Can we solve Australia’s mammal extinction crisis?

3 09 2009

© F. O'Connor

© F. O'Connor

This ‘In DepthScience Opinion piece from the ABC couldn’t have come at a better time. Written by Ian Gordon of the CSIRO, this opinion piece was written off the back of the special session on mammalian extinctions held at the recent International Congress of Ecology in Brisbane. Three previous ConservationBytes.com blogs in August (here, here and here) were devoted to specific talks at the Congress, including one about John Woinarksi’s gloomy tale of dwindling mammal populations in the Top End (which is especially frightening considering its also going on in our so-called ‘protected’ areas such as Kakadu, Litchfield and Garig Gunak Barlu National Parks!).

So, I recommend you have a read of my blog post on the shocking continued loss of Australian mammals, then read Ian’s piece copied below. Bottom lines – stop burning the shit out of our forests and encourage dingo population recovery and expansion.

Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions.

Over the last two hundred years 22 mammal species have become extinct, and over 100 are now on the threatened and endangered species list, compiled as part of the federal government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Evidence suggests Australia is on the cusp of another wave of mammal extinctions with a reduction in the abundance of some species and alarmingly, their range.

This is undoubtedly one of the major biodiversity conservation issues affecting Australia. It’s crucial we focus on the management solutions required to stop these species falling into extinction.

A South American success story

Working as a zoologist has allowed me to be involved in projects across the globe, looking at species at risk of extinction due to over-exploitation by humans.

Earlier this year I edited a book on the South American vicuña‘s comeback from the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the Andes, this wild relative of the llama suffered a sharp population drop in the 1960s due to international demand for its fleece.

An international moratorium on the sale of vicuña fleece in 1969 saw populations recover enough by 1987 for Andean communities to be able to harvest the fibre in a sustainable way. Population numbers of vicuña have remained healthy ever since, making it one of the few success stories of wildlife conservation worldwide.

Australia’s mammal extinction crisis

However Australia’s medium-sized mammals have had to deal with a different range of issues to the vicuña: the introduction of feral animals, particularly cats and foxes; increased grazing pressure; altered fire regimes; the clearing of habitat for development and production; and now, the effects of climate change.

It isn’t that any of these pressures are particularly important by themselves, but the fact that many of them act in concert has had a significant impact on causing the crashes in population numbers, and increasing the risk of species becoming extinct.

For example, the crescent nailtail wallaby was once an abundant and widespread macropod of central and western Australia. The pressures of feral cats and foxes coupled with clearing for agriculture and grazing, and altered fire regimes pushed this little species over the edge and it is now classified as extinct.

The problem is also more far-reaching than we first assumed. Many people may think that animals are becoming extinct in the south of Australia where habitat destruction is quite evident.

But the populations of iconic species in the north of Australia such as the northern quoll, golden bandicoot and the Carpentarian rock-rat are also collapsing. In our lifetime populations of some species have greatly reduced in number, and others have completely disappeared in landscapes that are considered to be in excellent condition.

The golden bandicoot, listed as a vulnerable species, used to be found across much of the north of Australia. It is now only found in very small populations in the Northern Territory and on the isolated Burrow Island off the coast of Western Australia.

Time to bring back the dingo?

Further research on the impacts of fire, grazing, invasive species and climate change on Australian mammals would be extremely valuable, but ecologists recognise that crucial management decisions need to be made now.

We’ve found ourselves in a position where we have identified the threats to Australian mammal species and documented the loss of these species, the role of science must turn more directly to identifying the opportunities for assisting the survival of these mammals.

In August I chaired a panel with Professor Chris Johnson from James Cook University at the International Congress of Ecology, to discuss what management could be put in place now to help beleaguered populations of small mammals recover.

Johnson’s main focus is to bring back the top-order predator.

He believes there is now good evidence that a stable population of dingoes suppresses the numbers and activity of foxes and cats, and some other feral animal species as well.

