Category: environment

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016

Ruffled Feathers

Steve Murphy was ascending a small spinifex-covered mesa when the night parrot exploded from a clump of the spiny grass beneath his feet. What might once have been a lifetime thrill was no longer quite so unexpected. He’d begun to lose track of how many times he’d encountered the long-lost species, which he’d been keeping tabs on for nearly three years.

What was unexpected was the timing. It was well after dark, and normally the bird would have left its daytime roost to feed. It was a bumper season, with both summer and autumn rains, and Murphy had been recording calls he hadn’t heard before. The birds weren’t following their usual pattern of behaviour. He flicked on his torch. There, buried deep in the spinifex, were two white eggs.

His first urge was to flee. “We’ve got to go,” he said to his partner, Rachel Barr, dismayed to have disturbed the bird at such a critical time. She reminded him to take a photograph, and then they left. “It was spine-tingling,” he says.

Over the following week, Murphy and Barr kept watch on the nest from a safe distance using a night-vision device. “We were acutely aware of the risks associated with excessive visiting of that nest,” he says, “but we were also acutely aware of the opportunity that this gave us to better understand the bird.”

A miniature surveillance camera was ordered from Brisbane but by the time it arrived, Murphy had a bad feeling. As he advanced upon the nest for the second time, the bird didn’t flush, and when he examined the clump, he found only fragments of eggshells inside. The nest itself was entirely intact, indicating that a tiny predator – probably a marsupial mouse or other small mammal – was the likely poacher.

Poachers of another kind have loomed large in discussions surrounding the night parrot since the first live photographs of the species were taken by naturalist John Young in 2013. The parrot is Australia’s “grail bird”: two specimens, a mummified roadkill from 1990 and a juvenile found decapitated under a barbed-wire fence in 2006, were the only undisputed evidence of its continued existence in more than a century.

Both birds came from the Channel Country of south-west Queensland, and it’s on Brighton Downs, a cattle property just north of Diamantina National Park, close to where the 2006 bird was found by a ranger, where Young discovered a sedentary population estimated at 20 to 40 birds. A single bird, or its eggs, might be worth a six-figure sum on the black market.

The previously closely guarded location, a chunk of which has since been purchased by the non-government conservation group Bush Heritage, was leaked by a journalist last month. This enraged Murphy, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the night parrot recovery team. Information management was seen as crucial to the team’s strategy.

The Queensland government has since made what is now known as Pullen Pullen nature reserve subject to an interim conservation order, which places it off limits to both birders eager to see the famed species and poachers intent on trafficking. It is also under surveillance. Any unauthorised person entering the 56,000-hectare reserve is subject to a fine of $353,400 or two years’ imprisonment.

But the placement of birdwatchers and poachers in the same sentence has alienated the small Australian birding community. It feels not only aggrieved at being bracketed with criminals, but deprived of the chance to find other populations of the species using the best tool available: its call, which has proved critical to locating it, has not been publicly released. Playback of the call encourages the territorial birds to respond.

Only two people are known to have the call: Murphy and Young who, in a curious twist, is now working for another non-government conservation body, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and is looking for more parrots in Diamantina and Astrebla Downs national parks.

Young is a polarising figure in ornithological circles. After rediscovering the species, he vowed never to involve government scientists in its conservation. He was later persuaded to work with Murphy, who had been developing predictive modelling tools with the CSIRO to find the birds, but the pair soon fell out.

Young refused to be interviewed, but not before railing against Murphy for disturbing the birds. Murphy declines to elaborate on the cause of their disagreement, and reserves praise for his predecessor’s skills. “We wouldn’t be sitting around talking about night parrots if it wasn’t for John.”

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based wildlife guide and consultant with a background in bioacoustics, points out that Brighton Downs is unlikely to be the sole surviving refuge of the parrot, once known from all mainland states. The problem is that until now, no one knew how to find them in the vastness of the outback: one may as well thrust one’s hand into the spinifex in the hope of extracting a needle.

“Birdwatchers could be their biggest ally in this, in terms of resources, time and money, but instead we’re treated like lepers,” he says. “If these parrots at [Pullen Pullen] were the only birds, then they may have done the right thing, but no one really believes they are. We’ve had three years now where people have the tools to look for them, but they’re not sharing those tools.”

The threat of human disturbance, he adds, pales in comparison to the number of land-clearing permits issued across the outback in the intervening years, especially in the Pilbara of Western Australia, which is highly likely to contain night parrots and where he was contracted by a mining company to search for the birds only months before Young’s discovery.

Murphy is acutely aware of these arguments. “We’re torn here. We’re copping a lot of flak for not releasing information.” He describes the public release of the call as a matter of when, not if. “The recovery team [doesn’t] need to be told of the value of getting this call out,” he says. “It’s obvious. It’s been obvious since day one. But there’s other issues involved.”

He knows, too, that the threat of poachers is as remote as the bird’s country, in which an ill-prepared traveller could easily die. Still, a species that was once completely inaccessible now seems tantalisingly proximate to those who have dreamed all their lives of glimpsing just one. “The fact is we still only know about a single site,” Murphy says, “so the stakes are still quite high.”

There is an inherent contradiction in the recovery team’s position. Murphy’s own research shows call playback disturbs the species; on the other hand, he is permitted to trap and handle the bird, one of which was fitted with a miniature GPS device to log its movements. Even ornithologist Penny Olsen, with whom Murphy is writing a book on the parrot, says, “There is a strong argument to leave the birds alone.”

But without Murphy’s work, we would still know next to nothing about the parrot’s behaviour or requirements. The habitat at Pullen Pullen is a mosaic of spinifex-clad hills, ironstone pavements and flood plains, upon which the birds forage. The broken-up nature of the landscape has protected the bird from fire, and dingoes have suppressed numbers of cats and foxes.

Further, the GPS-fitted bird showed itself capable of movements of up to 40 kilometres a night. The information all has implications for how landscapes are grazed. Brighton Downs, Murphy says, has been conservatively managed, and not overstocked. It might be necessary to trap another bird in a dry spell, to see how it sustains itself in drought conditions. In the meantime, he pleads for patience. He aims to publish his findings within a year.

