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To save Australia’s mammals we need a change of heart

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What’s the best way to give Australia’s mammals a helping hand? Northern Australia Hub, National Environmental Research Program
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University and Peter Harrison, Southern Cross University

Twenty-nine Australian land mammals have become extinct over the last 200 years, and 56 are currently facing extinction. These losses and potential losses represent over a third of the 315 species present at the time of European settlement.

We recently published the first review of all Australian mammals, finding that Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world, and the situation isn’t improving thanks to feral predators such as cats.

In response, Environment Minister Greg Hunt has proposed investing in research for a cat-killing disease as a form of biological control. But while biological control will be part of the solution, it is not the silver bullet. The real solution will have to involve a change of heart.

Not a thing of the past

Most Australians know of and regret the extinction of the thylacine — but few recognise that this one extinction is symptomatic of a much more pervasive loss. Twenty-eight other mammals have become extinct since 1788, and we suspect that few would know their names, let alone of their loss.

It’s still happening. In 2009 the Christmas Island Pipistrelle (a tiny bat) became extinct, and the Bramble Cay Melomys may have suffered a similar fate recently, thanks to neglect.

These species are or were not obscure marginalia or predestined for oblivion. Instead many were common and played important and irreplaceable roles in our country’s ecology. These species were part of the fabric of this land. The Australian mammal fauna is the most distinctive in the world: 86% of our 315 land mammal species are found nowhere else.

Since the 1840s we’ve lost mammals at the rate of one species per decade. On current trends, there will be many more extinctions of Australian mammals in the next one or two generations: we found 56 land mammal species (more than 20% of our land mammals) are now threatened with extinction.

Out to sea the situation is a little less bleak, but more opaque. Of 58 species reported from Australian waters, six are threatened but 35 are considered Data Deficient – they may or may not be in trouble, but we don’t have enough information to be sure.

Feral cats the greatest threat

It may sound all doom and gloom — and in many respects it is — but it’s important to note that conservation can work. Both Gilbert’s potoroo and the Bridled nailtail wallaby have been brought back from the brink through dedicated effort.

So how do we go about saving the rest of Australia’s threatened mammals?

Some consider this an economic question — with X amount of dollars, we can save X number of species, but which ones? This is the argument of medical triage, a sharp prioritisation that directs funds only at the most savable and valuable species.

But this is a defeatist mentality. To advocate for species’ extinctions by choice or through disinclination is unconscionable. Triage was born on the battlefields of Napoleonic Europe, where life and death choices had to be made in minutes. It is an inappropriate analogy for biodiversity conservation.

A better analogy is with the education system. Our society accepts the obligation that all children should be schooled, and recognises the benefit to society from that premise. So too with conservation: we should recognise the obligation to attempt to safeguard all species. In a nation as affluent as ours, this can and should be a realistic objective.

But to do so we have to target our resources at the right problems.

Cats are the greatest threat to Australia’s mammals. Northern Australia Hub, National Environmental Research Program

Cats are the greatest threat to Australia’s mammals. Like many other threats, they are now a pervasive and deeply-entrenched problem, and we recognise that it will not be solved simply or quickly.

There are some measure we can implement immediately: translocating threatened species, establishing a network of cat-proof enclosures, and better management of dingoes and wild dogs (which can help control cat populations).

But we also need to look at long-term solutions. This has formidable challenges. Current trials in cat-baiting are promising, but we don’t yet know if they will work on a large scale. Biological control (such as a disease) may take decades to develop, and has to overcome concerns from cat owners, and risks to other Australian wildlife and cat species overseas.

Even so, controlling cats is likely to do more for the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity than any other single action.

Learning to care for our country

But we have concluded that we will not solve the mammal extinction crisis simply by repeating the same actions over and over. The problem is far more fundamental.

Conservation is not just an environmental problem; it also charts a moral landscape. How does our society fit into this land? What do we consider is important? Is it reasonable that we gift our descendants only a faint shadow of our country’s extraordinary nature?

We have worked extensively in remote Australia. We have shown old Aboriginal men and women stuffed museum specimens of now-vanished mammals, and been struck to our core by their responses: singing the song of that animal, stroking it, telling its story, crying at its loss. Here is an affinity to nature, a deep connection to our land, an ache of responsibility, that we settler Australians have not yet felt or learned. To become part of this country, to care for it properly, we need to grow some of that sense of belonging and affinity. Otherwise, extinctions will continue to be viewed as inconsequential.