He argues that the effect of using a top predator like the dingo to hold down populations of foxes and cats is that the total intensity of predation on smaller native mammals can be reduced.

Bringing back the dingo has many sheep and cattle farmers raising their eyebrows because the wild dogs are known to kill stock. But guardian sheepdogs can protect stock herds by fighting off dingoes if they come too close. This still allows the dingoes to have a beneficial effect in the ecosystem.

Current trials of Maremma dogs, a type of sheepdog, at Dunluce sheep station in northwest Queensland demonstrate that they can be effective dingo deterrents in a pastoral zone.

This is just one potential solution that may work in some areas. Reinstating mosaic fire regimes, where patches of land are burnt at different times to allow the land to recover in stages, and controlling grazing around sensitive habitat of endangered mammals are other potential solutions that are currently under trial in various parts of the country.

Working together

Even though science doesn’t have all the answers I believe that it is more important than ever for land managers and scientists to work together to put new management regimes on the ground.

Our scientific knowledge can provide guidelines for land managers to reduce the pressures on our biodiversity. Through monitoring how species and ecosystems respond to on-ground management we can then learn and adapt our advice to meet future challenges facing Australia’s threatened species.

We need to act now: the international community is watching Australia and we have an opportunity to show how we can apply science through collaborative agreements with land managers to reduce the threats and protect endangered species.

We’ll then be able to add Australian animals to the short list of species, like the vicuña, that have been brought back from the brink of extinction.

CJA Bradshaw

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11 responses

20 10 2014
It’s not all about cats | ConservationBytes.com

[…] moggies and their descendants have royally buggered our biodiversity. As a result, we have the highest mammal extinction rate of any […]

24 09 2014
We treat our wildlife like vermin | ConservationBytes.com

[…] is doing in the environmental stakes, with massive deforestation continuing since colonial times, feral predators and herbivores blanketing the continent, inadequate protected areas, piss-weak policies and a […]

24 04 2014
Look at the whale (while we wipe out everything else) | ConservationBytes.com

[…] We are superlative water-wasters (ironic for a country mostly comprised of deserts), have the world’s highest mammal extinction rate, and an historical addiction to deforestation that rivals the devastation of the Amazon. We are […]

16 04 2014
South Australia’s tattered environmental remains | ConservationBytes.com

[…] has the highest modern mammal extinction rate on Earth, and declines are […]

6 03 2014
Abbott’s ‘No more parks’ vow a bad move | ConservationBytes.com

[…] scientists emphasize that Australia is still losing its biodiversity. “Smaller mammals are disappearing across much of northern Australia,” said Bradshaw, “with over-grazing, intense fires and feral cats and cane toads being the […]

18 05 2012
Can Australia afford the dingo fence? « ConservationBytes.com

[...] rabbits, our native biodiversity has suffered immensely. Indeed, Australia has the worst record for mammal extinctions in the world, mainly due to foxes and [...]

22 03 2012
Eat a feral a week « ConservationBytes.com

[...] animals cost Australia billions in damage each year, wreak havoc on our native ecosystems and cost millions more to control (largely [...]

16 06 2010
Biodiversity SNAFU in Australia’s Jewel « ConservationBytes.com

[...] embarrassments over the last year (see Shocking continued loss of Australian mammals and Can we solve Australia’s mammal extinction crisis?), and now the most empirical demonstration of this is now [...]

4 02 2010
Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part II) « BraveNewClimate

[...] on Australia’s mammal extinction crisis. His bottom line summary was that we should “Stop burning the shit out of our forests“. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are burning 12 times more biomass from an area 6 times bigger [...]

2 12 2009
An Endangered Species…Lottery? | Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy

[...] they’re still declining. An extensive national park system has not proved enough to counter to the impact of land clearing, [...]

1 10 2009
Protecting Australian wilderness « ConservationBytes.com

[...] has a pretty bad biodiversity conservation track record – we have some of the worst mammal extinction trends in the world, and we’ve lost at least 50 % of our forested area since European colonisation. [...]

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