The Bramble Cay Melomys, a dusky rodent found only on one small island in Cape York, shot to international headlines last week as the first mammal in the modern era to be sent extinct through global warming and sea level rise. It was the latest inglorious statistic in a home-grown extinction crisis that is getting worse by the year.
Yet the national tragedy of Australia’s extinction crisis is an issue that has barely cut through in a 2016 election campaign characterised by soundbites and political point scoring from all sides. In such a political contest – vulnerable and threatened species barely get a look in.
But just last month another 21 species were added while the swift parrot went from the endangered to critically endangered. In total, there are now 441 threatened animal species and 1263 threatened plants on our national list as well as 90 species of plant and animal officially extinct.
The crisis is only set to worsen. WWF figures reveal that “on land, 1,655 of 5,815 ecosystems and habitats for 138 of 1,613 threatened species remain unprotected”. Remarkably 20 per cent of critically endangered species have no habitat at all protected much more than the 9 per cent of endangered and 6 per cent of vulnerable species lacking habitat protection, which may explain how they ended up critically endangered.
The extinction crisis is only set to worsen.
Despite these disturbing numbers and the ongoing decline of native species, and despite a total environment budget of about $400m a year – in reality very little of this actually makes its way to threatened species recovery. No funding at all has gone toward the purchase of new protected areas to save wildlife habitats since late 2012 when Labor abolished the national reserve system program.
Greg Hunt has made it a personal mission to protect threatened species. To his credit he appointed Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner and set up a National Threatened Species Strategy, albeit with only $6.6 million in funding. As part of this election campaign, Minister Hunt announced another $5 million for a Threatened Species Fund as a re-allocation in the existing National Landcare budget.
But $5 million is nowhere near enough to protect Australia’s growing list of vulnerable and endangered species. The week before the election a recovery plan was released for one of Australia’s most endangered and rare birds - the Regent Honeyeater. There are only about 350 of these birds left in the wild. The total cost of the plan to save the regent honeyeater is $3.1 million, including $575,000 for protection of habitat – and that is just for one species.
Recovering species can be costly, and the longer it is delayed, the more expensive it becomes. Just as for healthcare, extinction prevention is much cheaper than providing a last minute cure. Minister Hunt claims that his government has spent more than $200 million on threatened species since coming to government as a side benefit of a number of different programs like National Landcare, 20 Million Trees and Green Army.
But these programs are not designed for targeting threatened species recovery. Moreover, only 1 per cent of all grants on the governments grants register (which excludes the Green Army program) issued since mid-2014 can be traced to threatened species or ecological communities, and none mention a recovery plan.
This election the Coalition is announcing a string of Green Army projects in some of its most marginal electorates. In the 2013 election 150 Green Army projects were announced across electorates, but unsurprisingly we are yet to see what the environmental outcomes this program is delivering. In fact the government has not yet disclosed any audits of environmental performance for the Green Army and the Australian National Audit Office is yet to investigate the delivery of the program, despite highlighting it intends to do so.
Worse still is that in the overall national environment budget, only a small fraction is devoted to threatened species – and this is set to be cut further. The federal budget forecast spending on the environment through the umbrella programs mentioned above will decrease by 27 per cent over on 2013 levels over the next four years.
What’s baffling is that the federal government has on its books 446 recovery plans like that for the Regent Honeyeater – which document costed action for the recovery of species. While these recovery plans could be significantly strengthened by including provisions to protect critical habitat, they also need adequate funding to implement their key actions.
Recovery of threatened species should be core business for the Australian Government because it is a promise under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet thus far neither major party has promised any substantial funding for saving threatened native wildlife and their habitats.
Recovery of threatened species should be core business for the Australian Government
While we desperately need greater investment to protect our vanishing wildlife, a simple place to start would be to spend existing money more wisely. Investing directly in threatened species recovery and habitat protection rather than as a possible by-product of other programs simply makes sense if we are serious about halting Australia’s species decline.
The political leadership required to protect Australia’s most vulnerable and iconic wildlife is sadly lacking in this current election campaign – despite Australia being in the midst of a preventable extinction crisis.
Dr Martin Taylor is a conservation scientist with WWF-Australia. James Trezise is a policy coordinator for the Australian Conservation Foundation.
This article first appeared at SBS online
Image of Grey-headed flying fox by Vivien Jones