threat and successful application of that knowledge. Often policy people want instant action, but our work suggests that action before knowledge will squander money.

Where to from here?

So what can we use this analysis for? One use is helping species close to extinction.

Using the same approach for multiple species groups, it is apparent that, while birds and mammals are in a parlous state, the most threatened fish are far worse off. We can also identify some clear priorities for action.

Finally, we must acknowledge this work emerged not from a government research grant, but from a non-government organisation (NGO). BirdLife Australia needed an overview of the country’s performance with threatened birds and was able to draw on the volunteered skills of biologists and mathematicians from around the country, and then the world.




Read more:
Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species


Indeed, one of the future projects will be using the new assessment tool to see just how much of the conservation action around the country is being driven by volunteers, from the many people who contributed their knowledge and skills to this paper through to those keeping glossy black-cockatoo chicks safe on Kangaroo Island.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Alienor Chauvenet, Lecturer, Griffith University; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Elisa Bayraktarov, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; Ian Leiper, Geospatial Scientist, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, Principal Research Fellow, Research Centre for Future Landscapes, La Trobe University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Molly K Grace, Postdoctoral Fellow in Zoology, University of Oxford; Paul McDonald, Associate professor, University of New England, and Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University

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

A sperm race to help save one of New Zealand’s threatened birds, the sugar-lapping hihi



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A male hihi on a flowering flax bush.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY-SA

Helen Taylor

It’s likely you’ve never heard of a hihi, let alone seen one in the wild. Also known as stitchbirds, these colourful little critters are a true taonga, or treasure. They’re only found in New Zealand, and currently restricted to just seven sanctuary sites.

Without the caché of kiwi or kākāpō, hihi have gone largely ignored by conservation fans and also, crucially, by funders. Researchers have been interested in these sunny little birds for decades because of their crazy mating system and high-octane lifestyle.

A major part of hihi research goes into figuring out ways to make more hihi and get them in more places. Now, we’re combining research on hihi sperm with a major fundraising effort to try to turn this bird’s fortunes around.

Researchers are studying sperm quality to figure out what contributes to the low breeding success of the hihi, or stitchbird.

A taonga in trouble

The story of hihi is a sadly familiar one for New Zealand. They were widespread across the country’s North Island, but then humans arrived. Forest clearance and introduced mammalian predators were bad news for most of New Zealand’s native wildlife, including hihi. By 1880, hihi had been reduced to just one population on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island).

Over the past 25 years or so, conservation managers and researchers have established six new hihi populations in predator free sanctuary sites around the North Island, and numbers are on the rise, but hihi are not out of the woods yet.

At each site except for Hauturu, hihi rely on supplementary sugar-water feeding. They use the energy from the sugar water to hunt insects – their real food. On Hauturu, they get their sugar from plant nectar, but no other site in New Zealand seems to have the diverse, old growth forest that hihi need.

Catching hihi on Tiritiri Matangi, one of the island sanctuaries where they survive, to get a sperm sample.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

Experiments have shown that when the supplementary sugar is removed, hihi numbers go into decline. The absence of decent forest isn’t the only problem for this little sugar addict though.

Small populations and dodgy sperm

The hihi’s drastic decrease in numbers after human arrival is known as a population bottleneck. When a species experiences a bottleneck, we typically see a reduction in genetic variation and an increase in mating between relatives (inbreeding).

Inbreeding can negatively affect reproduction and survival. One characteristic that seems particularly sensitive to the negative effects of inbreeding is male fertility.

Inbreeding causes dodgy sperm (and dodgy pollen) across a wide range of mammals, insects and plants. However, no one has ever really looked into how it affects sperm quality in birds.

Hihi sperm seen under a microscope.
Helen Taylor, CC BY

We know that New Zealand’s birds have relatively high rates of hatching failure. We know that hihi egg hatching rates and chick survival are negatively affected by inbreeding. But we don’t know whether this hatching failure is a result of poor male fertility, developmental problems, or a bit of both. That’s where my research comes in.