Our review of the fate of Australian mammals reflects uncomfortably on our society. Without understanding of our country, without linkages to, and affinity to, its nature, and without a corresponding commitment to its well-being, our society will fit poorly in this land and these seas, and we will continue to erode the most remarkable fauna in the world.

We must accept that biodiversity conservation is not only an obligation of government, but a shared societal responsibility.

The ConversationThis article was co-written by Dr Andrew Burbidge, who is a co-author of the action plan. He is a Research Fellow with the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University and Peter Harrison, Director, Marine Ecology Research Centre, Southern Cross University

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

Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink

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Gump, who died in May, was the last known member of her species. Director of National Parks/Supplied
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Don Driscoll, Australian National University, and Hal Cogger, Australian Museum

Among the most haunting and evocative images of Australian wildlife are the black and white photographs of the last Thylacine, languishing alone in Hobart Zoo. It’s an extraordinary reminder of how close we came to preventing an extinction.

That loss is also an important lesson on the consequences of acting too slowly. Hobart Zoo’s Tasmanian tiger died just two months after the species was finally given protected status.

Last year, we wrote about the last-known Christmas Island Forest Skink, an otherwise unremarkable individual affectionately known as Gump. Although probably unaware of her status, Gump was in a forlorn limbo, hoping to survive long enough to meet a mate and save her species. It was an increasingly unlikely hope.

Despite substantial effort searching Christmas Island for another Forest Skink, none was found.

On 31 May 2014, Gump died, alone. Like the Thylacine, she barely outlived the mechanisms established to protect her, dying less than five months after being included on the list of Australia’s threatened species.

Sad precedent: the Thylacine was another species that dwindled to a single captive individual, who then died. National Archives of Australia/Wikimedia Commons

Sudden decline

Until the late 1990s, Forest Skinks were common and widespread on Christmas Island. Their population then crashed, and has now vanished. It has been a remarkable disappearance but not entirely peculiar, as it was preceded by an eerily similar pattern of decline and extinction (in 2009) for the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, the most recent Australian mammal known to have become extinct. Nor is the skink unique among the island’s native reptiles – most of them have shown similar patterns of decline.

We think Gump’s death is momentous because it probably marks the extinction of her species. If so, this will be the first Australian native reptile known to have become extinct since European colonisation – a most unwelcome distinction. (Unlike the death of an individual, extinction can be hard to prove. There are, after all, some optimists who believe Thylacines still live. For the Forest Skink, the trajectory of decline and the fruitlessness of dedicated searches provide reasonable grounds to presume extinction, although this conclusion may take some years to be officially recognised. And, of course, we’d like to be proved wrong.)

All but officially extinct, the outlook is bleak. Hal Cogger/Supplied

Lessons and legacies

Gump’s death might be passed over as a trivial bit of bad news and quickly forgotten. But Forest Skinks have been around since before modern humans walked out of Africa, so their extinction on our watch is not trivial. We should treat this loss with a profound respect, and seek to learn lessons that may help prevent similar losses in the future.

These are the legacies we seek from Gump’s life and death:

First, we should acknowledge that extinction is an unwelcome endpoint that is usually caused by ecological factors, but in recent times has often been compounded by deliberate human action or inaction. In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.

In comparable cases elsewhere in our society, such as unexplained deaths or catastrophic governmental shortcomings, coronial inquests are instigated. Such inquests are widely recognised as a good way to learn lessons and to change practices in a way that will help avoid future failures. Inquests are also useful to acknowledge accountability, and to explain negative events to the public.

An inquiry – albeit more modest than a coronial inquest – is an appropriate response to any extinction. The presumed first extinction of an Australian reptile species would make for a worthwhile precedent: how could it have been averted, and what lessons can we learn?

Second, the Australian government has shown a welcome attention to the conservation of threatened species. It has appointed the first Threatened Species Commissioner, and federal environment minister Greg Hunt recently committed to seeking to prevent any more Australian mammal extinctions.

We would urge that this avowed interest be further consolidated by the loss of the Christmas Island Forest Skink, with a clear statement that this extinction is momentous and deeply regretted. The government should explicitly seek to avoid future preventable extinctions (a commitment recognised internationally through the Millennium Development Goals), and should pledge to implement a more effective and successful strategy for conserving Australia’s threatened species (and biodiversity generally).

