By Ellen FanningNovember 7, 2012
Time is already up for many of Australia’s endangered animals. It’s just a matter of when — and which first. Today, we’re talking extinction lists.
The eastern rockhopper penguin is the Las Vegas showgirl of the sub-Antarctic.
No conservative formal wear for this flapper.
These aggressive little penguins can hop about 1.5 metres high, and otherwise distinguish themselves with what appear to be extravagant eyebrows in flamboyant blacks and yellows. Phyllis Diller, eat your heart out.
A rockhopper starred in Happy Feet 2, the Australian animated film about tap-dancing penguins, with no lesser talent than Robin Williams supplying this particular penguin character with the soulful baritone voice of a Southern Baptist preacher.
New Zealanders who saw the movie may be surprised to learn that right now their government is about to give up trying to maintain eastern rockhopper penguins in the wild. For now, it’s just too expensive.
“Ridiculously expensive,” says Richard Maloney a senior scientist with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. “Like hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The problem, he explains, is that there are no longer enough fish in their part of sea.
“Through ocean-current changes, [the eastern rockhopper’s] food supply is now out of reach for most of its population,” he says. “Now, we could go and fertilise the southern ocean to increase the food supply, but that’s clearly [not a] feasible thing to do.”
The eastern rockhopper, says Maloney, is one of about half-a-dozen species that are just too far down New Zealand’s newly formulated extinction list to warrant a fully funded rescue mission, at this stage.
“We’re not wasting resources on species that have hardly any chance of being feasible in the end,” he says plainly.
In New Zealand, after five years of effort involving about 120 species experts and another 300 departmental officers, an impartial method of cost-benefit analysis has determined the following:
From a total of 2,800 threatened plants and animals, just 300 are to attract active, fully funded campaigns to save them.
The aim of this apparently brutal process is to ensure the maximum number of species survives.
The process of ranking had two phases: Initially, the list of threatened species was whittled down to all 700 critical plants and animals. The experts then assessed how much each species would benefit from active management to save it, the likelihood it could be successfully saved and the cost involved. They also considered whether the species was unique to New Zealand — whether it was a “distinctive” plant or animal.
Benefit multiplied by feasibility and uniqueness was all divided by cost. It’s a way of looking at all threatened species in “the same currency”, says Maloney.
The species were then ranked, with the cheapest and most feasible projects at the top and the most expensive and least feasible at the bottom.
Maloney says it’s then quite a simple process to “draw a line” where the available funding runs out.
The process is transparent, the list will be updated every few years, and there is compulsory monitoring of the projects that attract funding so that the scientists involved can publicly demonstrate they are meeting the objective of the program: to secure the survival of the most species possible.
While this means hundreds of species will be left to face possible extinction, it’s not all bad news.
By defunding projects that are too expensive and hold out little hope of success, Maloney says New Zealand will be able to virtually triple the number of plant and animal species that are being actively managed to prevent extinction. The aim is not to secure their existence everywhere for all time, but to assure their viability in the long term — over the next 50 years.
“We're working on 105 of those species at the moment, by the year 2015 we'll be working on 300 of them,” a feat that’s possible, says Maloney, because “we [were] not necessarily focussing our energy on the right species in the right places.”
The new method of calculation revealed, for instance, that it’s ridiculously cheap to save creatures such as the flightless moth.
“[They] live in tiny patches of vegetation on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere,” says Maloney.
A quick chat with the local landowner, and a few thousand dollars spent on fencing and some signs, and the moth lives on for future generations to enjoy.
“They’re exactly the species we’d want to work on in order to maximise the number of species we could save for the same amount of money.”
That is, if you assume all species are equal. If the aim is to minimise extinctions, an anonymous flightless moth is as precious as a flamboyant crested penguin. But would the public agree?
In the Australian state of Tasmania the answer seems to be a resounding “no”.
The island’s extinction list, produced in 2010, estimates it would cost $155 million to secure all 171 threatened species on its priority list.
The list starts with a rare orchid, a short-lived herb (yes there is such a thing) and a freshwater snail, all three of which could be spared for the next 50 years for a measly $52,500.
The Tasmanian devil, currently being ravaged by mysterious, incurable facial tumours, appears towards the bottom of Tasmania’s list, at number 167. The cost to secure the long-term viability of devil populations in the wild is estimated at more than $50 million.
In the accompanying report, the Tasmanian Government’s threatened species section concluded, “To secure the top–ranking 165 species on [the] list costs less than half that required to secure the remaining six lowest-ranking species.” Follow that logic and you’d have to wonder if the devil is worth saving in the wild.