Even Australia’s peak ornithological body, BirdLife Australia, is keeping at arm’s length. Its CEO, Paul Sullivan, said on Twitter that the bird was more likely be found by co-ordinated searches by scientists than by “vigilante efforts”, a comment that provoked fury from his own membership. While he expressed regret for his choice of words, he also declined to be interviewed.

In the meantime, every decision Murphy and the recovery team has made is a tradeoff inviting scrutiny and criticism. “We’re out there because we care about these birds. We’re certainly not there to do anything that’s going to jeopardise them.” His voice is full of frustration. “I’ve even written verbal descriptions of what this bird sounds like to try and satisfy people.”

He reflects on the nest, and the broken eggs. “Here these birds were, doing their bit to try and bolster their numbers. If ever I needed strengthening or reinforcing the need to do what we do, to try and get these land management practices right, that was it. The birds are doing [their] thing. It’s absolutely essential and incumbent on us to do the same. It’s a partnership.”

Or it should be.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 25 June 2016

Snail’s place

In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.

The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wondoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.

Stanisic and his team were checking an unusual habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods (which the rest of us know as slaters), unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says. “It was like, Eureka!”

Stanisic, who goes by the name of the Snail Whisperer on his own website – he has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 – had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, historically collected from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.

Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the Boggomoss Snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page pro-forma to get one of these things through, it’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first,” he says.

The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.

This is not true: 21 species were added, including six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the Swift Parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.

Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1,794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”

When the left professes a grudging admiration for former Prime Minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the Senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.

That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. Its efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine on account of federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s failure to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The halting of the mine on account of two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The Senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states as part of its war on so-called green tape.

The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.

The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A.D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of The Number of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails alone remained formally undescribed.

This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and that we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.

Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 percent of which are invertebrates. And taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “Way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”

A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 percent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”

Woinarski says that while creatures like the Leadbeater’s Possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite, and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.

“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”

Further, as the sad decline of the of the Swift Parrot shows, listing a species is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”

Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.

Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be un-named in 2016.”

Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 14 May 2016

Bleaching whitewash

Last night, ABC TV’s Media Watch followed up a story I wrote for The Saturday Paper on The Courier-Mail‘s coverage of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Questions were put to the paper’s executive editor Neil Melloy. He says that claims that the paper has under-reported what is happening on the reef are “frankly baffling, and appear to have been made by someone who does not read The Courier-Mail“. You can read his full response here.

“Anyone wishing to be clear about The Courier-Mail‘s position on the issue should read the paper’s editorial from Saturday 23 April,” he said. The headline for this editorial reads “Scaremongering won’t save our precious $5.4 billion drawcard”. Well, no, it won’t, but neither will obfuscating the extent of the problems it faces.

I have in fact been following The Courier-Mail‘s coverage of this issue quite closely, and in response I have my own questions to ask of Melloy and the paper’s editor, Lachlan Heywood (which I have put to him previously). I will now ask them again.

The aforementioned editorial concludes as follows:

“Perversely, the overblown claims also hinder action to protect the Reef as the science to date simply does not back up the hyperbole. And, like the wider issue of climate change, with the Reef it is the science we need to rely on, not the hysterical claims made by those on the fringes of the debate trying to exploit the issue to further their own agendas.”

It also said: “The problem with responding to this threat in a rational and effective fashion though is some of the wildly overblown claims made by groups such as Greenpeace who paint the Reef as being on the brink of catastrophic extinction.”

Yet, a mere two days before this editorial, 56 climate and marine scientists, with over 1200 years of collective experience between them, took out a full-page advertisement on page 6 of the newspaper. (One of the signatories, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, said the scientists were partially motivated by the paper’s poor coverage of the issue; a short piece about bleaching on the reef followed on page 13.) The advertisement read in part:

As you read this a catastrophe is unfolding [original emphasis]. The reef is currently experiencing the worst coral bleaching event in its history. From Cairns to the Torres Strait, vast swathes of the once-colourful reef are now deathly white.”

My first question to Melloy and Heywood is as follows: since it is their view that it is the science we need to rely on, are these scientists’ views “hysterical claims by those on the fringes of the debate”?

The advertisement goes on to say: “Why is this happening? As the Earth’s temperature rises due to climate change, our oceans are experiencing record-breaking heat [original emphasis] … Climate change is driven by the greenhouse gas pollution of fossil fuels from burning coal, oil and gas. The Great Barrier Reef is at crisis point. Its future depends on how much and how quickly the world, including Australia, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming.”

My second question to Melloy and Heywood, then, is this. In its editorial of 3 April, The Courier-Mail ran hard in its support of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, the total emissions of which could account for a full four per cent of global emissions by mid-century. Does the paper see any incompatibility between its support for the mine and its purported desire to save the Great Barrier Reef?

That same editorial also began: “In the real world you need jobs.” While Adani has claimed in its press releases that the mine will employ up to 10,000 people, its own expert, Jerome Fahrer, has conceded the figure is closer to 1500. This leads to a third question: either way, how do these figures compare to the 70,000 jobs at stake on the Great Barrier Reef (leaving aside the reputations of Queensland and Australia)?

And a fourth: remembering that “it is the science we need to rely on”, does The Courier-Mail believe that the burning of fossil fuels is causing anthropogenic global warming?

Getting back to the editorial of 23 April, it also said:

“Twice in the past year Greenpeace has been caught using misleading photos to try to whip up fear about coral devastation – one of the photographs taken in the Philippines after a typhoon, and another in Western Samoa, some 4500km away.”

That may be so, but if the paper wanted to see what was really happening on the Barrier Reef it need only have asked Professor Terry Hughes, who has been conducting extensive aerial surveys of the reef and has made public any number of location-tagged photos of bleached coral. To Melloy and Heywood: isn’t focusing on Greenpeace missing the bigger story in your own backyard?

