Simply returning rescued wildlife back to the wild may not be in their best interest


It can be tough in the wild, especially if you’re a rescued animal or an orphan reared by human care.
Shutterstock/Andrea Geiss

Bruce Englefield, University of Sydney and Paul McGreevy, University of Sydney

There are few checks done to see how well injured or orphaned Australian animals survive after they’ve been released into the wild, we found in our new research published on Sunday.

That’s a worry for the more than 50,000 native animals that are released in Australia each year. It’s especially worrying for any orphans who’ve never experienced life in the wild.

But we found the rules governing the return of wildlife are not always in the animal’s best interest.




Read more:
Not just activists, 9 out of 10 people are concerned about animal welfare in Australian farming


Our review of Australian animal welfare legislation, regulations, codes of practice and policies found a complex regulatory system that varies between states and territories. It’s a system that is fragmented, contradictory and inconsistent.

This makes it difficult for the many thousands of volunteers and others who try to rescue and rehabilitate native animals.

Australia lags in animal welfare

We believe Australia lags behind the developed world in animal welfare and animal law. This situation evolved haphazardly and is hampered by policies that rely on assumptions based largely on neither scientific nor factual evidence.

Current policy mandates that rehabilitated rescued animals must be placed into the wild. The survival of these animals after release depends on their behavioural and physical attributes, yet some could be ill-equipped to survive.

From our reading of current regulations, any such assessment of an animal’s suitability for release is either negligible or questionable.

There is also no reliable method of identifying animals after release. Indeed, most jurisdictions forbid it and, perhaps as a direct result, there is minimal monitoring to show what happens to released animals.

Return to where?

In general, all Australian jurisdictions require rehabilitated animals to be returned to the wild. But rather than using a more general definition of rehabilitation we should think of returning the animal to its natural habitat or state.

The distinction between these two possible destinations is far from semantic. It can be argued the natural habitat (or state) of a hand-reared orphan animal, is one of captivity.

Many wildlife carers releasing an animal and seeing it disappear into the wild may equate this with success, but this may be an unfortunate convenient illusion.

The released animal may not be the happy state that carers may prefer to assume. Vague assumptions that naturalness in releasing animals to the wild is reliably associated with better well-being are largely unfounded.

But wildlife carers have no choice in the matter. They are required to consign the animals, to which they have devoted hours of care, to an uncertain fate for which they may be very poorly prepared.

And they must do so even if their knowledge, experience and pragmatism directs their thinking to more favourable alternative solutions. These include allowing some native animals to be kept in large-scale facilities such as private fenced enclosures, national parks, islands and other fenced options.

Concern for orphans in the wild

The regulations make no distinction between animals that are injured, rehabilitated and released, and those that are rescued as orphans. These are often physically unharmed but require milk substitute feeding from a bottle and nurturing by – and possible inadvertently bonding with – humans prior to release to the wild.

Adult and juvenile native animals raised in the wild usually have all their innate and learned behaviour instincts intact when they are injured and rescued.

Unless they remain in captivity for a prolonged period, or are subjected to inappropriate housing and handling, their instincts generally persist and kick-in once they have been released. They have an opportunity to survive.

In contrast, the chances for orphans to survive after release seems remote.

Orphans that needed hand-rearing generally become habituated to the smells, sounds and sights of human presence and the captive environment.

The requirement to return orphans to the wild, with no account taken of their mental state, may be difficult to defend on conservation, ethical, moral and practical grounds.

Think of the carers

The physical and mental protection of Australian injured or orphaned native wildlife should be recognised as an important animal welfare issue. The physical and mental well-being of the wildlife carers who rehabilitate them is just as important as a human welfare issue.




Read more:
Man’s stressed friend: how your mental health can affect your dog


In the absence of criteria that take into account the mental well-being of the animals and their carers, the current policy of releasing all hand-reared wildlife to the wild must be reviewed.

Using a One Welfare approach – that considers the the animals, the humans and the environment – would see a regulatory framework that balances the needs of rescued wildlife, wildlife carers and conservation.