Studying bird sperm in the wild

I’m looking for links between inbreeding and sperm quality in native New Zealand birds, including the hihi. To measure bird sperm quality, we look at three things: sperm swimming speed, sperm length and the proportion of sperm with abnormalities (two heads/no tail etc.).

Getting this data from wild birds is challenging for a number of reasons.

First, you need to get the sperm. This is actually the easiest part, especially with hihi. Their mating system is so competitive that males are usually jam-packed with sperm during the mating season.

In most bird species (including hihi), males don’t have a penis. They have an opening called a cloaca, just like the female. During mating season, the area around the male’s cloaca swells as it fills up with semen. By gently massaging this swelling, I can cause a small amount of semen to pool on the surface of the cloaca and, voila! I have my sperm sample.

Massaging a male hihi to extract sperm.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

The next challenge is measuring sperm swimming speed. Everything else can be done back at the lab, but speed has to be measured there and then and sperm have to be kept at a constant temperature, or they die. We need to run a microscope, camera and laptop to film the sperm and measure the speed. And I’m usually on a remote island or in the middle of the bush.

Working in the mobile sperm lab.
Robyn White, CC BY

To overcome these issues, I’ve designed a mobile sperm lab that runs off a small generator so I can take it pretty much anywhere. It houses my sperm speed measuring set up, plus some heat pads to keep anything that touches the sperm at a constant temperature.

The pièce de résistance is my specially designed in-bra sperm sample tube holder, which keeps samples warm against my skin before they get to the microscope.

The great hihi sperm race

In October 2017, I took my mobile sperm lab to four hihi sites: Hauturu, Trititiri Matangi, Bushy Park Sanctuary, and Zealandia.

I collected sperm and DNA samples from 128 males and am currently analysing the data to investigate the connection between sperm quality and inbreeding in this species.

At the same time, we’re attempting to address the major lack of funding for hihi conservation by encouraging people to bet on which of my 128 males will have the fastest sperm.

The ConversationThis innovative fundraiser has grabbed a fair few headlines in New Zealand and overseas, and we’ve seen bets coming in from all over the world. The race runs until April 22, 2018. To get involved, visit www.hihispermrace.nz and place your bets!

Helen Taylor, Research fellow in conservation genetics

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

Galapagos species are threatened by the very tourists who flock to see them



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Life’s not such a beach for Galapagos native species these days.
shacharf/shutterstock

Veronica Toral-Granda, Charles Darwin University and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

Native species are particularly vulnerable on islands, because when invaders such as rats arrive, the native species have nowhere else to go and may lack the ability to fend them off.

The main characteristic of an island is its isolation. Whether just off the coast or hundreds of kilometres from the nearest land, they stand on their own. Because of their isolation, islands generally have a unique array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. And that makes all islands one of a kind.

However, islands, despite being geographically isolated, are now part of a network. They are globally connected to the outside world by planes, boats and people. Their isolation has been breached, offering a pathway for introduced species to invade.

The Galapagos Islands, 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador, provide a great example. So far, 1,579 introduced species have been documented on the Galapagos Islands, of which 98% arrived with humans, either intentionally or accidentally.

More than 70% of these species have arrived since the 1970s – when Galapagos first became a tourist destination – an average of 27 introduced species per year for the past 40 years.

New arrivals

Introduced species – plants or animals that have been artificially brought to a new location, often by humans – can damage native fauna and flora. They are among the top threats to biodiversity worldwide, and one of the most important threats to oceanic islands. The Convention on Biological Diversity has a dedicated target to help deal with them and their means of arrival. The target states that:

by 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritised, priority species are controlled or eradicated and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment.

The Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, and the iconic Darwin’s finches – species that have evolved in isolation and according to the differing characteristics of each of the islands.

However, the Galapagos’ natural attributes have also made these islands a top tourist destination. Ironically enough, this threatens the survival of many of the species that make this place so unique.