And why didn’t the paper send one of its own journalists into the field, either with Hughes, or with the swarms of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, to verify the claims for themselves?

The 23 April editorial also takes its lead (as do many of the paper’s stories) from the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators. If its the science we need to rely on, why is the paper privileging vested interests from the tourism industry?

While it is true that The Courier-Mail has occasionally run stories giving prominence to the views of Hughes and other scientists, that coverage has mostly consisted of online-only wire copy, which is dwarfed in stature by pieces from by-lined and leader writers. On other occasions, when the views of scientists (including Hoegh-Guldberg) are represented, they are buried at the bottom of the copy.

Finally, why did the paper so grotesquely misrepresent Sir David Attenborough, with its front page of him standing atop coral at low tide next to the headline “Sir David’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, with an inside spread adding: “Reports of Reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”? This quote came from a sub-editor; the lead quote in the story came from federal environment minister Greg Hunt.

Here  is what Attenborough actually said:

“The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change, an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades. And that would be a global catastrophe … Do we really care so little about the earth on which we live that we don’t want to protect one of the world’s greatest wonders from the consequences of our behaviour?”

That’s another question I’d like Mr Melloy and Mr Heywood to answer. And I’m sure many others, especially Queenslanders, would like some answers too.

First published in The Monthly (online), 3 May 2016

The great barrier bleach

The images went around the world. The snapshots of the Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Torres Strait, looked more like a pile of bones than coral. Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, was surveying the reef by plane and helicopter. It was, he wrote on 26 March, “the saddest trip of my life”.

From 22 March, Hughes criss-crossed 520 individual reefs in four days, covering 3200 kilometres by air. Just four showed no evidence of bleaching. The further north Hughes travelled, over what were once the most pristine waters of the reef, unspoiled by the runoff that pollutes the south, the worse the bleaching became. Fringing reefs in Torres Strait, he said, were “completely white”.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science currently has 300 researchers swarming over the reef, complementing the aerial surveys. Reefs are scored on a scale of zero, which indicates no bleaching, to four, which means more than 60 per cent is bleached. Their observations have replicated Hughes’. In the meantime, Hughes has continued southwards, trying to find a limit to the unfolding tragedy beneath him.

Like most scientists, Hughes prefers to talk in numbers. “I wouldn’t talk about the Barrier Reef dying or the killing of the reef or whatever. I think that’s overstating it,” he says. “I’ll say what number of reefs we’ve surveyed, how many are severely bleached and how many are not severely bleached – but then often the language gets changed, depending on the style of reporting by particular outlets.”

To clarify, bleached coral is not dead coral. It’s just very unhealthy. Varying combinations of heat stress, bright sunlight and poor water quality cause coral to expel the algae, or zooxanthellae, on which it feeds, and which also gives it its brilliant colour. This exposes the limestone skeleton beneath. Different types of coral are more susceptible to bleaching than others.

Hughes is clear, though: this is really, really serious. “There’s a window of opportunity to survey the corals when they’re severely bleached, because after a few weeks they start to die, and then the skeletons get covered in seaweed and you can’t see them from the air anymore,” he says. “We timed our northern surveys to coincide with the peak whiteness of the reefs, before there was significant mortality.”

North of Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is now reporting up to 50 per cent mortality rates. The full extent of the damage, Hughes says, will take months to unfold. “Different corals linger for longer before they die – and also, of course, some of them won’t die, they will recover. I’d expect most of the corals from Cairns southwards to recover.”

When Hughes returned from his first sojourn north, his phone rang off the hook. In the week before 7 April, according to the media monitoring company Meltwater, the story was reported more than 1000 times in 70 countries. Video footage given to ABC TV’s 7.30 and later used by the World Wildlife Fund has been viewed more than four million times. “It’s fair to say it’s getting more coverage outside Australia than inside,” Hughes says.

By any objective measure, the bleaching of the reef is a massive story. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the only Australian environmental feature to be granted such status. It’s home to about 215 species of birds, 30 types of whales or dolphins, half a dozen kinds of sea turtle, and 10 per cent of the entire world’s species of fish.

Any potential danger to the reef is economic and diplomatic as much as environmental. According to a Deloitte study commissioned by the Australian government in 2013, its value to the national economy is about $5.7 billion annually. It attracts two million international visitors each year. It employs close to 70,000 people on a full-time basis.

There have been some efforts to inform people about the devastation under way on the reef in the media. News Corp’s The Cairns Post – with a local readership whose livelihoods are directly threatened – has reported the issue, as has Fairfax’s Brisbane Times. But in Queensland’s only statewide newspaper you wouldn’t have read about Hughes’ findings or their ramifications. Since his surveys began, The Courier-Mail hasn’t interviewed him, nor sent one of its journalists into the field to verify either his or his colleagues’ observations.

“It basically shows they’re either in denial about the science,” says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor in the School of Science at Griffith University, “or they’re colluding in obscuring the science so the community don’t understand the threats being posed to the reef, both by climate change and by the associated acidification of the oceans, both of which put real pressure on corals.”

On 25 March, the day Hughes completed his survey of the northern section of the reef, the newspaper ran a short piece on page three, lambasting Greenpeace for sharing an image of bleached coral taken in American Samoa that was incorrectly labelled as being from the Barrier Reef.

Last week, on 7 April, The Courier-Mail ran on its front page a story titled “David Attenborough’s verdict: Still the most magical place on Earth”, accompanied by a picture of the famed naturalist and filmmaker standing atop some coral at low tide. Inside was a double-page spread headlined “It takes your breath away”, with the sub-head “Reports of reef’s death greatly exaggerated: Attenborough”.

Well, at least that was what the sub-editor said. The lead quote came not from Attenborough, but from federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, after he was granted a preview of the first part of Attenborough’s TV series on the reef that aired last Sunday. “The key point that I had from seeing the first of the three parts is that clearly, the world’s Great Barrier Reef is still the world’s Great Barrier Reef,” Hunt said.