The public and Australia’s extraordinary wildlife carers deserve to be confident that regulation is consistent among jurisdictions and reflective of best practice for the rescued wildlife and the environment.The Conversation

Bruce Englefield, PhD Student. Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney and Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney

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

Advertisements

As the dust of the election settles, Australia’s wildlife still needs a pathway for recovery



The Darling River near Louth NSW, April 2019, in the midst of a drought compounded by upstream irrigation policies.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

Rachel Morgain, Australian National University; Bradley J. Moggridge, University of Canberra; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

The environment was a key concern in the recent federal election. It was also a polarising one, with concerns raised about regional industries and livelihoods. But jobs and environment need not be locked in battle: there are pathways that secure a better future for both our environment and future generations.

It’s just over two weeks since the global announcement that extinction looms for about a million species. The warning may have been partially lost in the noise of Australia’s election campaign, but it should resonate long after the political dust settles. This scale of loss will have catastrophic consequences not only for nature, but for us too.




Read more:
‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


The good news is many of the key steps to addressing Australia’s ecological challenges are also wins for jobs, industry and social well-being. Others involve more difficult choices, but could be helped with careful strategic planning and the active involvement of all those with a stake. All require factoring in costs and benefits not only to our generation, but also to generations of the future.

Here are seven suggestions to get us started.

1. Support wildlife-friendly agriculture

More than 60% of Australia is managed for agricultural production. Agriculture is a major driver of species loss both at home and abroad. Yet we know it is possible to manage our agricultural landscapes for wildlife and productivity. Actions like restoring native vegetation, establishing shelterbelts, and creating wildlife-friendly farm dams can help maintain or even boost farms’ productivity and resilience, including in times of drought.

Many farmers are already doing this but their efforts are undermined by policy instability. Political leadership and incentives such as stewardship payments and direct carbon investments are needed to support farmers as they increasingly support the nature from which we all benefit.

2. Nature-based solutions for our cities

About 90% of Australians live in cities, and the rapid expansion of our urban areas brings serious livability challenges. Urban nature can be a key part of the solution, providing a remarkable range of health and well-being benefits.

Urban greenery keeps cities cooler, improves air quality, and even boosts economic prosperity.

Cities can be hotspots for threatened species, and are justifiable locations for investing in nature for its own sake. There is substantial opportunity to create policy and regulation that can allow investment and innovation in nature-based solutions in cities.

3. Help Indigenous Australians care for natural heritage

Indigenous people prospered for millennia in Australia by forging deep connections with land, water and sky. But these connections are ever harder to maintain in the face of two centuries of colonialism and disruption to traditional lore and custom.

Traditional ownership is now recognised for nearly half of Australia’s protected area estate. Increasing investment in Indigenous ranger programs from the current 6% of the conservation estate budget and incorporating traditional knowledge could deliver many social, environmental and economic benefits.

Long-term stability with these programs provides for healthy communities, maintains connection to country, and delivers enormous environmental benefits.

Foreshore revegetation is one process that can help species recover.
CSIRO, CC BY

4. Invest in species recovery

Many valiant efforts to help threatened species are undertaken by dedicated groups with often limited resources. They have shown that success is possible. But to prevent extinctions we need much greater investment in strategic and committed management of species, and of pervasive threats like changed fire regimes and changed water flows. Australia’s investment in biodiversity conservation is low compared with other countries, particularly in light of our high rates of species loss.

Investing in threatened species and conservation works. Involving the community in recovery actions can also create employment, skills and many other benefits, especially to rural and Indigenous communities.

5. Build strategically important safe havens and strengthen biosecurity

Much of Australia’s wildlife is threatened by introduced species – predators, herbivores, weeds and disease. Chytrid fungus, introduced through the pet trade, has devastated frog populations. New pathogens like myrtle rust, which affects many Australian plants, look set to repeat this scale of loss. Invasive predators such as cats and foxes are the single biggest threat to most of Australia’s threatened mammals, some of which survive only on islands and inside fenced areas.

Strong biosecurity, of the kind that has long helped Australian agriculture, is vital to prevent introductions of new invasive species. New havens are needed in strategic locations, underpinned by national coordination and partnerships, to help protect species like the central rock rat that are still not safe from predators.

Invasive species harm Australia’s native wildlife.
Shutterstock

6. Support integrated environmental assessments

Regional development, mining and urban expansion are part of our economy. They can also harm species and ecosystems.