Humans on the rise

In 1950 the Galapagos Islands had just 1,346 residents, and no tourists. In 2015 more than 220,000 visitors travelled to the islands. These tourists, along with the 25,000 local residents, need to have most of their food and other goods shipped from mainland Ecuador.

These strengthening links between Galapagos and the mainland have opened up pathways for the arrival and spread of introduced species to the archipelago, and between its various islands.

Major species transport routes into and between the Galapagos Islands.
PLoS ONE
More and more alien species are finding their way to the Galapagos Islands.
PLoS ONE

Plants were the most common type of introduced species, followed by insects. The most common pathway for species introduction unintentionally was as a contaminant on plants. A few vertebrates have also been recorded as stowaways in transport vehicles, including snakes and opossums; whilst others have been deliberately introduced in the last decade (such as Tilapia, dog breeds and goldfishes).

The number, frequency and geographic origin of alien invasion pathways to Galapagos have increased through time. Our research shows a tight relationship between the number of pathways and the ongoing increase in human population in Galapagos, from both residents and tourists.

For instance, the number of flights has increased from 74 flights a week in 2010 to 107 in 2015; the number of airplane passengers has also increased through time with about 40% being tourists, the remainder being Galapagos residents or transient workers.

Global connections between Galapagos and the outside world have also increased, receiving visitors from 93 countries in 2010 to 158 in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency intercepted more than 14,000 banned items, almost 70% of which were brought in by tourists.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/rlNIe/2/

We think it likely that intentional introductions of alien species will decline when biosecurity is strengthened. However, with tourists as known vectors for introduced species and with tourism much the largest and fastest growing sector of the local economy, unintentional introductions to Galapagos will almost certainly increase further.

The ConversationIf islands are to be kept as islands, isolated in the full sense of the word, it is of high priority to manage their invasion pathways. Our research aims to provide technical input to local decision makers, managers and conservation bodies working in Galapagos in order to minimise a further increase on the number of available pathways to Galapagos and the probable likelihood of new arrivals. Our next step is to evaluate how local tourism boats are connecting the once isolated islands within Galapagos, as a way to minimise further spread of harmful introduced species to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Veronica Toral-Granda, PhD candidate, Charles Darwin University and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

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

Just ten MPs represent more than 600 threatened species in their electorates



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The critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum lives within a single federal electorate. Their local MP has a responsibility to be their voice.
Zoos Victoria

James Watson, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brooke Williams, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland; Scott Consaul Atkinson, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, The University of Queensland

Australia is rapidly losing its world-famous biodiversity. More than 90 species have gone extinct since European colonisation (including three in just the past decade), and more than 1,700 species are now formally recognised as being in danger of extinction.

Despite the pride many Australians feel in our unique natural heritage (and the billions of dollars made from nature-based tourism) the amount of federal funding for biodiversity conservation has dropped by 37% since 2013.


Read more: The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


If a local industry or public institution experienced such a drastic funding cut, the people affected would petition their local representatives and the issue would be raised in parliament as a matter of local or national importance.

Threatened species cannot of course lobby government. But all threatened species on the land have at least one elected official who should take responsibility for them.

Threatened species as local constituents

A member of parliament’s primary job, besides being a party member and parliamentarian, is to speak up for local interests. Data from the Species of National Environmental Significance shows that every federal electorate contains at least one threatened species, so every single federally elected politician has a role to play in abating species extinction.

We’ve used that data to create an interactive map that shows the number of threatened species in each federal electorate, along with details of the local MP and their party. It’s obvious from a glance that a handful electorates contain most of Australia’s threatened species. (You can click on an electorate to view information on the local member, and to download its threatened species lists.)

https://greenfirescience.carto.com/builder/2d738892-7aec-4c0d-99f9-4c942a5518b1/embed

This is because species are not uniformly spread across the landscape, and also because electorate size varies hugely according to population density. The biggest electorate is the Division of Durack, which at 1.6 million square kilometres is half the size of Germany, while the smallest (the Division of Grayndler in inner Sydney) is 0.002% Durack’s size.