Had Hunt seen the third part, or had the reader progressed to the end of the article, they would have noted Attenborough’s conclusion: “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the ocean temperature and in its acidity – threaten its very existence. If they continue to rise at the present rate, the reefs will be gone within decades.”

The Courier-Mail’s relationship with environment organisations has been frosty since the departure of long-serving reporter Brian Williams. Williams says these issues have always waxed and waned. “Not long before I left The Courier-Mail I was doing stories on the prospect of this bleaching occurring, and I actually spoke to some friends in the conservation movement and suggested that the debate would swing back again.”

For now, though, the newspaper is running heavily in support of Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, which had been given the go-ahead by the Queensland state government on 3 April. “In the real world you need jobs,” began an editorial on the same day, which lamented “hashtag activism” and defended the regulations it claimed would protect the reef.

“The science on the health of the reef is plain,” the paper said. “This great natural wonder loved by all Queenslanders faces a range of stresses – as it has during the entire past century – from agricultural runoff to the current coral bleaching.”

No mention was made of climate change. The science on that is plain, too: according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, bleaching is caused primarily by heat stress. The authority also notes that the reef has in fact been bleached only twice previously in the past century – and those events were in 1998 and 2002. This event is far worse. Hughes has said the reef is being “fried”. It’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s being boiled alive. Water temperatures are up to 35 degrees around Lizard Island, and about 2 degrees above normal summer averages generally.

Climate scientists say that in addition to 2015 being the hottest year since records began in 1880, water temperatures around Australia are at all-time highs. They point to more frequent El Niño events, and more intense cyclones. It’s not just the Barrier Reef that is suffering, either: corals are being bleached across the southern hemisphere, from the central and eastern Pacific across to the Caribbean.

Scientists usually fare poorly in the media for their struggle to speak in lay terms. Now, the government’s own experts are being dismissed as activists.

John Cook, a climate communication fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, says it’s a deliberate strategy. “It’s an attempt by people who oppose climate action to deliberately lump them together, and so when a scientist publishes empirical research about climate change, then they get labelled an activist.” Politicising science, he says, is a way of casting doubt on it.

“I remember having conversations with editors about how climate should be covered, and being told that it was a political story,” remembers Graham Readfearn, who launched his GreenBlog at The Courier-Mail in 2008, before resigning in 2010. “The politics are a distraction when the issue is quite literally staring you in the face, in the form of white coral.”

The newspaper’s website has since deleted all of Readfearn’s posts. Questions to The Courier-Mail’s editor, Lachlan Heywood, went unanswered.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science at the University of Queensland with a special interest in the communication of science issues, notes that the premiere of Attenborough’s series on Sunday night was watched by 10.6 million people in Britain alone. But in Queensland, there is an eerie silence. In politics and in the state’s most-read newspaper, no one wants to talk about what is happening in front of them.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 16 April 2016

Duck, duck, Brolga, duck

Almost every day in October for the past 33 years, Richard Kingsford has climbed into the passenger seat of a single-engine Cessna to count the waterbirds of eastern Australia. The aircraft buzzes the wetlands from 50 metres above the ground while Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, barks into a recorder the numbers and species of startled ducks and other waterfowl – herons, ibis, spoonbills, cormorants and magpie geese.

It’s one of the largest and longest-running fauna surveys in the world, with Kingsford racking up 100 hours of flying time over 2000 wetlands across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Each of the 10 transects are 30 kilometres wide. The northernmost, Band 10, runs from the Whitsunday Islands all the way to the Queensland–Northern Territory border. Band one extends from Seaspray, in Victoria’s far east, to Warrnambool.

The reason for covering such a huge area, Kingsford says, is because “nobody owns the ducks”. In a land of droughts and flooding rains, waterbirds fly enormous distances in rapid response to the prevailing conditions: the ducks of Victoria are as likely to turn up in the Lake Eyre Basin or north Queensland. In dry years, most of the birds are sucked southwards, into the perennial Victorian swamps that provide refuge as the lakes and lagoons of northern and central Australia evaporate.

Those Victorian wetlands are currently host to a bottleneck of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, locked in by the strongest El Niño in nearly a decade. In the last drought of 2008 and 2009, the Labor government led by Steve Bracks called off the annual duck season. Today, however, the state’s 26,000 licensed hunters are being actively encouraged into those wetlands by Premier Daniel Andrews and the minister for agriculture, Jaala Pulford, for the opening of this year’s 12-week shoot.

It’s a contentious call, because Kingsford’s most recent survey data – distributed annually to the state governments of Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland – recorded several historic lows. The Wetland Index, representing total available habitat, was the lowest on record, as was the total waterbird count. Game duck abundance was the second lowest on record, at just 30 per cent of the long-term average. There was little evidence of breeding.

And the long-term trend across 33 years is inexorably downwards. “We’re looking at 60 per cent-plus declines in total numbers,” Kingsford says.

While the decision has angered segments of the Victorian ALP, Greg Barber, the leader of the Victorian Greens, says the party is running scared of the hunting lobby. “A lot of shooters are blue-collar boys who typically would vote Labor, except they’re scared about the socialists coming to take their guns away,” he claims. “And so there’s been a long-term project in Victoria by the Labor Party to woo the shooters back into the fold.”

Pulford’s office did not respond to inquiries from The Saturday Paper. She has previously stated that hunting, while “not everyone’s cup of tea”, was an important recreational activity that contributed close to $440 million to local economies each year, supporting more than 3000 jobs. Barber scoffs at the figures, which he says assume the money wouldn’t be spent at all if it couldn’t be blown on a weekend killing native wildlife.

Labor’s decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt was based on advice from the Game Management Authority (GMA), established in 2014 by the former Liberal government led by Denis Napthine. Based on Kingsford’s report, the authority recommended that bag limits be reduced: hunters are allowed to take eight birds on opening day, down from 10, and four birds, down from five, on every day thereafter. One of the eight usual game species, the Shoveler, has been excluded due to its low numbers.