Improving resourcing for decisions about environmental approvals can ensure they are underpinned by sound science. Independent oversight and review could help ensure environmental approvals are credible, transparent, and consistent with Australia’s conservation commitments. Strengthening and expanding protections for critical habitat could ensure our most vulnerable wildlife is protected.

Development can be designed to avoid wholesale devastation or “death by 1,000 cuts”. But ensuring that crucial species habitats are protected will require careful planning based on strong environmental and social science. Applying existing provisions for integrated environmental assessments, fully resourcing these processes, and ensuring all affected people – including local and Indigenous communities – are involved from the start, can help plan a future that works for industries, communities and natural and cultural heritage.

7. Minimise and adapt to climate change, including by investing in biodiversity

Climate change threatens our communities, economy, health, and wildlife – it is changing our country as we know it. It has already contributed to the extinction of species such as the Bramble Cay Melomys. Impacts will certainly worsen, but by how much depends on whether we take strong action.

Many communities, businesses and governments are aiming to tackle climate change. Strategies such as greening cities to reduce heat islands can help native species too. Investing in biodiversity-rich carbon storage (such as old growth forests) can boost regional economies. Options include restoring native ecosystems, boosting soil carbon, managing fire, and transitioning native forests from timber harvesting to being managed for carbon, while sourcing wood products from plantations.




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


Our economy, communities, cultures, health and livelihoods depend on environmental infrastructure – clean water, clean air, good soils, native vegetation and animals. As with Indigenous sense of place and identities they are entangled with the creatures that share our unique and diverse continent. We steal from future generations every time a species is lost.

For our sake and that of our descendants, we cannot afford to disregard this essential connection. Investing in natural infrastructure, just as we invest in our built infrastructure, is the sort of transformational change needed to ensure our communities and economy continue to flourish.The Conversation

Rachel Morgain, Knowledge Broker, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Bradley J. Moggridge, Indigenous Water Research, University of Canberra; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Sarah Bekessy, Professor, RMIT University; Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

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

From sharks in seagrass to manatees in mangroves, we’ve found large marine species in some surprising places


Michael Sievers, Griffith University; Rod Connolly, Griffith University, and Tom Rayner, Griffith University

When we think of mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes, we don’t immediately think of shark habitats. But the first global review of links between large marine animals (megafauna) and coastal wetlands is challenging this view – and how we might respond to the biodiversity crisis.

Mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes support rich biodiversity, underpin the livelihoods of more than a billion people worldwide, store carbon, and protect us from extreme weather events.

Mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes are the three key vegetated habitats found in coastal wetlands.
Tom Rayner/www.shutterstock.com

We know marine megafauna also use these habitats to live, feed and breed. Green turtles and manatees, for instance, are known to eat seagrass, and dolphins hunt in mangroves.

But new associations are also being discovered. The bonnethead shark – a close relative of hammerheads – was recently found to eat and digest seagrass.




Read more:
Omnivore sharks and cannibal hippos – the strange truth about dinnertime in the animal kingdom


The problem is that we’re losing these important places. And until now, we’ve underestimated how important they are for large, charismatic and ecologically important marine animals.

Counting wetland megafauna

Today our review of the connections between marine megafauna and vegetated coastal wetlands was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. As it turns out, far more megafauna species use coastal wetlands than we thought.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Before our review, the number of marine megafauna species known to use these habitats was 110, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which assesses species’ conservation status.

We identified another 64 species from 340 published studies, bringing the total number to 174 species. This means 13% of all marine megafauna use vegetated coastal wetlands.

We predominantly documented these habitat associations by electronic tracking, direct observation or from analysing stomach contents or chemical tracers in animal tissues.

Less commonly, acoustic recordings and animal-borne video studies – strapping a camera on the back of turtle, for instance – were used.

Deepening our understanding of how species use their habitats

In recent weeks, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a damming assessment of humanity’s stewardship of the natural world. Up to 1 million species were reported to be facing extinction within decades.




Read more:
‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


We need to dramatically change how we relate to and engage with species and their habitats, if we are to fix this problem.

But the question is, how can we make global change real, relevant and feasible at local and regional scales? And, as the international community rises to this challenge, what information is needed to support such efforts?

