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.
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.
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.
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