Barber has accused the GMA – which is chaired by former National Party leader Roger Hallam and includes on its nine-member board two former senior office holders with Field and Game Australia – of being a taxpayer-funded front for the hunting lobby. Minutes obtained by the Greens under freedom of information show that the authority’s CEO, Greg Hyams, wrote to Victoria Police after hunters complained about their treatment by officers. The minutes also recommended a review of all game reserves “to determine by exception why all legal game and best animals cannot be hunted”.

Barber says this shows the authority was promoting hunting, in conflict with its statutory role as a regulator. A spokesperson for the GMA rejects this, saying functions conferred to the authority include, but are not limited to, promoting sustainability and responsibility in hunting, and that all activities are conducted in accordance with its legislative powers.

The GMA also received submissions from Field and Game Australia, which has called for a five-year moratorium on further restrictions on hunting. General manager David McNabb said that this would “standardise the inputs” in order to get a clearer picture of the actual impact of duck hunting. “The critical issue is habitat and access to habitat,” he says, “which all people interested in conservation of wetlands and management of our native wildlife have an interest in.”

In other words, duck hunting has negligible impact on duck numbers. “Our ducks have this fantastic survival instinct, and when there’s good weather events that create nice new habitat, they’ll get up and move and they’ll use their wings to be able to do that.” McNabb says Kingsford’s survey is “a good dataset for what it is, but it’s not comprehensive”. Field and Game Australia has called for Kingsford’s survey to be extended to the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and uncovered areas of South Australia.

Public opinion is not on the hunting lobby’s side. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Victorians want duck shooting banned. Trust is also low after a notorious incident at Box Flat, near the township of Boort, on the opening of duck season in 2013. On that occasion more than 1000 birds, many of which were not ducks at all, were killed in a free-for-all involving up to 150 hunters. No one was charged; a heavily redacted government report indicated all present had closed ranks.

BirdLife Australia, which has condemned the decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt, has expressed concern that the state’s small population of Brolga could be caught in the crossfire of opening weekend. Pulford responded: “I don’t think there’s any risk of any hunter mistaking a Brolga with a duck.” No one accused those present at Box Flat of mistaking the local ibis, swans, grebes, avocets and egrets for ducks, either.

The GMA said duck shooting was a legitimate recreational activity with a long history in Victoria, and it brought benefits to regional towns and communities. It said it worked collaboratively with Victoria Police and undertook intelligence-driven compliance operations to apprehend illegal shooters. “We seek to promote sustainable and safe practices,” a spokesperson said, “and help ensure that the laws of the state are being respected by all.”

The Game Management Authority estimates the total harvest from the 2015 season, based on hunter diaries, was 203,934 ducks – 53 per cent of the long-term average of 382,447. An estimated 80,610 were shot on opening weekend. But those figures do not include illegally killed non-game species, the injured, or birds that could not be recovered. Richard Kingsford said the majority of ducks killed are juveniles, victims of their own inexperience.

“You’ve got a lot of adult birds just trying to hang on, and not a lot of fat,” he says. “We’ve got declining populations anyway, so it would be prudent to try to hold off in these dry times. It worries me, because part of this is about the long-term sustainability of duck hunting. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, if you like, by getting stuck into the capital.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 19 March 2016

Twitch and shout

For a bird-watching exercise, you don’t see a lot of birds on the Twitchathon. If you’ve never heard of this obscure sporting event, it’s a race: teams of birders pile into their cars and tear around the state, attempting to see or hear as many species as possible within an eight or 24-hour period. Because time is of the essence, once a bird’s call is recognised, actually spotting it becomes redundant. It’s on the list: go!

For this year’s Victorian event on 7-8 November, coordinated by Birdlife Australia as a fundraiser for endangered species, I was in one of the handful of 24-hour teams: the Manky Shearwaters. (It’s a pun on a type of seabird, the Manx Shearwater.) Others were in the more civilised eight-hour race: the Lame Ducks; the Filthy Flockers, the Soft Cockatiels. I’m not sure what lends birders towards this kind of self-deprecation.

There’s a hint of madness about the 24-hour version, though, which has necessitated some safety modifications over the years. Once, teams finished at the offices of what used to be Birds Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. With teams driving around the clock and totals docked by one bird for every five minutes after the appointed time, it was a speed and fatigue-fuelled lawsuit waiting to happen.

Now, with the re-badged and relocated organisation’s offices in the city, teams simply phone in their totals at the Twitchathon’s end from wherever they finish. It all works on an honour system: three members out of a team of four must agree on each species that has been seen or heard. So, too, does the mandatory three hours’ rest and a commitment to rotate drivers.

More than ever, even in the age of digital photography, which can be so easily manipulated, a birder’s reputation is everything. The punishment for those who break the code – such as the observer who confessed to hoaxing a house crow to falsely claim the Victorian “Big Year” record in 2014 – is disqualification, social exclusion, and a lifetime supply of derision.

The trick to the Twitchathon is twofold. The first is covering as many different habitats as possible, for each ecosystem supports its own distinctive array of avifauna (hence the long hours spent behind the wheel). The second is not trying too hard to find rare birds; rather, it’s about not dipping on the common ones. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, say, a rainbow lorikeet when you’re the one on the fly.

Team member Sean Dooley – editor of Birdlife Australia’s quarterly magazine and for over a decade the record-holder for the most number of birds seen within Australia in a calendar year (703, if you must know) – says part of the allure of the ’Thon is the thrill of seeing a plan come together. “I just want that perfect day of birding, where everything falls into place and you don’t miss out on a thing.”

Which, naturally, never happens. But there’s a lot of what’s known in the game as “sussing” in the weeks and months beforehand – checking out locations, finding hot-spots, avoiding dead zones, and crunching numbers: charting distances and times to destinations, working out how many hours (or minutes) to spend in each of them, and calculating how many species can be relied upon to reveal themselves.