Our study suggests a critical first step to addressing the global biodiversity crisis is to deepen our understanding of links between species and their habitats. We also need to elevate how the evidence is used to both assess extinction risk and prioritise, plan and deliver conservation actions.

A juvenile lemon shark swimming in mangroves. More than half of the world’s coastal wetlands have been lost.
Shutterstock

More than half of all coastal wetlands have been lost globally and the rest are at risk from a range of serious threats, including deforestation. There is an urgent need to limit and reverse the loss of coastal wetlands to stop biodiversity loss, protect communities and tackle climate change.

Targeting places where high rates of mangrove loss intersect with threatened megafauna could lead to more efficient and effective conservation outcomes. Southeast Asia, Mexico and northern Brazil are such places.

In Southeast Asia, for example, the world’s largest mangrove forest is losing trees at a rate far exceeding global averages, largely due to aquaculture and agriculture. This is threatening the critically endangered green sawfish, which relies on these mangrove habitats.

Habitats should always be considered in assessments

The IUCN Red List assesses the extinction risk for almost 100,000 species. It provides comprehensive information on global conservation statuses, combining information on population sizes, trends and threats.

The wealth of data collected during species’ assessments, including habitat associations of threatened species, is one of the Red List’s most valuable features.

But our study shows many known associations are yet to be included. And for more than half of the assessments for marine megafauna, habitat change is yet to be listed as a threat.

‘Proportion species’ refers to all species within key taxonomic groups that are associated with coastal wetlands.
Author supplied

This is concerning because assessments that overlook habitat associations or lack sufficient detail, may not allow conservation resources be directed at the most effective recovery measures.

But it’s also important to note habitat associations have varying strengths and degrees of supporting evidence. For example, a population of animals shown to consume substantial amounts of seagrass is clearly a stronger ecological link than an individual simply being observed above seagrass.

The data on habitat associations must be strengthened in species assessments.
Shutterstock

In our paper, we propose a simple framework to address these issues, by clarifying habitat associations in conservation assessments. Ideally, these assessments would include the following:

  • list all habitat types the species is known to associate with
  • indicate the type of association (occurrence, grazing, foraging or breeding)
  • cite the source of supporting evidence
  • provide an estimate of the level of habitat dependence.

Data for decision making

Habitat loss is accelerating a global extinction crisis, but the importance of coastal habitats to marine megafauna has been significantly undervalued in assessments of extinction risk.

We need to strive to protect remaining coastal wetland habitats, not only for their ecological role, but also for their economic, social and cultural values to humans. We can do this by strengthening how we use existing scientific data on habitat associations in species assessments and conservation planning.The Conversation

Michael Sievers, Research Fellow, Global Wetlands Project, Australia Rivers Institute, Griffith University; Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University, and Tom Rayner, Science Communicator, Griffith University

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

‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


The exploitation of the land and sea is the number one reason for biodiversity extinction, according to a new report.
Shutterstock

Michelle Lim, University of Adelaide

We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.

Last week, in the culmination of a process involving 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, 134 governments negotiated the final form of the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).




Read more:
Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event


IPBES aims to arm policy-makers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.

The IPBES Global Assessment provides unequivocal evidence that we need biodiversity for human survival and well-being. To stem unprecedented species decline the assessment sets out the actions governments, the private sector and individuals can take.

Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment (about one-sixth of the assessment) is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate. This chapter also outlines ways to address the vortex of biodiversity decline.

If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.

All four species of quoll have declined dramatically in numbers because of habitat loss or change across Australia, and introduced predators such as foxes and cats.
Shutterstock

What makes IPBES Assessments special?

IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessments are a fundamental part of IPBES’s work.

IPBES Assessments review thousands of biodiversity studies to identify broad trends and draw authoritative conclusions. In the case of the Global Assessment, IPBES authors reviewed more than 15,000 publications from scientific and governments sources.




Read more:
Of bunyips and other beasts: living memories of long-extinct creatures in art and stories


Governments and stakeholders give feedback on the draft text, and experts respond meticulously to the thousands of comments before revising and clarifying the draft. A final summary of key findings is then negotiated with member states at plenary meetings – these meetings concluded on Saturday.

What did the Global Assessment find?

