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Threat of extinction demands fast and decisive action

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…

Extinct: the Christmas Island Pipistrelle. Lindy Lumsden

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.

Comments welcome below.

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Euan Ritchie

    Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University

    Thank you for a very interesting, timely and challenging piece. I struggle with the concept of triage but at the same time I am a pragmatist and realise in many ways we are already doing triage, just not explicitly (yet).

    I have a few questions/thoughts:

    * What actual evidence is there that triage will lead to less species loss? More dollars does not always mean better outcomes.

    * Shouldn't we spend more time addressing the root causes of biodiversity loss rather than treating symptoms…

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    1. Michael McCarthy

      ARC Future Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Euan Ritchie

      To answer your first question, triage is the approach of defining what you want to achieve and then determining what is the best way to achieve that with the available resources. If the aim is to minimize the expected number of species that go extinct, then we should spend money on cases where the reduction in the probability of extinction per dollar spent is the greatest. It will get to the point where this marginal benefit declines to a point where we would also spend money on other species. The…

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    2. Euan Ritchie

      Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University

      In reply to Michael McCarthy

      Thanks Mick, a really helpful explanation. My only question is how exactly do we 'spend money on cases where the reduction in the probability of extinction per dollar spent is the greatest', as for many species I'm guessing this is quite hard to determine apriori, due to pre-existing knowledge limitations for most species and unforeseen (future) environmental events/change (e.g. bushfires, cyclones). Please excuse my ignorance if I've missed something and triage/decision theory can adequately deal with this.

    3. Michael McCarthy

      ARC Future Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Euan Ritchie

      For sure - the reduction in extinction risk per dollar spent is uncertain for many if not most species; perhaps it is unknowable. But some options are better than others. They might be surer bets, or they might have a greater expected return. Actually, it is not much different from financial investment. We have some money, and we are wondering how best to invest it in species conservation. The answer of how best to do that will depend on what we want to achieve, and our attitudes to risk. The second paper that I linked to in my comment above covers that:

      But the answer does depend on having a decent estimate of the expected outcomes and the uncertainty, or finding a strategy that is at least somewhat robust to ignorance about those. Regardless, thinking about those things explicitly must be better than ignoring them and simply making implicit decisions about what to save and what to let go.

    4. Tara Martin

      Senior Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences at CSIRO

      In reply to Euan Ritchie

      Hi Euan,
      Great questions. Further to Micks thoughtful responses, in the paper on which this ‘Conservation’ article was based ,
      we suggest that triage was one of several management options for the Christmas island pipistrelle. It is conceivable, that the appropriate decision was to triage because of a perceived low likelihood of success relative to the cost of management and limited resources that could be better allocated towards the many other threatened species on Christmas Island. What is most disappointing is that no decision was apparent. In the end, it was a delay in decision making, as opposed to a decision to triage, which contributed to the extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle.

    5. Mike Stevens

      Conservationist (land manager) - private comments, own views

      In reply to Michael McCarthy

      Triage is a good conservation theory but fails in practice. You need to be allowed to talk about all issues and assess all options but in many cases topics can not be discussed due to perceived (not actual) political risk. Something as simple as finding the person who has the ultimate accountability in decision making is problematic regarding sensitive conservation issues. Possible triage options are dismissed without any rationale or assessment.

      Triage is difficult in conservation practice due…

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  2. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    The only sensible solution is to create markets out of the trade in endangered species. Wombat steaks are the way forward.

  3. Dingo Simon

    Owner, Durong Dingo Sanctuary Qld

    I liked this article. But what does bother me is the way the Australian Federal and State Govts seem to have turned a blind eye to protecting much of our wildlife.

    My personal concern is the dingoes on Fraser Island.

    For the past 20 years under the watch of the Labor Party, the Rangers on Fraser Island have been involved of a Dingo Management program that has killed off so many dingoes. There needs to be at least about 200 dingoes on the Island for them to be viable.
    At present due to the killing/culling program the dingo numbers have declined to about 60 and we are finding that brothers and sisters are mating.
    In my opinion these dingoes are heading towards extinction due to Govt Policy.
    At the moment the new LNP Govt have contracted Ecosure to develop a new program.
    So Tara, I agree that new introduction programs are certainly required to save a species. But like most Govt's, they act too slowly unless pressured by Scientists or public outrage.

  4. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    I have been writing and commenting on this issue pretty much all my life, and view the ongoing situation as the outcome of one thing only, being the demand by humans to go anywhere they feel like when they need to be simply banned from encroaching on certain places.

    A good working example has been in New Zealand reef parks, where NO fishing or human encroachment whatsoever is allowed. Another more extreme example is the lower southwest of WA, where amid cries to 'protect old growth forest' I long ago suggested that a long fence be erected from Busselton across the Nannup and back down to Augusta to keep humans with their foxes, dogs and cats out, pretty much as it was in presettlement times apart from a few outlaws living there.

    Sound extreme? Well, yes, but that's they only way the vulnerable species extinction is going to be stopped, even more critically as our own human species rampancy continues as it has since settlement.

    Sorry, that's just the way it is.

  5. Stuart Purvis-Smith

    Clinical Cytogeneticist (retired)

    Thank you Tara for this welcome and thoughtful post. While it is important to develop the science and strategies for conservation at the species level, I am concerned that the proverbial "elephant in the room" has not yet been mentioned, namely the threats to the global biosphere through loss of habitat, climate change and so on.

    It seems that we have parallel universes at work here - one in this delightfully positive conversation in which loss of species is recognised as an immediate and serious…

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    1. Tara Martin

      Senior Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences at CSIRO

      In reply to Stuart Purvis-Smith

      Hi Stuart,
      You raise an important point, in that determining the best management actions to take in the face of great uncertainty is a challenge. But not one we are shying away from. Much of our research effort is around decision making under severe uncertainty, whether it be deciding when to translocate species impacted by climate change ,
      protect habitat for migratory species that span multiple countries or the management of disease, endangered species and invasive species, , the science of decision making under uncertainty can help guide these complex global problems.

  6. David Choquenot

    Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra at University of Canberra

    I also like this article, but as with much of the excellent work linking decision theory to threatened species management (so-called conservation triage), it is limited in its relevance because it treats one component of conservation (threatened species recovery) in isolation. Conservation triage identifies the investment portfolio that minimizes the proportion of a given set of threatened species (or populations) that will disappear under a specified level of funding. However, if the set of threatened…

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    1. Michael McCarthy

      ARC Future Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to David Choquenot

      Hi David,

      It is a good point to distinguish between stopping extinction of threatened species and stopping species becoming threatened. The choice of that objective, or more precisely how the two objectives are balanced, influences the best way to spend money. We show that in this paper:

      I'm not sure as a society we have figured out the balance that we want.

      Interestingly, the optimal allocation among options also depends on how much money we have to spend.

  7. David Choquenot

    Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra at University of Canberra

    Hi Michael, I agree that the question of resource allocation "before and after endangerment" is technically tractable, and it's great to see the example you present. I'm interested in the scale at which these choices are made and hence the application context for the approaches you describe. In my view, trying to get national or even regional agreement on what species are important to conserve, and what "conservation" might look like is difficult to contemplate. However, local communities can and…

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    1. Michael McCarthy

      ARC Future Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to David Choquenot

      Hi David - Yes, the question of values (and actions) at different scales of community organisation is important and interesting. At least one of the commentators on one of my articles in The Conversation clearly has well defined local values that drive actions, and these seem somewhat independent of a national or regional "call to arms" as you put it.

      They don't seem to be waiting on Canberra or Melbourne for direction, which is great!