Farewell, Furry Friends
By Ellen FanningNovember 6, 2012
Trying to manage threatened species on limited budgets? We reveal the extinction lists that aim to save more plants and animals — by deciding what we can’t save.
Environment departments across Australia and New Zealand are facing up to the fact that they are now in the extinction business.
Feral animals, invasive weeds, widespread land clearing and climate change all have played a part.
But the contribution of the conservation bureaucracy itself should not be underestimated.
Consider the case of what is most likely Australia’s most recent mammalian extinction.
The Christmas Island pipistrelle was an insectivorous microbat, native to a notorious prison rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 2,800km from both Perth and Darwin.
As with so many of Australia’s 1,790 nationally listed threatened plant and animal species, scientists had been baffled by what was killing off the pipistrelles in their rainforest home.
After monitoring their constant decline for more than a decade, in 2006 scientists urged the federal environment minister to immediately approve the capture of the remaining individuals so they could be bred in captivity.
At the same time, the Commonwealth Threatened Species Scientific Committee upgraded the pipistrelle’s status to critically endangered, the highest threat category, and raised the alert that “radical conservation action may be required”.
Nothing happened for three years.
In July 2009, six months after being warned there were likely only 20 bats left in existence, the minister finally gave the order to grab the nets and go.
But an expedition party could find only a single pipistrelle. (Even the non-biologists among us will be able to see how this represented an insurmountable obstacle to saving the species.)
It was curtains for the Christmas Island pipistrelle.
“Our record is appalling,” says Sally Egan, the head of the threatened-species section in the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Department referring to the rate of extinctions in Australia.
But these one- and two-digit figures hide the fact that there are, all up, more than 2,000 species on threatened species lists in Australia.
Nationally, 43 animals and 120 plants are either on the verge of extinction. Many of these may have already popped off.
We’re heading for a wave of extinctions, and our governments and conservation groups are making largely ineffectual efforts to stem the tide.
Each year in Australia, state and commonwealth agencies expand their threatened-species lists, a laborious business involving community and scientific consultation, a lengthy departmental process, a ministerial rubber stamp and finally a listing in the Government gazette.
Plants and animals are added each year, far more than are ever removed from the lists of the threatened.
About half of the plants or animals that appear on the national list then require a detailed rescue plan. For some species, a plan already exists. Others join a waiting list for what could be years of detailed study by expert scientists.
But all this activity can mask the fact that for most of Australia’s threatened plants and animals no direct action will ever be taken to save them. Quite simply once on the list, nothing much happens.
They might be wheeled into the conservationists’ equivalent of the emergency department, but no actual treatment is available. There is simply not enough money to save everything.
Queensland alone has identified 1,300 threatened plants and animals. This year, Sally Egan can only afford to authorise work on 27.
The list includes the bridled nailtail wallaby, 11 species of turtles, bilby, the dugong, the Cooktown orchid and the northern hairy-nosed wombat.
Little wonder Egan can’t recall even one endangered plant or animal in Queensland having its threat status revised downwards, let alone being removed from the state list altogether after having been successfully brought back from the brink.
“At the moment things are going extinct,” she says, and explains how that happens: “A decision to intervene comes too late. [There’s] lots of running around, arms waving, and we fail. Or we don’t know at all what’s going on and then we notice later on [that some species is extinct] and then there’s some arms waving because we have to go out and announce that it’s happened. Or we know in government that something’s going on and the choice is made: ‘It’s not a priority, we can’t do anything about it and we’re not going to intervene.’”
Hugh Possingham directs an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence at Queensland University. Its focus is excellence in environmental decisions.
A professor of both mathematics and biology, Possingham estimates that to be able to stop the current list of endangered species from becoming extinct Australia would need five to 10 times more funding.
But he says we could be doing far more with the money available now.
A landmark research paper he co-authored, unveiled a pioneering technique to minimise the number of extinctions by simply ranking all threatened species to establish which should be saved and which should be left to fend for themselves.
Think of it as conservation triage.
The idea of triaging first emerged in World War I on the battlefields of France, where frontline doctors were overwhelmed by the number of wounded.
Aiming to save the most lives, they decided to prioritise whom to treat first based on the condition of each wounded soldier. Those likely to die regardless of the care they received would be left on the stretchers. Those with a good chance of survival were rushed into surgery.
When it comes to evaluating thousands of different plants and animals, Possingham’s modern-day triaging means developing a business case, indeed an investment prospectus, for saving each worm, bird, beast or shrub.