Human activity severely threatens biodiversity and ecosystem functions worldwide. About 1 million species are facing extinction. If nothing changes many of these could be gone within just decades.

But nature is vital to all aspects of human health. We rely on natural systems, not only for food, energy, medicine and genetic resources, but also for inspiration, learning and culture.

The report also reveals the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function is much less pronounced on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also recognises the significant role of Indigenous knowledge, governance systems and culturally-specific worldviews which adopt a stewardship approach to managing natural systems.

The report identified agriculture, forestry and urbanisation as the number one reason for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. In the sea, fishing has had the greatest impact on biodiversity and is exacerbated by changes in the use of the sea and coastal lands.

This is followed closely by:

  • the direct use of species (primarily through harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing)

  • climate change

  • pollution

  • the invasion of non-native species.

These factors are aggravated by underlying social values, such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.

The Global Assessment concludes that current biodiversity laws and policies have been insufficient to address the threats to the natural world.




Read more:
Maybe we can, but should we? Deciding whether to bring back extinct species


What’s more, if nothing changes, neither the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets nor the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are likely to be met.

And yet, the Global Assessment has an optimistic outlook. It emphasises that if the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems are transformed then it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.

But this is only possible if reform happens immediately, as incremental change will be insufficient.

What must be done?

Pollution is one of the main reasons biodiversity is in rapid decline.
Shutterstock

The Global Assessment puts forward these next, urgent steps:

  • we need to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth

  • engage multiple public and private actors

  • link sustainability efforts across all governance scales

  • elevate Indigenous and local knowledge and communities.

The report also recommends strengthening environmental laws and taking serious precautionary measures in public and private endeavours. Governments must recognise indivisibility of society and nature, and govern to strengthen rather than weaken the natural world.

What can I do?

Produce and consume sustainably

Individuals can make meaningful change through what we produce and what we buy. Our food is an important starting point. You could, for instance, choose local or sustainably produced meals and reduce your food waste.

Champion the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities

Indigenous and local communities need to be included and supported more than ever before. The Global Assessment provides clear evidence that lands managed by Indigenous and local communities are performing better in terms of biodiversity. Still, these lands face serious threats, and Indigenous communities continue to be marginalised around the world.

Provoke governments to do better

Current biodiversity laws and policies don’t adequately address the threats to the natural world. The report recommends the world include biodiversity considerations across all sectors and jurisdictions to prevent further degradation of natural systems. We have an important role in rallying our governments to ensure this occurs.




Read more:
5 periods of mass extinction on Earth. Are we entering the sixth?


We are losing biodiversity at record-breaking rates. The majesty of the natural world is disappearing and with it that which makes life worth living. We are also undermining the capacity of the Earth to sustain thriving human societies. We have the power to change this – but we need to act now.The Conversation

Michelle Lim, Lecturer, Adelaide Law School, 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.




Read more:
Climate change is hitting hard across New Zealand, official report finds


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.




Read more:
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.




Read more:
Squid team finds high species diversity off Kermadec Islands, part of stalled marine reserve proposal


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.

How many species on Earth? Why that’s a simple question but hard to answer



File 20190423 15194 1hz5xme.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
How many species still to name? That’s a good question.
Shutterstock/ju see

Tanya Latty, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, University of Sydney

You’d think it would be a simple piece of biological accounting – how many distinct species make up life on Earth?

But the answer may come as a bit of a shock.

We simply don’t know.

We know more accurately the number of books in the US Library of Congress than we know even the order or magnitude – millions and billions and so on – of species living on our planet, wrote the Australian-born ecologist Robert May.




Read more:
Trapdoor spider species that stay local put themselves at risk


Current estimates for the number of species on Earth range between 5.3 million and 1 trillion.

That’s a massive degree of uncertainty. It’s like getting a bank statement that says you have between $5.30 and $1 million in your account.

So why don’t we know the answer to this fundamental question?

It’s hard to count life

Part of the problem is that we cannot simply count the number of life forms. Many live in inaccessible habitats (such as the deep sea), are too small to see, are hard to find, or live inside other living things.

New species are discovered on almost every dive, says David Attenborough.

So, instead of counting, scientists try to estimate the total number of species by looking for patterns in biodiversity.