Not surprisingly, two years after the list was compiled, no-one in Tasmania is using it.
A source close to the process says it had failed to take account of “social and political” realities.
No-one wants to talk about abandoning the effort to preserve wild populations of iconic Tasmanian devils or, say, the majestic white bellied sea eagle (number 165; $4.06 million), or perhaps even the cute little spotted-tailed quolls (lucky last at number 171; $24.37 million) regardless of the folly that might represent, and how many other species — starved of limited rescue funds — will die off in the meantime.
Even certain members of the scientific community couldn’t be convinced that funding should be stripped from some species and directed to others that had a greater chance of long-term survival.
New Zealanders, it seems, are made of sterner stuff.
Backed by the New Zealand treasury, which is keen to see better proof of outcomes for spending, the country’s Department of Conservation is about to embark on a widespread program of community consultation about its draft species-priority list.
Richard Maloney calls it “the conversation we never have”.
“We always talk about how this is threatened so we should work on it … but we don’t say [this is what] we are not working on,” he says.
“At least we’re [now] declaring the things through some systematic approach that will give us a better way to discuss and defend the stuff we work on. I like the power of that,” says Maloney.
Perhaps he is so relaxed because his department has already asked New Zealanders to list the plants and animals they think are not negotiable: those that everyone agrees must be saved.
As a result, they’ve commuted the death sentence for their beloved kiwis and that of a strange parrot called the kakapo of which they are unusually fond.
(Curious? Watch here to see a BBC producer “shagged by a rare parrot”.)
New Zealanders will also be encouraged and assisted by the government to work on “local treasures”, animals, plants and landscapes which may not be nationally endangered but are important to local communities.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not up to individual experts to say ‘My species is better than your species’,” says Maloney. “There is no right way to divide the money.”
Besides, he says, once a business plan is produced for each threatened plant or animal species, it makes it much easier for private organisations — such as individual philanthropists, or conservation and community groups — to decide they are going to buy themselves a threatened species.
Much like the old buy-a-brick campaigns used to fund school and church halls, the opportunity is now open for these folks to choose an unfunded bird, beetle, snail or shrub and raise the money to secure its long-term survival.
Inevitably, there will still be losers. But Maloney is not daunted by the prospect of having difficult conversations with, say, the twitcher from Taranaki, who is outraged that their particular grey bird is not considered worth actively trying to save.
“We turn that around and say, ‘Well, if we worked on that bird there will be five other people going, ‘Why aren’t you working on my thing in my particular area that is actually cheaper, more feasible and easier to do?’” says Maloney. “That’s all we can do, appeal to their sense of reason.
Meanwhile, back across the Tasman, in New South Wales, where the legislature is referred to as the “bear pit”, and talkback radio is even less civilised, it is perhaps understandable that there is considerable anxiety about the potential political and public fallout that might attend the ranking of conservation projects according to the cost-benefit formula.
New South Wales is due to release its own threatened-species prioritisation list next March, ranking 400 of the 900 threatened species in that state, a reform that’s clearly contentious inside the bureaucracy.
“Threatened-species management is a challenging issue for all involved in conservation, not least with people within the organisation,” says Grant Bywater, who manages the Conservation Strategy Unit in the Premier’s Office of Environment and Heritage. “Lots of people will just say, ‘Everything should be funded’, but the challenge is to prioritise our work and allocate our resources to achieve the best outcomes.’”
“The fact is we’re not getting enough money to manage all these species. We’re not. And we never will,” he says pointing out other pressing priorities such as roads and hospitals. “So we need to be more transparent and explicit about how we’re spending resources and how we’re prioritising that spending.”
Despite some understandable caution about applying hospital triage tactics to conservation, the New South Wales government embarked on the process in part because its threatened-species section was drowning in paperwork.
Until 2007 in New South Wales, standard procedure when a plant or animal was officially gazetted as threatened, was to produce expensive and detailed scientific plans for recovering the species.
“It was a very lengthy and complex process,” says Bywater, who recalls, “we were not even keeping up with the rate at which new species were being listed, let alone getting plans in place. Back then it was about 800 [threatened species in NSW]. Now it’s 900.”
Richard Maloney says that in Australia and New Zealand writing recovery plans “became an industry in itself”, with detailed documents being produced often without any prospect that the strategies they proposed would be ever be funded.
“In New Zealand, we’ve had around 60 recovery crews working on about 110 species in total. That’s taken us 15 years to develop [those recovery plans]. And then if we realise that there are 2,100 species that might need plans, it’s pretty clear there is a huge gap between our ability and capacity to deliver [those plans] and the size of the problem.