He says all that’s required is a cost-benefit analysis: For each species, figure out whether they need urgent, active management to save them, have experts give their best guess about the likelihood that a rescue mission would be successful over, say, 50 years, and then factor in the cost.
(That’s benefit multiplied by feasibility divided by cost, for those who like an equation.)
This enables the compilation of a ranked list. The cheapest and most feasible projects are at the top and the most expensive and least feasible at the bottom. Et voilà! An extinction list!
Conservation departments just work their way down from the top of the list until the money runs out. Everything above that point on the list is saved; everything lower down, pretty much doomed.
The process is transparent, the list is updated every few years and there is compulsory monitoring of the projects that attract funding, so the scientists involved can publicly demonstrate they are in fact altering the fate of the species they’re working on.
In this way, the public can see what will survive, what won’t and what trade-offs are being made along the way.
“The basic formula is very, very simple. It’s just cost effectiveness,” says Possingham.
This year, Possingham and five other scientists from organisations including the CSIRO and three major national universities brought that simplicity and rigour to figuring out how much it would cost to preserve the vertebrate wildlife (that is, animals with backbones) of the remote Kimberley region of northwestern Australia.
Northern Australia is the final frontier: the place where most plants and animals are relatively intact but under threat. (For instance, in Kakadu National Park, one of the most protected, best-funded national parks in Australia a detailed 13-year study found small native mammals were in “rapid and severe decline”, in part due to predation by feral cats and cane toads, which are continuing to make their way further west each year.)
“It’s the last place in Australia where you can find a fully intact mammal fauna,” Possingham says of the Kimberley, “that is, every species that existed [there] before Europeans arrived.”
The cost to preserve all those mammals was $40 million a year.
“It’s really a business plan for a region,” Possingham says, summarising the detailed research paper which they produced, “telling the government, ‘If you spend this, you’ve got a reasonable chance of keeping the place intact. If you spend less we predict you will start losing species.’
“My view is this,” he continues. “Our defence spending every year is $25.7 billion. So that’s $500 million a week. So $40 million is about 12 hours of defence spending.
“So if you stopped defence spending for half a day, you can secure the biodiversity of the Kimberley.
“The question is, what does the Australian public want?”
Across the Tasman, they have answered this question.
It’s taken five years, but New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is finalising a ranked list of threatened species for the whole country. By using this list to prioritise their spending, New Zealanders reckon they will be able to save three times as many species over the next 50 years as would otherwise have been possible.
Such a significant improvement is possible, Possingham says, because in the past in New Zealand (as in Australia), “Nobody had ever gone through and worked out whether they were spending the right money in the right places.”
“Money flows out to the things that are most endangered and they are not always the best buys. [In New Zealand] they’re [now working on saving] cheaper species,” says Possingham, who worked closely with the New Zealand project.
“We’re very good at trying to save the last few individuals of a species, but while we’re doing that many, many species are getting rarer and rarer and the emergency ward is full now. And we’re struggling. Maybe we should spend a bit more of our money stopping [species] getting into the emergency ward.”
Australia is now also beginning to experiment with the idea of conservation triage.
Earlier this year in Brisbane, Possingham chaired a landmark meeting. Never before had senior representatives from the threatened-species section of every state, territory and federal environment department come together to openly discuss the best techniques for deciding which plants and animals should endure for future generations.
“We can’t keep trying to do everything. We need to let something go,” says Sally Egan, who represented Queensland at the meeting.
She expects Queensland will eventually come up with its own extinction list, extending a project begun six years ago, in which the list of 1,300 threatened Queensland species was reduced to a shorter list of 271 top-priority plants and animals. The government now recommends that anyone investing in threatened species should draw from that list.
But Egan says even the abridged version of the threatened-species list is too long.
“Resources have been ‘Vegemited’ for so long,” she says, referring to the way in which available funding is spread too thinly across all threatened species, like Vegemite on a sandwich. “We can’t keep going around with this endless fingers-in-the-dyke thing happening.”
It leads to what she calls “investor fatigue”.
“Everybody gets sick of it,” she says. “The park rangers, the [private] landlords … even the federal government. They’ve spent all this time and money and there still isn’t a bilby sitting under every tree in western Queensland. And [so] the investment drops off and you’re struggling to maintain those [annual conservation activities] that need to happen.
