Cape York’s wildlife ignored in the rush to develop the north

A baby northern quoll. The native mammal is having a hard time across northern Australia, battling for survival against cane toads and feral predators such as cats. Parks Australia/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The future of Cape York Peninsula – home to many of Australia’s unique birds, mammals, frogs and reptiles – is currently under review.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently launched the first stage of a new White Paper on Northern Australia. It’s the first national policy of its kind on the north and will be finalised within the next year. At the same time, the Queensland government has drafted the Cape York Regional Plan, which is currently open for public comment until 25 March.

Then there is the House of Representatives Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia and the review of Water Resources on Cape York. Comments on this are due also on 25 March. That water resources review is coupled with the revocation of the water-licensing moratorium on Cape York. This was initiated with the Wild Rivers declarations, which are also being revoked. New investigations into the availability of groundwater on Cape York, particularly in the Great Artesian Basin, are now planned.

All of these initiatives are focused almost exclusively on economic development.

Having built a northern Australian business that celebrates 25 years next year, I know the importance of a strong and viable economic base. But it must be tempered by a healthy regard for the values, opportunities and constraints of the natural environment and the unique biodiversity of the Cape.

The draft Cape York Plan does not adequately address the biodiversity and environmental aspects of the Cape’s development. The draft plan has already delineated areas for development for agriculture, mining and other activities, in the absence of sound knowledge and assessment of what is in the areas, as those studies have not been done.

Recent investigative reports on the potential and limitations of northern development have cautioned strongly against development at all costs without recognising the “critical gaps in knowledge”.

A vast unknown

Cape York’s unique natural values have been recognised for a long time. Naturalists were collecting plant specimens from the early 1770s, and from the early 1800s many new animal species were described. A third (114 species) of Australia’s mammal species are known from the Cape. Despite this richness and more than two centuries of records, the status of biodiversity of Cape York is poorly known.

Across northern Australia, native mammals have experienced dramatic declines. Many populations are undergoing “substantial and pervasive decline” towards extinction.

Have they been occurring across the Cape? In short: we don’t know. The few recent studies by researchers, including myself, have shown similar very disturbing patterns on Cape York, with mammal numbers at levels that have caused alarm in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Fruit Bat Falls, Jardine River National Park, near the top of Cape York Peninsula. David Robertson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Across the entire Cape, systematic but one-off studies of only around 230 sites have been made since 1979, most of them since 2012. These sites cover one hectare each, so the total area covered is tiny. No long-term studies of most mammals have been done for the Cape, despite known declines of some of the more iconic species, such as the northern quoll.

Many of the surveys were done for mining proposals located on areas which are now mined, and so they have no value for further study. None of the studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are difficult to find even in technical studies and other reports.

Contrast this with studies undertaken in the tropics of the Northern Territory, where over 220 long-term monitoring sites have been established, which have shown “alarming” declines in many mammals over the last 20 years. There is no reason to think that these declines have not occurred on Cape York, given its similar climate, soils, pastoral history, and original fauna.

So what is being done about this lack of knowledge? Not much.

What cutting ‘green tape’ could mean

The problem for biodiversity in the plans of the Australian and Queensland governments for the Cape is that they are all about development, where the environment is seen as an impediment, an obstacle to be overcome.

None of the reviews or plans currently underway considers the unique biodiversity and environment as of prime importance to be considered on an equal footing with “realising the full economic potential of the north”, as the Prime Minister’s media release emphasised last week.

That philosophy derives in part from the Coalition’s policy 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia which is to “cut the green and red tape” and develop the north as a “food bowl” to help double Australia’s agricultural output. The policy is to be developed by September this year.

So what does cutting “green tape” (that is, environmental regulation) actually mean in practice? I expect it is code for removing many requirements for environmental assessment, including biological surveys of the land to be disturbed and adjacent to the projects, whether they be agricultural projects, roads, gas pipelines, dams, mines, subdivisions and others which will destroy landscapes, and thus kill millions of native animals.

Certainly, the Queensland Government is working towards restricting public objections to many mining projects to those directly affected, and no one else.

Deadly consequences

The devastating results of development without proper knowledge and care for natural resources and biodiversity can be seen in southern Australia, which has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world.

Over the past 200 years, a third (24 of 77) of all mammal extinctions around the world have occurred in Australia as a result of human impacts. There are no excuses left if we wipe out more species by poor planning for development.

Historical film footage of the now extinct thylacine, or “Tasmanian tiger”.

Extinctions are not impacts that we can repair later. There are no technological fixes, no seed banks, no magic potions to recover extinct fauna.

We know that extinctions are caused by land clearing, changed fire regimes, introduced predators, feral animals and weeds, and disease. Planning should recognise that studies are needed on the native species and habitats proposed for development to prevent this happening again across northern Australia, including on Cape York.

We simply don’t know enough about the wildlife on the Cape. That’s why the need to study them is more urgent than ever, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and drive more unique Australian animals to extinction.

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