The Manky Shearwaters’ quest begins at the Nobbies, which juts into Western Port Bay from the far end of Phillip Island. We’ve got a telescope locked onto a Peregrine Falcon, on its eyrie above Seal Rocks. Behind us, a penguin’s backside sticks half-way out of its wooden box burrow. Cormorants and a lone oystercatcher are visible on the rocks below; around us gulls and terns mill and scream.

IMG_5216
L/R: Chris Watson, Sean Dooley, Steve Davidson

They’re all on the list within seconds of the 4pm start, then we’ve got just a few minutes to scan the ocean. I spot a surprise: the hulking shape of a Giant-Petrel close inshore. Sadly, though, not close enough: where the bill tip of a Southern Giant-Petrel is pale green, a Northern Giant-Petrel’s is reddish. And none of us can confirm which it is before it veers away. Bird identification often rests on such details.

Within an hour, our total is up to 71. But we’re already missing species, too. Observation Point fails to produce either Whimbrel or Eastern Curlew, large shorebirds that can usually be relied upon here. Fisher’s Wetland, which held a pair of Black-tailed Native-hens half an hour before the count, is closed. We won’t see them again. A sick Sulphur-crested Cockatoo sits forlornly on a lump of seaweed in the salt water.

From there it’s off to Bunyip State Park, near Gembrook in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It feels more like rally driving: at one point we nearly collect a four-wheel drive head-on. We pull up on blind corners with nary a thought for what’s around the bend. It’s wet forest country, and nearly everything we add is heard rather than seen; calls we have to parse from the expert mimicry of the local lyrebirds.

After listening for night birds (unnerving nearby campers with bad imitations of the falling bomb-like whistle of Sooty Owls), we drive to Terrick Terrick National Park, in the state’s far north, taking our designated rest period between 2.45 and 5.45am. Once, the native grasslands here were the Victorian stronghold for the endangered Plains-wanderer; now they’re down to just a handful of pairs.

DSC01018By the next morning, this sense of loss is becoming a theme. Birds are scarce. As we scour the box-ironbark woodlands of Heathcote, struggling to locate previously common species like Speckled Warblers and Scarlet Robins, Dooley reflects on the silence: “Whenever I come into these forests in particular, no matter what I see, I’m just struck with this overwhelming sense of tragedy that haunts the forest.

“I palpably, viscerally feel the loss of the birds that used to be here. It becomes this really bittersweet exercise. You could go through your notebooks, and you probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference in terms of what species you’ve logged over the years. You’d probably still manage to find them, but what’s not reflected is the lower numbers, and the extra time and effort it takes to do so.”

We finish at the sewerage treatment works at Werribee. It’s a Mecca for waterfowl and waders but, again, numbers are down. We have to search for a Curlew Sandpiper, a handsome Siberian migrant which once occurred in flocks of thousands here over summer. The population using the east Asian-Australasian flyway is now critically endangered due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea.

A Freckled Duck (on the wondrously named Lake Borrie) is our 200th species as we approach the finish line; we’ll only add one more. There’s a few tame high-fives on the stroke of four but, mostly, the feeling is anti-climactic, like a drawn AFL grand final: players slumped to the turf, not knowing if they’ve won or lost. The results won’t be announced for another two days. We’ve covered just shy of 1000 kilometres.

As it turns out, we could have knocked off at midnight: our total of 201 beats our less experienced 24-hour campaigners by more than 80, but well short of the record of 225, the sort of total only attainable with a lot of luck in an exceptional year. Still, we’ve raised a fair amount of cash towards the protection of mallee birds, some of which are only a single bad bushfire away from permanent obliteration.

Later, once our bodies have sufficiently uncrinkled themselves from the vehicle, talk will turn to 2016 – the extra time we’ll spend sussing out sites; the mistakes we won’t make; what parts of our route we’ll change to save time or potentially add new species to the list. All in search of that perfect birding day which, like a rainbow, seems to recede further and further away every year.

First published in The Saturday Paper, December 19 2015

All things dull and ugly

The headline on the Climate Spectator website said it all. “Approval of Adani’s mega coal mine overturned – for a skink and a snake, not a fried planet,” it read. The federal court’s decision, it went on, came down to “protecting two animals you’ve probably never heard of”: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The trade minister, Andrew Robb, apparently suffering from reptile rage, described the skink as a “patsy”, implying that opposition to the mine was based on a hatred for coal more than concern for a lizard that is rarely seen even by herpetologists. (The best way to find one is to look for the little piles of poop outside their burrows.)

Not since former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett called the Orange-bellied Parrot a “trumped-up corella”, when its critically endangered status proved problematic to the planned relocation of a chemical plant, have we seen such disdain heaped upon a critter for getting in the way of development.

Kennett’s attitude to the parrot – which has a wild population of about 35 – summed up the general care factor towards any animal that’s smaller than a whale and not as cute as a koala. Species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum and Tasmanian Devil have benefitted from broad public recognition. The skink has attracted mostly derision.

But the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act isn’t just there to protect the fauna and flora that adorn our national and state emblems. The act protects the obscure as well as the iconic. Or, as Monty Python put it: “All things dull and ugly; all creatures short and squat.”

So someone has to write in defence of the skink and the snake, for they are equally entitled to the benefit of the law that was introduced by the Howard government in 1999 (in exchange for the passage of the GST). The EPBC recognises, very simply, that these animals have a inherent right to exist and deserve our protection.

Actually, the Yakka Skink is pretty cool, as far as skinks go. For most people in the cities they’re those tiny black lizards that like to make their homes in and around ours. But the Yakka Skink is a whopper, up to 40 centimetres long. Unfortunately, it lives in Queensland’s brigalow belt, which has been smashed by land clearing.

The causes by which our fauna and flora become endangered might be obvious – habitat destruction, introduced predators, environmental pollution, changes to fire regimes – but the processes are often silent, as even formerly abundant species begin vanishing before our eyes.

The Regent Honeyeater, for example, once roamed in flocks of hundreds. Now it’s down to just a few hundred individuals, total. Last month, Birdlife Australia reported that even some of our most familiar birds, such as the Willie Wagtail, Laughing Kookaburra and Magpie, were suffering significant declines.

Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. We have already lost nearly 10 percent of our mammals – around 30 of approximately 380 species. Many, many more as well as hundreds of our birds, reptiles, insects, plants and even trees are in imminent danger of joining the choir invisible.

Most of them are species we will never know the names of, let alone have direct experience with. Many are poorly known, or even yet to be scientifically described. But that does not make them any less worthy. All of them play a unique role in their respective ecologies.

We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs; with resources scarce, we are being asked to decide what we can and can’t afford to save. Cases like the Yakka Skink test the depth of our commitment to environmental protection.

The feral menace and asylum seekers. No, really.

The story of the Stephens Island Wren is one of the more predictable parables in the annals of extinction. The wren was a tiny flightless songbird that lived on an island measuring just 150 hectares in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds, and it was doomed from the moment it was proposed that a lighthouse be erected there in the late 19th century.

The lighthouse was operational by early 1894. The wren was discovered a few months later, in the jaws of the lighthouse keeper’s cat Tibbles; the species was lost forever by the winter of 1895. As the Christchurch newspaper The Press editorialised at the time, “This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”

For years, poor Tibbles was held responsible for nibbling his way through the island’s entire population of wrens. In fact, the island was heaving with feral cats after the accidental escape of a pregnant female in early 1894. It took another three years for them to also kill off the Stephens Island Piopio, a type of thrush.

I’m not sure which scientific or historical literature Adrian Franklin reviewed in his defence of the feral cat – he doesn’t say. Franklin claims detestation of introduced animals is linked to our national paranoia about, wait for it, asylum seekers. This seems rather a long bow to draw, but let’s come back to it later.

Franklin claims these (unnamed) scientists agree that there is no evidence linking feral cats to wild extinctions “apart from a few very exceptional island sites” – a rather cavalier dismissal of the fate of the Stephens Island Wren, but then again, it’s only a Kiwi, and I don’t mean that other flightless bird.

So why, Franklin asks, have cats not been reclassified as harmless animals? Why isn’t the innocent moggy naturalised, as in Britain? (I confess I nearly scratched my own eyes out at this point.)

Firstly, cats don’t act in isolation in the threat they pose to our native fauna. Habitat clearance, disease, grazing, changes to fire regimes, pollutants and, of course, other feral animals all play their parts. I look forward to Franklin’s defence of the fox, Cane Toad, carp, rabbit and non-native rats and roaches.

In Europe, cats, foxes and rabbits have all been part of the natural environment for millennia. That’s not the case in the Antipodes, where there are few land-based top-order predators. Introduced ones have filled the breach. In New Zealand especially, native animals have been annihilated by cats, rats, stoats and possums.

The feral problem is so bad in the Land of the Long White Cloud that many native birds – Kokakos, Kakapos, Saddlebacks and others – are now largely confined to or have themselves been introduced (at considerable public expense) to islands where foreign predators and competitors aren’t waiting to devour them.

The picture is no prettier in Australia, where we hold the world record for mammalian extinctions: 22 have been extirpated since European settlement, with over 100 more considered endangered. Cats and foxes have played a determining role in most of these. The proof can be found in Tasmania, which mostly retains its mammalian diversity (aside from the elimination of its biggest top-order predator, the Thylacine).

Until their recent accidental or malicious introduction, foxes have not existed in the island state, and Tasmanian Devils – the largest surviving marsupial predator – have probably kept a lid on feral cat numbers. The Tasmanian government has spent a fortune trying to suppress the foxes; it will need to, especially given the crash of the devil population due to facial tumour disease.

On the mainland, predator-free sanctuaries, such as those at Scotia in western NSW, are reintroducing quaintly-named animals like the Bilby, Boodie, Woylie and Numbat. Such sanctuaries may be their only hope. At Currawinya National Park in south-west Queensland, cats destroyed one of the last remaining wild colonies of Bilbies last year after a protective fence was found to have rusted.

In Arnhem Land, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy recently conducted an experiment with the near-threatened Pale Field Rat. The rats have been regionally extinct in Arnhem Land for years and had to be sourced from – surprise, surprise – predator-free Quoin Island off the Northern Territory coast.

The AWC set up two 10-hectare enclosures. One was secured with an electrified six-metre fence, the “control” enclosure was not. Twenty rats fitted with radio collars were introduced into each. Within a week of two cats finding the unsecured enclosure – captured on film by motion sensor cameras – the rats were gone.

I’m still not sure what all of this has to do with our national xenophobia over immigration. Perhaps, as one wag suggested on the Australian birdwatching forum Birding-Aus, when asylum seekers start eating us, Professor Franklin may have a point.

First published in The Age, January 13 2013

Not pretty enough: an extinction under our nose

“Why do you see, why do you see, why do you see right through me?” – Kasey Chambers

Recently, my partner and I took a walk up in the forests of Mt Mee, at the northern end of the D’Aguilar Range about an hour’s drive from Brisbane. We had a specific purpose: we were searching for the rare, threatened and exceptionally beautiful Richmond Birdwing. To our delight, we found a male quickly, not far from the car park of the Mill Rainforest Walk. I’d wanted to see one of these creatures for years, and it was truly an eye-popping pleasure (photo courtesy Tom Tarrant).

RBW

The birdwing is a very large butterfly, one of three in the genus Ornithoptera in Australia. The males of all three species found in this country (the other two are the Cairns and New Guinea Birdwings) are similar: the upperwings are a striking contrast of deep velvet black and emerald green; the abdomen is bright yellow, while the underwings are adorned with an intricate latticework of yellow, black and turquoise. They are the southernmost representatives of their type, originally occurring from around Maryborough in south-east Queensland down to the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. Apparently they were abundant in Brisbane in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You would be hard-pressed to find a birdwing in Brisbane now. Destruction of the subtropical rainforests on which it depends has both shrunk the butterfly’s distribution and fragmented it (less than one percent of the original area still exists). The extreme drought of last decade exacerbated its decline, and as remnant populations became isolated from one another, the effects of inbreeding resulted in more local extinctions, even where the habitat remains suitable.