“So if you stop thinking that we have to be working on 271 fronts simultaneously, to keep them all in the landscape, you can think [instead] about 50 urgent ones,” she says. “Then everyone in Queensland spends every dollar on the 50 urgent ones until they’re less urgent and we’ve actually done something. We have more of them in the landscape and we have less [under] threat. Then you can go on to the next 50 … and you’ve done something about solving the problem rather than just keeping things as the status quo.”
While cautious about a strict cost-benefit analysis, Egan is very keen on the idea of letting the public know — and even letting the public help decide — what should survive for future generations and what should be allowed to die out.
“We need to think carefully about how we choose. How do we manage an extinction wave well? If we are going to let things go and in some cases they will be appealing, huge, blinky, fluffy things … my preference [is] we need to let communities know that we are letting them go.
“What we’re [currently] not saying to people is, ‘Do you want one of these? Do our children’s children? Is it important from some other perspective that we as ecologists can’t even begin to imagine?’”
Instead, she says decisions to ditch efforts to save a species are made by “someone in an office”, someone like her. It’s not a role she relishes.
“I don’t want to be the signatory to an extinction event.
“If I’m going to [decide] not to intervene [to protect a threatened species] and I know that’s likely to lead to an extinction event, I want to be able to say to future generations who might look over the public record, ‘That was a transparent decision. It was justified and well made.’”
IF RELEASING AN EXTINCTION LIST seems defeatist, consider the alternative.
The federal government continues to openly resist the idea of a rigorous, formal, transparent process for working out how to spend the limited money available for threatened species.
So, we asked them, how do they choose now?
In an interview with The Global Mail, Deb Callister, assistant secretary in the wildlife branch of the federal environment department notes “ministerial priorities” play a part.
“We don’t have a magic spreadsheet or something like that,” Callister says.
In fact, she confirmed there is no formal process for deciding which plant or animal will attract federal threatened-species funding, which is admittedly a very small part of its overall conservation spending.
Instead, she said, priorities are set after “ongoing discussions we have internally” and with state governments; they’re based on threat levels and how “efficient and successful that investment will be”.
“Sometimes,” she added, “we have ministers who have particular interests in particular things and they’ve identified that they want to undertake the work on it.”
Really? For instance?
“Well, I know our minister has a keen interest in grey-headed flying foxes.”
In the sense that it went about its own business and caused no harm, the Christmas Island pipistrelle was a good bat — now an ex-bat — but the grey-headed flying fox is considered by many Australians to be a bad bat.
From Bundaberg in Queensland to eastern Victoria, tens of thousands of these flying foxes regularly descend on the nearest available pastoral idyll. If they find no forest to feed and roost in, flocks numbering tens of thousands of bats will literally “hang out” in the botanical gardens of a major city or in a commercial fruit orchard — making a dreadful racket and destroying the trees.
Flying foxes are not particularly endangered.
They appear well down the list of threatened species, listed merely as “vulnerable”.
Nevertheless, according to Callister, federal environment minister Tony Burke has made flying foxes a priority, directing that particular attention be paid to these bad bats, not so much because they are endangered, but because they are so annoying.
“He [the minister] understands that the establishment of [flying-fox colonies] can be distressing for communities. So he’s keen to work with the states to get a better understanding of the population numbers and how those camps can be managed in a particular way that both doesn’t cause undue duress on the species, but also tries to manage some of the human/animal interventions in a particular way.”
Thus, grey-headed flying foxes can trump a more worthy recipient for official attention.
Speaking generally about such matters, Possingham observed, “A lot of threatened-species funding is historical and driven by the whim of the individual managers — and this is across the world. The people who are in charge of allocating funds to things don’t always want completely transparent processes,” he continues. “And that’s what we’re up against.
“But just like shareholders want … an annual report with some logic behind it about why a company did certain things, I think we need better annual reports from conservation agencies and some logic as to why they spend money in certain ways,” Possingham says.
For an organisation that spends billions of dollars on conservation each year, the federal environment department can provide very little hard data on whether all those dollars actually boost threatened-species numbers.
While the federal environment minister has the power to block big developments to protect threatened species, (as then-minister Peter Garrett did in the case of the Traveston Crossing Dam on Queensland’s Mary River in order to protect a range of animals including the endangered Mary River Turtle). The Federal Government doesn’t provide much in the way of direct funding for endangered plants and animals.
The great bulk of the federal conservation funding is directed to regional bodies, which it funds through its broad multi-billion-dollar, landscape-level environment programs.
Such programs are no doubt effective in improving environmental standards — removing feral animals, keeping weeds down, removing marine debris, rehabilitating land and so on.