Gump’s legacy could be a renewed push to prevent any more extinctions. Director of National Parks/Supplied

Third, it is no coincidence that two endemic vertebrate species have gone extinct on Christmas Island in the past decade, and that many other native species are declining there, despite the fact that most of the island is a national park.

Christmas Island’s extraordinary natural values are not being matched by the resources provided to manage them, or by their low profile in our national awareness. The island meets the criteria to qualify as a World Heritage site, and it is time for the government to seek such a listing.

The fourth hoped-for legacy concerns the so far successful captive breeding program for two other Christmas Island species that otherwise would have gone the same way as Gump: the endemic Blue-tailed Skink and Lister’s Gecko.

This is an admirable accomplishment. But it is at best a halfway house, because a species solely represented by individuals in cages becomes an artifice. We urge the government to commit fully to a currently proposed conservation plan for Christmas Island that seeks to allow such species to return to their natural haunts, following eradication or effective control of their primary threats such as introduced black rats, feral cats, yellow crazy ants, giant centipedes and wolf snakes.

Fifth, this extinction has largely been enacted out of public view. With the exception of a 2012 scientific paper, the few reports documenting the Christmas Island Forest Skink’s decline are not readily accessible.

There is an island-wide biodiversity monitoring program (which is admirable), yet the results of such monitoring are not routinely reported or interpreted to the public. Our society deserves to be warned of impending and unrecoverable losses, and to know when good management has averted them.

Let’s hope Gump hasn’t died in vain. Hal Cogger/Supplied

This case is not unusual: for most Australian threatened species, it is difficult if not impossible to find reliable information on population trends. This makes it difficult to prioritise management, making it likely that management responses will be initiated too late, and it severely limits public awareness of conservation issues. We recommend the development of a national biodiversity monitoring program that would allow ready public access to information about trends in threatened and other species.

The ConversationIt is 78 years since the death of the last Thylacine. Our photographs of extinct Australian animals are now taken in colour, rather than black and white. But has anything else improved? We hope it will.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Don Driscoll, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University, and Hal Cogger, John Evans Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum

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

Threat of extinction demands fast and decisive action

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Extinct: the Christmas Island Pipistrelle. Lindy Lumsden
Tara Martin, CSIRO

When it comes to mammal extinctions, Australia’s track record over the last 200 years has been abysmal. Since European settlement, nearly half of the world’s mammalian extinctions have occurred in Australia – 19 at last count. So, when faced with the additional threat of climate change, how do we turn this around and ensure the trend doesn’t continue?

Learning from previous extinctions is a good place to start. A comparison between two Australian species, the recently extinct Christmas Island pipistrelle and the critically endangered but surviving orange-bellied parrot, provides some insight into the answer to this question. Namely, that acting quickly and decisively in response to evidence of rapid population decline is a key factor in determining the fate of endangered species.

A bat and a parrot

Endemic to Christmas Island, the pipistrelle was a tiny (3.5 gram) insect-eating bat. It was first described in 1900, when numbers were widespread and abundant. In the early 1990s this began to change. The decline was rapid and the exact cause uncertain. By 2006, experts were calling for a captive breeding program to be initiated. These pleas were ignored until 2009 when it was finally given the green light. Sadly the decision came too late, and two months later the Federal Minister of Environment announced that the rescue attempt had failed.

Critically endangered: Orange-bellied Parrot, otherwise known as Neophema chrysogaster. John Harrison

Concern about the orange-bellied parrot began in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1981 that it was confirmed to be on the brink of extinction. In an attempt to save the parrot, a multi-agency, multi-government recovery team was set up and a captive breeding program began in 1983. Like the bat, threats to the parrot remain poorly understood. In 2010, monitoring showed that the species would become extinct in the wild within three to five years unless drastic action was taken. The recovery team immediately took action to bolster the captive population as insurance against extinction. There are currently 178 birds in captivity and less than 20 in the wild.

What do these two tales tell us about how me might avoid future Australian extinctions? It seems that one of the main differences, and perhaps the difference over which we have the most control, were the decision-making processes involved.

How we manage endangered species ultimately comes back to the decisions made, including who makes the decisions, who is held accountable, and the timing of these decisions. Examining these cases in the context of decision-making reveals some clear differences and highlights some important recommendations for the future management of endangered species.

Leadership, accountability, and timely action

One of the key differences was in the governance and leadership surrounding the two cases. Experts involved in monitoring the pipistrelle provided recommendations to government bodies, but did not have the authority to make decisions nor was there an effective leader to champion the urgent need to act. Conversely, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team had the authority to make decisions and act on them. Indeed, thanks to the Recovery Team’s broad representation, any failure to act would likely have resulted in public outcry – which raises the issue of accountability.

