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The future for biodiversity conservation isn’t more national parks

Today we begin a series on Australia’s endangered species and how best to conserve them. The series will run each Thursday, and begins with this excerpt from Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay, After the Future…

Without help, parks like Kakadu could become marsupial ghost towns. Territory Expeditions

Today we begin a series on Australia’s endangered species and how best to conserve them. The series will run each Thursday, and begins with this excerpt from Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay, After the Future.

At 19,804 square kilometres, Kakadu National Park is arguably the jewel in the crown of Australia’s reserve system. World Heritage-listed, it received $18 million for operating costs in 2008–09, much of which goes to managing the influx of tourists. Yet, unless it is to become another marsupial ghost town, more needs to be spent on biodiversity protection.

Between 1995 and 2008 the abundance of small mammals found in the park declined by 75%, and a third of the species that were recorded there in 1995 can no longer be found, and appear to be locally extinct. One, the brush-tailed rabbit-rat (the last surviving relative of the white-footed rabbit rat of southeastern Australia), may even be extinct nation­wide. As the researchers who reported these dismal findings surmised:

The current rapid decline of mammals in Kakadu National Park and northern Australia suggests that the fate of biodiversity globally might be even bleaker than evident in recent reviews, and that the establishment of conservation reserves alone is insufficient to maintain biodiversity. This latter conclusion is not new; but the results reported here further stress the need to manage reserves far more intensively, purposefully, and effectively, and to audit regularly their biodiversity conservation performance.

The ongoing extinction of northern Australia’s medium-sized mammals, such as bandicoots, quolls, rabbit rats and tree-rats, while catastrophic in itself, is just one symptom of an ecosystem in extinction freefall.

As the extinctions continue, vegetation communities are changing and simplifying, while populations of reptiles and birds, such as the Gouldian finch, are also being affected. These shifts are occurring on such an awesome scale and proceeding so fast that they resemble a local version of the dinosaurs’ extinction.

What has changed in recent decades across the north, including in Kakadu, the most highly protected region of Australia?

Feral animals like the water buffalo are harmful, but counterintuitively helpful. ARM Climate Research Facility

The main driver appears to be changes in fire regime, compounded by the presence of feral cats, and shifts in the abundance, in some habitats, of large feral herbivores such as cattle and water buffalo. The water buffalo had been introduced from Asia in the 19th century, and by the 1970s were wreaking havoc with aquatic ecosystems. They would crowd the billabongs in the dry season, destroying water lilies and reeds, and stirring up mud until the waterholes became mud wallows, the buffalo using them looking like so many maggots in a sore when viewed from the air.

There was thus good reason to cull the creatures, but the cull may have had unfortunate consequences. While the dynamics of the situation are still being worked out, I gained a small insight into one aspect of it in the mid-1990s.

I was filming an ABC documentary when a parks ranger explained to me that a program to eliminate water buffalo from the park had changed the fire regime. Adult water buffalo each eat around 20kg of dry grass per day, such that prior to the cull they removed much flammable material from the Kakadu floodplain. With the buffalo gone, hot fires began to consume the uncropped grass. Fuelled from the floodplain, extremely hot and large fires then began to sweep deep into the surrounding escarpment country.

I recall standing beside one victim of the flames, a gigantic Allosyncarpia tree, its 80cm-thick trunk still smouldering, its once dense canopy a mess of browned leaves and ashes. This giant must have been hundreds of years old, and had been growing in a moist fold in the sandstone escarpment, where it had been safe from fire all its life – until, in the absence of both grazing by water buffalo and Aboriginal fire management, its trunk was burnt through and it collapsed. Tragically, it was not alone. The whole area was being transformed by the enormous, extremely hot fires.

If we are to fully understand what’s happening to Australia’s biodiversity, we must also consider the assault of cane toads, feral cats, pigs, cattle, horses, donkeys, noxious weeds, and in southern Australia foxes, cats, rabbits, camels, deer and goats.

Kakadu National Park. Michael Whitehead

In all, 72 vertebrate species have established feral populations in Australia, and when combined with the fires, their varied impacts are making our national parks unsafe for native species continent-wide. Those living close to the land have long understood this, as was recently highlighted in Adelaide at a public meeting convened by Bob Debus to discuss the Federal Government’s billion-dollar biodiversity fund.

Debus had been talking about the need to connect up national parks by creating corridors which would allow species to migrate as Australia’s climate changed. An Aboriginal elder from Cape York responded that it sounded like a great idea – in theory. But the fact was that many of the national parks in his region were infested with feral pigs, which would use any corridors that were created to spread and thereby inflict even more damage on the environment.

Medium-sized native mammals are critically important to Australian environments. They include the largest burrowers in many habitats, and their burrows provide refuge for many other species. Moreover, the spoil heaps created by digging bring fresh nutrients to the surface, providing important habitat for many ecologically important plants.