Instead, the new prioritisation process sometimes forces scientists and species experts to make their best guesses about what would be required to ensure a species is still in existence in 50 years’ time. That can be an uncomfortable process for experts used to the rigours and pace of academic research.
The NSW list itself will not be immutable. There will be room for discretion based on the availability of departmental staff, logistics in dealing with private landholders and so on.
And, as in New Zealand, the New South Wales Government has allowed for the fact that, in the eyes of the public, not all species are created equal.
The Global Mail can reveal that four so-called iconic species have been excluded from the ranking process — given an official pardon — based on their iconic status. They are: the corroboree frog, the rock wallaby, the mallee fowl…
…and, of course, the koala!
Our furry marsupial is the trust-fund baby of threatened species: it’s not that deserving but it gets all the dough. The Federal Government is committed to a $10 million-plus koala project. And Queensland is spending $26.5 million over four years to save its native koala populations when everything else — all 1,300 threatened Queensland species — gets about $5 million annually.
But while we wince when we see koalas run over by cars and protest when housing estates gobble up their habitat, the quiet reality is … koalas are not really that endangered.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
“There’s a limited risk, in my view, that koalas will disappear off Australia forever,” says Sally Egan, the head of the threatened-species section with the Queensland Environment Department.
“We know you can put two together in a room and get a lot of koalas as a result of that,” she says. “So we could easily establish Ark populations.” That’s as in Noah’s Ark. It would be easy to build healthy koala populations in captivity or in new, healthy habitats — rather than persist with expensive efforts to maintain them in northern Australia.
While policymakers have assumed the vast budget for koala conservation reflects the social value of koalas, Egan would like to test that assumption and find out what Queenslanders really want.
“So the question is: is it important enough for you to have koalas in their natural environment, that as a consequence you would be prepared to let another suite of threatened species go?” she posits.
Instead of funding koalas so richly, she says, “you might do better for bilbys or mahogany gliders — they’re absolutely gorgeous and if we lost the Queensland population, there are no others.”
As she warms to her theme, Egan’s ambitions soar: “If we’re talking big buckets of money, [there’s] the green turtle.”
Sand depths on Raine Island on the outer edges of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef are no longer great enough to allow the green turtles to breed.
“We think for $5 million — that’s about a fifth of what gets spent on koalas – we could fix that so that Raine Island could be the gangbuster turtle rookery that it used to be, pumping out hundreds of thousands of baby turtles every breeding season,” says Egan.
According to Egan, nobody ever consults the public about these choices: “[We should be] saying to people, ‘There’s an imminent extinction, what do you think?’”
For Egan, species prioritisation — whether arrived at through the strict cost-benefit analysis applied in New Zealand or some other version of it — is necessary so that individuals within Environment Departments aren’t left to decide which species survive.
To decide such matters, she says, is “not a small thing”. And if these decisions “don’t weigh heavily on people, they should”.
“People need to know that those decisions must be made, rather than being left to panic,” when it’s discovered that another species has been lost.
The Brian Furby Collection/Department of Systainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
For Egan and many others in similar positions within threatened species departments across Australia, these are the pressing policy questions of their time.
But wrestling with such questions does not appear to be a high priority for the Federal Government.
Officially at least, the Federal Government is reluctant to revolutionise the way it allocates conservation dollars, and especially to dabble with extinction lists.
“We’re not really in the space of trying to pick winners,” says Deb Callister, assistant secretary in the wildlife branch of the Federal Environment Department.
“Its not something where we [can] spit numbers into a spreadsheet and it gives us an answer,” she says, explaining that the Australian process for allocating resources for threatened species is not as “deliberative” as New Zealand’s.
“Unfortunately, with a list as big as ours, it makes doing something so systematic quite challenging.”
In fact, New Zealand had the greater challenge. Its threatened species list runs to 2,800 plants and animals. Australia’s national list stands at just 1,693.
“We will get them to do this better, eventually,” says the University of Queensland’s Professor Hugh Possingham, who has pioneered and championed species prioritisation on both sides of the Tasman.
“I’ve worked on government committees for so long, that I learned nothing happens quickly,” he says. “I first mentioned this to the Australian Government in 1998. They all laughed at me.”
The laughter has subsided, but Possingham knows he still faces an uphill battle. “I don’t want to be obnoxious but there’s a lot of people in the conservation world who have no quantitative, economic, applied maths skills at all,” he says.
“They like science and they want to save the world, but they can’t count.”