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The numbers are in: Australia must do more to protect migratory birds

Habitat of the Eastern Curlew along its migratory pathway in east Asia is rapidly being reclaimed for development. Dean Ingwersen

Australia is a signed up member of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and a strong supporter of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Both these global programs are trying to reduce the rate of decline in biodiversity. One might therefore expect Australia would have an intimate knowledge of our performance in biodiversity conservation.

In fact the government has little idea. The recently released State of the Environment report could say only that both state and Commonwealth lists of threatened species, which reflect our performance at the cutting edge of biodiversity conservation, were likely to be idiosyncratic and out of date. They suggest that any trends derived from these lists are probably meaningless.

However there is an alternative. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a Red List of threatened species using consistent categories and criteria. The Red List Index, a performance metric derived from changes in this list, is used to determine global trends.

We have recently applied the technique to Australian birds, using a dataset that has been maintained since 1990. Our analysis, just published in Biological Conservation, is the first application of the Red List Index at a national level.

While the Red List Index for endemic Australian birds is slightly better than the global average, visiting seabirds and shorebirds are in deep trouble. Judit Szabo

For birds found only in Australia the results suggest a slight decline over the last two decades, and that we are doing better than the rest of the world. Although there have been some declines, there has also been success.

However, the story for birds visiting us from overseas is far less positive. Each year millions of migratory shorebirds breed in northern Asia then undertake a remarkable migration to overwinter on our tidal mudflats. Their population is plummeting as critical staging posts around the Yellow Sea are reclaimed for industry, cities and aquaculture.

Meanwhile long-line fishing continues to kill many albatrosses and petrels that visit seas around Australia. For both these groups Australia will need to increase its efforts with international partners if trends are to be reversed.

From the perspective of Australian policy, the more pressing issue is whether we can maintain our record with our own birds. The short term prospects are good. For example, an audacious feral animal eradication program on Macquarie Island looks like being successful. If it is, our national Red List Index could buck the global trend and rise – a demonstration that well-managed investments by government can be effective in keeping our biological inheritance for future generations.

The Regent Honeyeater, once common in south-eastern eucalypt woodlands, has slipped to be Critically Endangered in the last 10 years. Peter Morris

But the long-term prospects are grim. Two years ago the Commonwealth Government suggested that their conservation investment should shift from investing in threatened species to investing in landscapes, even though it is often the threatened species that give landscapes their value.

State and territory conservation departments have followed the Commonwealth’s lead. The Threatened Species Network was disbanded and dedicated species managers are pleading for support, but government investment has all but ceased for many programs.

In 2009 Australia had its first mammal extinction in 50 years – the Christmas Island Pipistrelle - lost from a federally managed national park despite frequent warnings. There is great danger that some of our birds will follow soon unless governments recognise that species are at least as important for biodiversity conservation as landscapes.

By calculating the Red List Index at a national scale we now have a metric of performance to hold governments to account, much as we hold them to account on economic and social performance measures.

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