Rabbits burrow, too, but they also destroy the plants. Moreover, some marsupials are fungus-eaters, and they spread fungal spores that are important to forest health. Others disperse seeds, eat insects that can kill trees if their numbers build up, and distribute nutrients such as phosphorus across the countryside. Take out these vital functions and you end up with sick ecosystems.

What is to be done? At the highest level, it’s clear that Australians today must take up the role, forged over 40,000 years, of acting as a keystone species in Australia’s varied environments by managing fire, regulating the numbers of feral animals and eliminating weeds. If this is not done, then northern Australia will lose many of its important species, while in the south the last remnants of the medium-sized mammal fauna will be lost. Just where this would lead over time is unclear, but both ecosystem stability and productivity are likely to be affected.

With Australia having over 22 million people in a continent of nearly 8 million square kilometres, it is fair to ask if these things can be achieved within an affordable budget. A partial answer to this question comes from a recent assessment of endangered species in the Kimberley region.

A study of 637 vertebrate species showed that 45 mammals, birds and reptiles were likely to become extinct in the next 20 years without action being taken to manage fire, feral animals and weeds, and grazing. Yet the cost of all actions to avoid the extinctions was just $40 million a year – a startlingly small sum given the many benefits that flow from fire management and control of pests in one of Australia’s most valuable tourist regions.

A study of vertebrate species in the Kimberley showed 45 are likely to become extinct in the next 20 years. Neerav Bhatt

We need not rely on theoretical studies alone as a guide to the cost-effectiveness of protecting endangered species in the Kimberley. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is a not-for-profit organisation funded principally through donations from the public. It was established by Martin Copley, whose vision to protect Australia’s endangered species has had an enormous impact. (Here I must declare a personal interest: I’ve been involved with the AWC since its inception, and now serve on its board of directors.)

In little over a decade the AWC has grown to the point where it man­ages over 3 million hectares. Its reserves are scattered throughout the nation, with particularly significant holdings in the tropical north and centre. On this land, the organisation conserves around two-thirds of Australia’s threatened mammal species, and 70% of its threatened mainland bird species. And it manages to do this on an annual budget of around $12 million – just two-thirds the budget of Kakadu, which occupies an area half the size of the AWC’s holdings.

In southern Australia, the challenge of environmental conservation is significantly different, and requires other measures. Many of the medium-sized mammals, such as woylies and rabbit rats, that once abounded in the south are now extinct or survive only as remnant populations on islands, where they have lost all wariness of mammalian predators.

In these circumstances feral-proof enclosures offer the best method of conservation. This involves fencing areas, eliminating cats, foxes, rabbits and other ferals, and reintroducing the endangered species. These fenced areas effectively act as arks, keeping the survivors safe from extinction and genetically diverse until better options are developed.

Rabbit rats once abounded in the south, but not any more. Gould/Museum of Victoria

It is reasonable to ask if not-for-profit organisations can be charged with protecting Australia’s biodiversity in the long term. After all, being dependent on donations, they may be thought to have a tenuous existence. But overseas some not-for-profit organisations have been operating successfully for a century or more. Such organisations suffer ups and downs as the economy expands and contracts, but so too do government departments. Indeed, one AWC staffer recently told me that employees there feel far more secure in their jobs than do their government-employed peers.

It may also be argued that the AWC has a particular vulnerability in that much of the land it manages consists of pastoral leases, and so it does not enjoy the legislative protection of national parks and nature reserves. Yet, as we have seen, even lands protected under legislation are not exempt from being resumed for development. And the AWC is increasingly managing land on behalf of others, making it less vulnerable to changes in tenure, and ever more capable of using its expertise to preserve biodiversity in a wide variety of circumstances.

With biodiversity in Australia’s national parks in decline, there’s a crying need for state governments to reach out to organisations like the AWC for help in managing the problems that they can no longer adequately address acting alone. Were an organisation like the AWC to be given a role in managing feral animals, weeds and biodiversity in national parks, the state could hold it responsible for achieving a clear set of mutually agreed goals. If they were not met, the state could sack the organisation and employ another to do the job.

Some may object that letting private enterprise into the state-owned realm will only lead to a further hollowing out of government expertise. But public–private partnerships are hardly new, and they’ve proved useful where governments alone lack the means of achieving results. Moreover, the risk to the environment of this initiative failing could be minimised if it were trialled first in national parks or nature reserves where biodiversity values are already low.

The truth is that things are now so dire that we cannot afford to persist with business as usual: a change of direction is essential if we’re to head off the great impending wave of extinctions. Australia needs several organisations like the AWC, which would compete for funding and the privilege of conserving our endangered fauna and flora.

This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis by Tim Flannery, published by Black Inc. RRP $19.95, also available as an ebook.

Read a response to Tim Flannery’s article, and a review of his Quarterly Essay.