Management of endangered species requires tough decisions, yet they are decisions we must make. If we monitor declining populations without a process for deciding between different management options, we will only document extinctions. In some cases, the logical decision may be to employ a triage system where priority is given to species with a high likelihood of recovery. Assigning institutional accountability around the management of endangered species could help to ensure that tough decisions are made and that the processes involved are transparent.

Finally, the cases of the bat and the parrot also highlight the need to act quickly when a species is found to be on the brink of extinction. Delaying decisions only narrows our choices and removes opportunities to act. We may not always have all the answers, but this cannot be used as a reason to delay decision making. Based on a triage system a decision to not to act might be the best way forward, but if we delay the decision it becomes the only way forward.

Send in the scientists and heed their advice. Luke Diett

Better decisions with science

It is all well and good to say that we need leaders to be accountable and make timely decisions; but in a world where insufficient conservation resources exist to manage all endangered species, how do we ensure that the decisions we make are the right ones?

This is where science can help.

Scientific analysis can be used to determine how much information we need to inform a good conservation decision. In the case of the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the decision to start a captive breeding program came many years too late. By evaluating the costs, benefits, and feasibility of taking different management actions in the light of what we know about a species’ decline (or don’t know - i.e. the degree of uncertainty), it is possible to get the timing right.

Research into the methods used to stem species decline is also underway. For example, captive breeding and reintroduction programs are generally regarded as having good success rates. Further investigation into genetic management, habitat restoration, and effective techniques for reintroduction and risk management will help ensure the success of these programs for a variety of species.

Stemming the global loss of biodiversity through recovery planning will require brave decision-making in the face of uncertainty. Monitoring must be linked to decisions, institutions must be accountable for these decisions and decisions to act must be made before critical opportunities, and species, are lost forever.

Particular thanks go to Mark Holdsworth, Stephen Harris, Fiona Henderson, Mark Lonsdale, and my co-authors on the original paper on which this article is based.

The ConversationComments welcome below.

Tara Martin, Senior Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO

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

Research shows ecotourism can help save threatened species

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Black rhino cow and calf, southern Africa. Guy Castley, Author provided
Guy Castley, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, Griffith University

Should your next holiday include a safari, whale watching, or a trip to a tiger temple? Ecotourism has recently been in the spotlight. For instance, we’ve seen claims that tourism helps conserve tigers and that it has been linked to wildlife trafficking.

But how can we tell if ecotourism is good or bad for threatened species? In our research published today in PLOS ONE we looked at nine different species, and found that overall, ecotourism is good for wildlife. Great green macaw in Costa Rica, Egyptian vultures in Spain, hoolock gibbons in India, African penguins, African wild dogs, cheetahs, and golden lion tamarins in Brazil all benefited from tourism.

But we also found that current tourism levels aren’t enough to help orang utans in Sumatra, and are actually bad for sea lions in New Zealand. So how do we get the balance right?

African penguins in Algoa Bay, South Africa. Guy Castley

What is ecotourism?

“Ecotourism” is a very broad term. It may include visitors to public national parks, volunteers for community projects, or adventurous expeditions to remote regions. Some may even include hunting safaris.

Ecotourism has both positive and negative effects. It can contribute to conservation, or impact wildlife, or both. Some effects are small, others large; some direct, others indirect.

Attitudes of local communities towards native wildlife, for example, influence whether they support or oppose poaching. Furthermore, income from ecotourism may be used for conservation and local community development projects, but not always.

We also need some way to measure ecotourism effects on wildlife? Many ecotourism measures are social or economic rather than ecological. It’s often difficult to compare positive and negative impacts on a species. Therefore, quantifying the net effect of ecotourism is challenging.

For species at risk of extinction, such as those in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, it is critical to be able to assess how various threats, including tourism, affect their survival. So we wanted to develop a way of measuring how ecotourism affects the risk of extinction for these species.

Measuring ecotourism

Previously when considering ecotourism researchers looked at revenue to parks, and how much of a species’ global population was protected by these parks.

This approach showed that tourism funding is significant for many IUCN Redlisted mammals, birds and amphibians. But it doesn’t tell us whether ecotourism will help or harm a specific species or population.

Our new approach uses population analysis (specifically population viability analysis). This sort of analysis is the gold standard for predicting future population trends, and probable time to extinction, for threatened species.