As if all that isn’t enough, the butterflies are prone to mistakenly laying their eggs on a poisonous exotic vine, a South American species called the Dutchman’s Pipe, which kills the larvae. They do this because the host vine on which the butterflies depend – the similar-looking Richmond Birdwing Vine (Pararistolocia praevenosa) – is itself very scarce, suffering its own contraction in range along with the forest in which it lives.

Depressed already? Sorry, it gets worse. But not necessarily for the Richmond Birdwing, which actually has a fighting chance of survival. Thanks mainly to its extreme beauty, it’s considered an “iconic species“. Now, I’ve never heard of any committee or individual deciding what makes an iconic species; rather it seems that certain animals and plants somehow just become iconic, and are used to represent a region’s entire biodiversity. Sometimes a species may represent a whole state, or even country – Pandas in China being the classic example.

Often, iconic species may be extinct (think the Thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger) or endangered (such as the Tasmanian Devil, or Victoria’s twin faunal emblems, the Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater’s Possum). Koalas are so ridiculously cute and therefore iconic on a national scale that a whole foundation exists to conserve it – which is lucky for them, given the rate at which they’re getting knocked off in Queensland lately. Polar Bears are a different type of iconic species, with its increasingly terminal decline a potent global symbol of climate change.

Being declared an iconic species can be pretty handy, though, especially if you also happen to be endangered. It means a lot of public money gets sunk into your conservation. In the case of the Richmond Birdwing, it means having your likeness (and donation buckets) displayed at the entrances to places where you are known to still exist, like Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny; it means education and awareness programs in schools; it means specially designated days where lots of your favourite food plants are sown by volunteers in the hope of attracting your attention (and nasty competitors like the Dutchman’s Pipe are removed); it means having your image displayed on tea towels and mugs and other trinkets, with revenues going towards your care; it means teams of people meeting to discuss your perilous situation, and publishing reports documenting your plight or progress.

But if you’re not iconic – not pretty enough, or you live (figuratively speaking) in the slums rather than the gentrified inner suburbs, then it’s a bit like the public health system: you might as well just take a number and die while waiting for someone to attend to you.

By way of example, let me draw to your attention the example of another butterfly, the Laced or Australian Fritillary. When I first started getting seriously interested in butterflies a couple of years ago (a natural extension of my long-standing obsession with birds), the fritillary quickly attracted my attention. For one, it lived locally – roughly, its distribution spanned a similar area to the Richmond Birdwing – and it was considered rare.

But the fritillary was not a denizen of the subtropical forests featured on Queensland tourist brochures. Instead, it inhabited the thick, spiky, swampy coastal heathlands and paperbark woodlands of the coast, where it relied on a small herb from which springs a rather lovely purple flower, Viola betonicifolia, for its survival. And thanks to a combination of urbanisation, farming pressure and general carelessness, much less of that habitat remained than even what remains of our rainforests. Four-fifths of fuck all, really.

You’ll note that I’m suddenly speaking in the past tense. That’s because it’s quite possible and even likely that the Laced Fritillary (which, while nowhere near as spectacular as a Richmond Birdwing, is in its own right a beautiful butterfly, being a deep orange with fine black spots) is not just rare, but already gone. I mean extinct; bleeding demised; snuffed it; gone off to join the choir invisible, etc. A few polite inquiries revealed that the last specimen was collected near Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales nearly a decade ago, in April 2001, with an additional sighting from Bribie Island in south-east Queensland around the same time.

Gone, from right under our nose, and within the last decade. No fanfare. No headlines. No tears. No likenesses on tea towels; no lost archival footage (that I’m aware of, anyway) of the last lonely specimen fluttering sadly in an exhibit, like the famous bored Thylacine filmed in Hobart Zoo in the 1930s.

What’s more, like the Paradise Parrot – Australia’s only bird known to have become extinct post-European settlement, last seen in 1927 – it lived right here on my bloody doorstep: the parrot, too, was once known from inner Brisbane, with records from Kelvin Grove and Bowen Hills, and being as gorgeous as its name suggests, you can bet it would have become an iconic species if only it had managed to stick around long enough.

The next Australian bird in the gun, so to speak, is the Orange-bellied Parrot, which is down to a grand total of about 35 individuals. Although it breeds in the almost pristine wilderness of Tasmania’s south-west, it’s on borrowed time, thanks to its habit of migrating to the mainland each winter to feed on another undervalued and unprepossessing habitat, the saltmarsh plains of coastal Victoria and South Australia. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett once notoriously called the parrot a “trumped-up corella”. I’m not saying the Orange-bellied Parrot has been “Jeffed”, but his attitude, again, summed up the general care factor towards any wildlife that’s either smaller than a whale or not as cute and fluffy as a Bilby or Koala. And the OBP, while not exactly iconic, actually receives quite a lot of publicity relative to other endangered critters. That’s because it’s very visibly sliding off its perch on our watch.

Australia has an appalling track record when it comes to biodiversity loss: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, our rate of extinction is more akin to small islands than whole continents (and that document was published in 1990). These days, we’re just trying to hold back the tide, really. In 2009 the former environment minister Peter Garrett (who once sang on an EP called Species Deceases, one of my very favourite Midnight Oil releases, which actually helped turn me on to environmental politics) conceded that further extinctions were inevitable, and that the government would shift its focus to preserving entire ecosystems rather than individual species.

I can see his point. Resources are scarce; there simply isn’t enough money to go around to save each creature on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, though, huge amounts of money are going towards saving icons like the Tasmanian Devil. And not that I resent a single dollar, but it leaves the fritillaries of this world up a certain creek with a turd for a paddle.

What disturbs me about the fritillary’s case, and should disturb all of us, is how silent this whole horror show is. We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs, to the point of playing God, deciding what we can and can’t afford to save. Mostly we don’t even know what we’re losing.

And all the while, we’re frantically trying to pretend none of it has any relevance to us.