Extinction is not an inevitable consequence of Australian progress. How much we want to keep our native species is a choice we make as a nation, writes James Trezise
NEXT WEEK WE will see the first national Threatened Species Summit launched by Environment Minister Greg Hunt in Melbourne. The timing for this gathering couldn't be more urgent because Australia, along with the rest of the world, is currently in the midst of an extinction crisis.
This sobering analysis was formerly confirmed last month in a paper published inScience Advances, showing that even under most conservative estimates, the extinction of species in recent history has eclipsed the rate that the Earth would naturally lose species, and this gap is growing.
Last week, another eight species were added to Australia's list of threatened species, adding to a growing list of more than 1,800 Australian species and ecological communities at risk of extinction. But it is not a one-way street — and at this moment, the survival of these threatened species is in our hands.
Australia is a prosperous nation. Australians love nature and we place a high value on the rule of law. The ability of Australian governments to lead enduring social change to improve our country is arguably the envy of the world. We have universal healthcare and a robust public education system that delivers incredible benefits for our society.
By comparison, the neglect successive governments have shown Australia's unique plants and animals is extraordinary. As a nation we have consistently failed in our duty of care to protect life in this country.
The last mammal to go extinct in Australia wasn't the Thylacine in the 1936, but a small bat native to Christmas Island that disappeared forever as recently as 2009.
Other species are disappearing under our noses. The spectacular yellow and black regent honeyeater that was reported to have flocked across the mainland in their thousands when Europeans arrived here are now thought to number less than 500. A key breeding area for this species, the Tomalpin Woodlands in New South Wales, is waiting to be bulldozed for the approved construction of an industrial estate known as the Hunter Economic Zone.
The pressures that drive species loss are diverse, but in most cases they can be traced back to humans. From the destruction and fragmentation of habitats, to the introductions of foxes and cats, the spread of disease or changing fire patterns — these threats (to name but a few) have all combined over time with vicious and devastating effect.
The impacts of climate change on threatened species and their habitats is likely to be severe, potentially wiping out or changing entire ecosystems across our wide brown land, including continuing impacts on our much loved Great Barrier Reef.
Thousands of Australians work tirelessly to stave off extinction. They undertake research, plant habitat, build enclosures, control invasive species, run captive breeding programs and argue for better protection. But for every step forward we seem to take two steps back.
The good work of communities, researchers and environment groups can be quickly undone by the stroke of a minister's pen.
Unleashing bulldozers or chainsaws on areas so vital that once lost, the species that depend on them soon follow suit. The reality is extinction is not inevitable. Extinction is a choice.
It is a choice that is often made by governments too happy to accept inflated economic data as justification for the destruction of habitat. A choice made by decision-makers in Canberra that fail to realise the benefits that our natural environment provides our economy — in filtering our water, in pollinating our crops and in storing carbon.
These same governments also fail to realise the exceptional inter-generational injustice of letting species slip further toward extinction on their watch.
Our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was explicitly drafted to try to save our threatened species. It gave our national government significant power to intervene to ensure that critical habitats were protected, to develop recovery plans and undertake interventions to save species and to stop extinction.
But unfortunately, the EPBC Act has not been used to its full potential. The recent explosion of land clearing in Queensland, largely at the behest of the previous Newman Government winding back land clearing laws, has highlighted that governments are still happy to allow habitat to be destroyed at alarming rates.
According to recent data close to 300 thousand hectares of bushland was cleared in the 2013-14 financial year — an area larger than the ACT and triple the land clearing rates in 2009.
The importance of investing in threatened species recovery and habitat protection is vital to stopping the extinction of species. Funds are critically needed to implement, monitor and track key recovery actions and improve our system of national parks and private conservation reserves.
It has been estimated that a ten-year investment of $290 million would reverse the declines of our threatened wallabies, bettongs and other macropods. Or an investment of $200 million annually would secure the majority of Australia's threatened species. And a national investment of $170 million would substantially improve the coverage and adequacy of protected areas that operate across Australia.
None of these types of targeted funding are spending priorities under current Australian Government programs. Yet viewed in the context of protecting Australia's much loved and severely threatened species, such amounts seem a small price to pay.
It is appropriate that in the lead up to Australia's first Threatened Species Summit that we ask ourselves, as a society, are we doing enough to save our threatened species? And that we also ask of our governments — are they prepared to make the necessary decisions to protect habitat and to invest in the recovery of our threatened species?
After all, extinction is a choice we as a nation should never make.