We looked at how populations changed over time in response to threatening processes, by simulating births and deaths one generation at a time. We do this thousands of times to estimate extinction risk. These methods are well-tested and widely-used in practical wildlife management.

African wild dogs. Ralf Buckley

To do this we need to know a couple of things about the species we are looking at: habitat area; population size and age. We also need to know the birth and death rates for different ages as well as migration patterns. This information exists only for some threatened species such as those used in our study.

We also need to be able to convert ecotourism effects into these measures of species performance. By looking at how ecotourism affects these aspects we can compare ecotourism to other threats such as poaching, logging, or fishing.

A tiger in India (from the back of an elephant) Ralf Buckley

Winners and losers

For seven of the species that we looked at, ecotourism provides net conservation gains. This is achieved through establishing private conservation reserves, restoring habitat or by reducing habitat damage. Removing feral predators, increasing anti-poaching patrols, captive breeding and supplementary feeding also helps.

But for orang utans in Sumatra, small-scale ecotourism cannot overcome the negative impacts of logging. However, larger-scale ecotourism yields a net positive outcome by enabling habitat protection and reintroduction of individuals from captive situations.

Unfortunately for New Zealand’s sea lions, ecotourism only compounds the impacts of intensive fisheries, because it increases the number of sea lion pups dying as a result of direct disturbance at haul out sites.

Our research highlights three key messages. The first is that to predict how ecotourism affects wildlife, we need to know basic things about them: ecotourism needs biologists as well as social scientists.

The second is that the effects of ecotourism are not universal: whether ecotourism is good or bad depends on the species and local circumstances.

The ConversationThe third, and perhaps most important, is that ecotourism, at appropriate levels, can indeed help to save threatened species from extinction.

River ecotourism at the Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikama National Park, South Africa. Guy Castley

Guy Castley, Senior Lecturer, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Research Fellow - Academic Editor, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, International Chair in Ecotourism Research, Griffith University

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

Native Birds in and around Albany - Australian Pelican

The Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is a large waterbird of the family Pelecanidae, widespread on the inland and coastal waters of Australia. It is a predominantly white bird with black wings and a pink bill. It has been recorded as having the longest bill of any living bird. It mainly eats fish, but will also consume birds and scavenges for scraps if the opportunity arrises.

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The Australian pelican was first described by Dutch naturalist Coenraad Jacob Temminck in 1824. Its specific epithet is derived from the Latin verb conspicere, meaning 'to behold', and refers to the 'spectacled' appearance created by its conspicuous eye markings. Australian pelicans feed by plunge-diving while swimming on the surface of the water. They work in groups to drive fish to shallower water, where they stick their sensitive bills in to snatch their prey. Some feeding grounds in large bodies of water have included up to 1,900 individual birds. They will sometimes also forage solitarily. Their predominant prey is fish and they commonly feed on introduced species such as goldfishEuropean carp and European perch. When possible, they also eat native fish, with a seeming preference for the perch Leiopotherapon unicolor. However, the Australian pelican seems to be less of a piscivore and more catholic in taste than other pelicans. It regularly feeds on insects and many aquatic crustaceans, especially the common yabby and the shrimps in the Macrobrachium genus. This pelican also takes other birds with some frequency, such as silver gullsAustralian white ibisand grey teal, including eggs, nestlings, fledglings and adults, which they may kill by pinning them underwater and drowning them.

The Australian pelican begins breeding at two or three years of age. The breeding season varies, occurring in winter in tropical areas (north of 26°S) and spring in parts of southern Australia. Breeding may occur any time after rainfall in inland areas. The nest is a shallow depression in earth or sand, sometimes with some grass lining.

Breeding Australian pelicans will lay one to four (typically two) chalky-white eggs measuring 93 mm × 57 mm (3.7 in × 2.2 in), which often appear scratched and dirty.[10] The eggs are incubated for 32 to 35 days. The chicks are naked when they hatch, though quickly grow grey down feathers. After they hatch, the larger one will be fed more, and the smaller one will eventually die of starvation or siblicide. For the first two weeks the chicks will be fed regurgitated liquid, but for the remaining two months they will be fed fish and some invertebrates. Feeding pods are formed within colonies when the chicks are around 25 days. The young pelicans fledge at around three months of age.

At Emu Point you can see them waiting for scraps as the fishermen come in with thier catch and fillet the fish in the special station for them.

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