But after repeated requests from The Global Mail, the department was unable to provide precise data about how effective this spending is in arresting the decline of individual threatened species. Instead, a departmental spokesperson referred us to the “annual report cards” produced by recipients of its funding, presumably these.
One highly placed source in a state government reflected a widespread unease about this technique for funding conservation.
“It’s a means of saying, ‘We’ve solved the problem. We’re taking a landscape approach.’ But how do you apply that to individual threatened species which need a site-specific approach?
“Under this scheme,” he continues, “we weren’t able to attract continuing [federal] funding for our threatened species” — money needed, he says, to supplement the limited funds available from state government threatened-species programs.
The federal government does chip in some tens of millions of dollars to work on individual threatened species, such as Tasmanian devils, bridled nail tail wallabies, sea lions and koalas.
Exactly how much money is a mystery.
The environment department could not provide a precise figure because, it said, there is no individual program from which funds are drawn.
Nor could the department provide a full list of species that are receiving federal funding, supplying instead a list of examples here.
Spend Some, Save SomeA selection of current federal funding for Australian conservation projects (not a comprehensive list).
|Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (part of the Commonwealth's commitment of $10M over the five years to 2013)||$2,000,000|
|Departmental funding to support recovery programs for threatened marine species: Grey Nurse Shark, Sawfish and Glyphis species, Australian Sea Lion, Southern Right Whale and Blue Whale||$208, 600|
|Restoring habitat and improving resilience of the bridled nailtail wallaby||$1,150,000|
|Restore riparian resilience: Mary River threatened species aquatic species recovery plan||$2,445,000|
|Establish restore, protect and manage box gum woodland environments||$2,275,000|
|Protecting the endangered mallee fowl from introduced predators near Mt Hope||$870,000|
|Connecting, enhancing and managing glossy black cockatoo habitat||$996,000|
|Fleurieu swamps recovery||$1,778,000|
|Woodland birds for biodiversity II: Protecting and restoring critical habitat||$1,056,000|
|Building resilience for cassowary, mahogany glider and littoral rainforests||$825,000|
|Long term protection and management of the lowland native grasslands of Tasmania||$880,000|
|Several projects in New South Wales and in Victoria, supporting rehabilitation, restoration and linking of koala habitat||$10,000,000 plus|
Also unknown is how much it would cost to stop all the extinctions in Australia and how much the country has to spend in the attempt.
Says Callister: “That sounds simple… but unfortunately with the large number of [endangered] species, it’s not that straightforward.”
State government officials agree. The Global Mail spoke to four state-based officials who all pointed out the difficulty of extracting those numbers from state, federal and local government budgets, as well as trying to factor in how much the various national parks services and private conservation bodies are spending.
“That’s the problem,” said the same state-government official referred to earlier. “There is no specific bucket of money for threatened species.”
There isn’t even an agreed Australian list of threatened species (they’re working on it). At present, each state, territory and the Commonwealth compiles its own.
Concludes Possingham: “People in conservation don’t like to talk about money. This is why the process of rationally allocating a budget to achieve the best outcome for conservation is foreign to them.
“My strategy has been to say [to Government], ‘I’m going to make sure that your money is spent incredibly well, and then once I prove to you that we’re running this like McDonald’s or Rio Tinto, then I will ask you for more money because we haven’t got enough.”
The way things stand, most policymakers would rightly say, as Possingham puts it, “‘Why should I give you any more money now because you don’t know whether you’re saving any species? I don’t know what I’m getting and I don’t know what I’m spending.’”
Figuring exactly which species have gone the way of the dodo seems to present its own challenges.
After failing to capture the last Christmas Island pipistrelle in existence, one of the expedition party, international bat expert Dr Lindy Lumsden, reported that “the last echolocation call was detected on August 26, 2009”. After that there was only silence.
“It is quite possible that this is one of the few times that an extinction of species in the wild can be marked to the day,” records the entry on the bat made by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
But in Australia, officially at least, the microbat is alive and well.
That is, it still hasn’t made it to the environment department’s formal extinction list.
“The Christmas Island pipistrelle has not been listed as extinct because its status has not yet been re-assessed,” the department said in a statement.
After three years of dithering and delay, the chance to save the pippistrelle was lost. Three more years later, and the federal environment department still hasn’t written its obituary.
In Part Two: The lists. Discover which animals will have their death sentences commuted on the NSW extinction list. Four lucky critters will be spared on account of their “iconic” status.