Because extremely large seats are in remote and rural areas, they are dominated by Liberal and National politicians. Melissa Price, the Liberal member for Durack, represents 359 threatened species, or about 20% of Australia’s total.

The box below highlights the 10 seats with the most threatened species. Between them, the members for these 10 electorates represent 609 – or 36% – of all threatened species in Australia. These MPs need to be empowered to protect the natural heritage of their electorates.



Green Fire Science, CC BY-ND

While this issue affects every MP, some 79 electorates contain a species that resides mainly – or even only – inside that electoral boundary. Several electorates have more than 50 species that rely on habitat found in one electorate, including the divisions of Durack (Liberal), O’Connor (Liberal), Lingiari (Labor), and Lyons (Labor).

The figure below shows electorates that contain more than 80% of a species’ range. The size of the bubble scales directly to the size of the electorate. It’s clear that some electorates are important sites of biodiversity.


Author provided

For example, Warren Entsch, the Liberal National member for Leichardt, has the endangered Golden shouldered parrot living entirely within his electoral boundaries. The federal division of Canberra, represented by Labour MP Gai Brodtmann, contains the entire habitat of the spectacular Brindabella Midge-orchid. These are just two of 79 members who can make such a claim.

Local members should not just be aware of this but active in saving these species.

While many of the factors that imperil threatened species come from far outside an electorate’s borders, local threatened species need local voices. As arguably the strongest local voice, all federal MPs can fight for more money and more action for threatened species, especially those within their electoral boundaries. And given the inequity in terms of threatened species per electorate, some will need to fight for much greater resourcing than others.

The ConversationExtinction is forever, and every time we lose a species our world becomes a poorer place. Ultimately, only local action on the ground can prevent the irreversible loss of our precious threatened species.

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brooke Williams, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland; Scott Consaul Atkinson, Research Assistant, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, PhD Candidate , The University of Queensland

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

Government needs to front up billions, not millions, to save Australia’s threatened species



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Orange-bellied parrots are one of the species included in the government’s Threatened Species Prospectus.
JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Southern cassowaries, orange-bellied parrots, Leadbeater’s possums, and Australia’s only purple wattle are among the threatened species the government is seeking conservation investment for under its recently released threatened species prospectus. The prospectus seeks business and philanthropic support in partnership with the government and community groups to raise around A$14 million each year. The Conversation

The government has proposed 51 projects, costing from A$45,000 to A$6 million. At first glance the prospectus is a positive initiative.

But it also highlights that the current government is unwilling to invest what’s needed to assure the conservation of our threatened plants, animals and other organisms.

The good news

The government’s partial outsourcing of conservation investment and responsibility might have some benefit. Raising broader awareness about the plight of Australia’s threatened species, particularly among Australia’s leading companies and donors, could lead to valuable conservation gains. It could translate to pressure for greater financial investment in conservation and less damaging actions by big companies.

The prospectus includes an excellent range of critically important projects. These include seed banks for plants facing extinction, and projects to control feral animals and create safe havens for mammals and birds.

These projects could help to save species on the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered Gilbert’s potoroo, the Christmas Island flying fox and the orange-bellied parrot.

The projects have a high chance of success. Community groups and government are already on board and ready to take action, if only the funds materialise.

Why do so many species need urgent help?

The State of the Environment Report released in early March shows that the major pressures on wildlife have not decreased since 2011 when the previous report was released. The prospects for most threatened species have not improved.

Habitat loss is still the biggest threat. The homes of many threatened species are continually under threat from developments. Coal mines threaten the black-throated finch, urban sprawl eats away at the last 1% of critically endangered Victorian grasslands, and clearing for agriculture has spiked in Queensland.