In the early 1980s, the American entomologist Terry Erwin famously estimated the number of species on Earth by spraying pesticides into the canopy of tropical rainforest trees in Panama. At least 1,200 species of beetle fell to the ground, of which 163 lived only on a single tree species.

Assuming that each tree species had a similar number of beetles, and given that beetles make up about 40% of insects (the largest animal group), Erwin arrived at a controversial estimate of 30 million species on Earth.

Many scientists believe the 30 million number is far too high. Later estimates arrived at figures under 10 million.

In 2011, scientists used a technique based on patterns in the number of species at each level of biological classification to arrive at a much lower prediction of about 8.7 million species.

A jewel beetle, one of the more colourful species of insect alive today.
Shutterstock/Suttipon Thanarakpong

All creatures great and very, very small

But most estimates of global biodiversity overlook microorganisms such as bacteria because many of these organisms can only be identified to species level by sequencing their DNA.

As a result the true diversity of microorganisms may have been underestimated.

After compiling and analysing a database of DNA sequences from 5 million microbe species from 35,000 sites around the world, researchers concluded that there are a staggering 1 trillion species on Earth. That’s more species than the estimated number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

But, like previous estimates, this one relies on patterns in biodiversity, and not everyone agrees these should be applied to microorganisms.

It’s not just the microorganisms that have been overlooked in estimates of global biodiversity. We’ve also ignored the many life forms that live inside other life forms.

Most – and possibly all – insect species are the victim of at least one or more species of parasitic wasp. These lay their eggs in or on a host species (think of the movie Aliens, if the aliens had wings). Researchers suggest that the insect group containing wasps may be the largest group of animals on the planet.

A parasitic wasp finds a host for her young.

What do we mean by species?

A more fundamental problem with counting species comes down to a somewhat philosophical issue: biologists do not agree on what the term “species” actually means.

The well-known biological species concept states that two organisms belong to the same species if they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But since this concept relies on mating, it cannot be used to define species of asexual organisms such as many microorganisms as well as some reptiles, birds and fish.

It also ignores the fact that many living things we consider separate species can and do interbreed. For example, dogs, coyotes and wolves readily interbreed, yet are usually considered to be separate species.

Three six-to-seven-month-old hybrids between a male western gray wolf and a female western coyote resulting from artificial insemination.
PLOS One (L. David Mech et al), CC BY

Other popular species definitions rely on how similar individuals are to one another (if it looks like a duck, it is a duck), their shared evolutionary history, or their shared ecological requirements.

Yet none of these definitions are entirely satisfactory, and none work for all life forms.

There are at least 50 different definitions of a species to choose from. Whether or not a scientist chooses to designate a newly found life form as a new species or not can come down to their philosophical stance about the nature of a species.

The cost of species loss

Our ignorance about the true biodiversity on our planet has real consequence. Each species is a potential treasure trove of solutions to problems including cures for disease, inspirations for new technologies, sources of new materials and providers of key ecosystem services.

Yet we are living in an age of mass extinction with reports of catastrophic insect declines, wide-scale depopulation of our oceans and the loss of more than 50% of wildlife within the span of a single human life.

Our current rate of biodiversity loss means we are almost certainly losing species faster than we are naming them. We are effectively burning a library without knowing the names or the contents of the books we are losing.

So while our estimate of the number of species on the planet remains frustratingly imprecise, the one thing we do know is that we have probably named and described only a tiny percentage of living things.




Read more:
Squid team finds high species diversity off Kermadec Islands, part of stalled marine reserve proposal


New species are turning up all the time, at a rate of roughly 18,000 species each year. For example, researchers in Los Angeles found 30 new species of scuttle fly living in urban parks, while researchers also in the US discovered more than 1,400 new species of bacteria living in the belly buttons of university students.

Even if we take the more conservative estimate of 8.7 million species of life on Earth, then we have only described and named about 25% of life forms on the planet. If the 1 trillion figure is correct, then we have done an abysmally poor job, with 99.99% of species still awaiting description.

It’s clear our planet is absolutely teeming with life, even if we cannot yet put a number to the multitudes. The question now is how much of that awe-inspiring diversity we choose to save.The Conversation

Tanya Latty, Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, Associate Lecturer in Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

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