Grasslands, such as these in Melbourne, are being lost to development.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Feral animals are widespread and control programs have been inadequate. New diseases are emerging, such as the chytrid fungus that has devastated frog populations worldwide.

The horticulture industry, for example, introduced myrtle rust to Australia. The disease was poorly managed when it was first detected. It now infects more than 350 species of the Myrtaceae family (including eucalypts).

We have so many threatened species because national and state governments don’t invest enough money in protecting our natural heritage, and environmental protections have been rolled back in favour of economic development.

Show us the money

Over the past three years the federal government has invested A$210 million in threatened species. This annual investment of A$70 million each year is minuscule compared with the government’s revenue (0.017% of A$416.9 billion).

It includes projects under the National Landcare Program, Green Army (much of which didn’t help threatened species) and the 20 Million Trees program.

The A$14 million that the prospectus hopes to raise is a near-negligible proportion of annual revenue (0.003%).

Globally, the amount of money needed to prevent extinctions and recover threatened species is at least ten times more than what is being spent.

In Australia, A$40 million each year would prevent the loss of 45 mammals, birds and reptiles from the Kimberley region.

Most species in the government’s threatened species strategy, like this northern quoll, are charismatic.
S J Bennett/Flickr, CC BY

The inescapable truth is that Australia’s conservation spend needs to be in the billions, not the current and grossly inadequate tens of millions, to reverse the disastrous state of the environment.

Can we afford it? The 2016 Defence White Paper outlines an expansion of Australia’s defence expenditure from A$32.4 billion in 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion by 2025, even though the appropriate level of investment is extremely uncertain.

We are more certain that our biodiversity will continue to decline with current funding levels. Every State of the Environment report shows ongoing biodiversity loss at relatively stable, low-level funding.

And what will happen if industry won’t open its wallets? Will the government close the funding gap, or shrug its shoulders, hoping the delay between committing a species to extinction and the actual event will be long enough to avoid accountability?

In the past few years we’ve seen the extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys with no public inquiry. Academics have been left to probe the causes, and there is no clear line of government responsibility or mechanism to provide enough funding to help prevent more extinctions.

Popularity poll

Another problem is the prospectus’s bias towards the cute and cuddly, reflecting the prejudice in the Commonwealth Threatened Species Strategy. The strategy and prospectus make the assumption that potential benefactors are inclined to fork out for a freckled duck, but not for a Fitzroy land snail.

The prospectus includes almost half of Australia’s threatened mammals (listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) and one-fifth of the threatened birds.

Other groups are woefully represented, ranging from 13% of threatened reptiles to just 1% of threatened plants and none of the listed threatened invertebrates. The prospectus does not even mention spectacular and uniquely Australian threatened crayfish, snails, velvet worms, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects.

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The allocation of funds is equally problematic. We found that birds received the most money (A$209,000 per species on average), followed by mammals and plants.

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Raising new funds to help save iconic species is valuable, and can help other species. This focus on birds and mammals wouldn’t be a problem if the government were to pick up the tab for the less popular threatened species.

But it hasn’t. That means our threatened species program will continue to be exceptionally biased, while many more species vanish forever, with little acknowledgement.

We think that the prospectus, despite its biases, is a positive initiative. It is vital to engage society, including business and wealthy philanthropists, in the care of Australia’s natural heritage. But it also highlights how little the government is willing to invest in preserving our threatened wildlife and ecosystems.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, Vice-President, Ecological Society of Australia, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

More than half the world’s most important natural sites are under threat: it’s time to protect them


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

Would we knock down the pyramids or flatten the Acropolis to make way for housing estates, roads or farms? You would hope not. Such an indictment would deprive future generations of the joy and marvel we all experience when visiting or learning about such historic places.

Yet right now, across our planet, many of the United Nations’ World Heritage sites that have been designated for natural reasons are being rapidly destroyed in the pursuit of short-term economic goals.

In our paper published in Biological Conservation, we found that expanding human activity has damaged more than 50 of the 203 natural sites, and 120 have lost parts of their forests over the past 20 years. Up to 20 sites risk being damaged beyond repair.

So how can we better look after these precious sites?

Jewels in the crown

Globally recognised areas that contain the Earth’s most beautiful and important natural places are granted natural World Heritage status by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Each natural World Heritage site is unique and therefore irreplaceable.

Current sites include iconic landscapes such as Yosemite National Park in the United States, and important biodiversity conservation areas such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Wildebeest gather at the river’s edge on migration in Serengeti National Park.
Wildebeest image from http://www.shutterstock.com

The World Heritage Convention strives to protect natural World Heritage sites and keep their condition as close to pristine as possible. As with those hundreds of cultural World Heritage sites such as Petra and Masada, no human modification or damage is acceptable. These sites are the natural world’s crown jewels.

We examined the degree of human pressure (including roads, agriculture, urbanisation and industrial infrastructure) and direct forest loss across areas with natural World Heritage status.

These changes are not compatible with maintaining the natural heritage of these places. And should sites be damaged beyond repair, we will have lost some of the common heritage of humankind forever.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Rhino image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Which sites fared worst?

We found that human pressure within sites has increased in every continent except Europe over the last two decades. Asia is home to the worst-affected sites, including Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, and Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Development has also badly affected Simien National Park in Ethiopia and it has been listed as World Heritage “in danger”. European sites, such as St Kilda, were already highly modified 20 years ago and have largely remained as such since then.

Change in human footprint between 1993 and 2009 across natural World Heritage sites inscribed prior to 1993. Sites that experienced an increase (which may threaten their unique values) are shown in red, while sites that experienced a decrease are shown in green. Site boundaries are not to scale and have been enlarged for clarity.
Allan et al. 2017

A majority of the sites have lost areas of forest. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada lost 2,581 square kilometres (11.7%) and Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras lost 365 square km (8.5%) of forest since 2000.

The processes behind why the sites lost forest cover are diverse. In the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, also “in danger”, illegal drug trafficking created insecurity and instability in the region, which allowed widespread illegal deforestation and illegal settlement to occur.

Deforestation in Patuca National Park in Honduras.
J.Polisar

In North America, even celebrated places like Yellowstone have been affected, losing some 6% of forest cover. This, and the losses in Wood Buffalo National Park, is almost certainly due to the largest pine beetle outbreaks on record. These are stripping trees of foliage and making them more susceptible to fire.

Although pine beetle damage is a semi-natural phenomenon, it is being assisted by human-caused climate change, as winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the beetles. This is notoriously hard to manage on the ground, but instead requires the United States and Canada to strengthen their efforts to fight climate change nationally and on the global stage.

Time to stop paving paradise

The 192 signatories to the World Heritage Convention need to respond to these findings. The World Heritage Committee must use information like this to immediately assess these highly threatened sites and work with nations to try to halt the erosion.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets again this July in Poland. It is not too late; with urgent intervention most sites can still be retained.

A mining site in Kahuzi Biega Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A K Plumptre WCS

The method we have used makes it much easier to identify natural World Heritage sites that may need to be added to the “in danger” list so extra attention and resources are channelled towards saving them.

Sites such as Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, which have lost so much forest in such a short time, need to be identified and those nations supported in averting further decline. Ultimately, World Heritage status can be retracted if the values a site is listed for are undermined. This would be an international embarrassment for the host nation.

The global community can play a role by holding governments to account so that they take the conservation of natural World Heritage sites seriously. We already do this for many of our cultural sites, and it is time to give natural sites the equal recognition and support they deserve.

Just as we would defend the Colosseum in Rome, Petra in Jordan, or Mont St Michel in France, we must fight against the planned highway across the Serengeti in Tanzania, uranium mining in Kakadu and logging of the Styx Valley in Australia, and forests being cleared for agriculture in Sumatra, Indonesia. This work is a call to action to save our natural world heritage.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland

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