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Issue #1471      8 September 2010

Australian native species face extinction crisis

Professor Iain Gordon, a biodiversity scientist working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has warned that many Australian mammals are facing extinction in a looming biodiversity crisis.

A critically endangered marsupial – the northern quoll.

Since the arrival of European settlers in Australia 22 species have become extinct. Another 100 are now on the federal government’s list of threatened or endangered species. The threatened species include many varieties of possums and quolls, and there has even been discussion of including the koala in the list.

The introduction of feral animals, increased grazing pressure, altered fire regimes, and the clearing of habitat for development have resulted in an alarming reduction in the population size and range of native species. Many of them face a combination of these phenomena, and all of them now face the added threat of climate change,

Professor Gordon has commented: “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”.

Saving threatened species depends on the nature of the threats themselves. Dealing with feral animals, for example, requires very careful control of domesticated cats and dogs, and the implementation and maintenance of feral eradication programs. On the other hand, the main dangers facing native species arise from commercial industries and government policies.

Runaway development kills species

Many native species now face extinction because the size of their habitats is shrinking as a result of expanding urban development. New housing developments in outlying areas are almost entirely based on low density planning. The predominant housing type is the super-big “Macmansion”, the presumed market favourite. The average new Australian house is now the biggest in the world.

The prevailing assumption among big property developers and conservative governments seems to be that Australia is a huge country with a relatively small population, so it does not matter if our towns and cities sprawl an awful lot. They don’t recognise that the area of our landmass suitable for urban development comprises a very small proportion of the total. Medium and high density development is largely restricted to the major cities, in areas close to the city centres, which are already built to relatively high densities (often with building stock whose retention is important for historical or other cultural reasons).

The dominant motivation for urban development in Australia is profit maximisation, The need to conserve areas of cultural or natural significance are deemed an impediment, to be overcome if necessary by special legislation such as the NSW law which allows big developers to bypass local government objections and go straight to the state minister for approval.

Nature dying of thirst

Inappropriate agriculture, for example schemes requiring heavy irrigation, will also threaten natural ecosystems by reducing watercourse flows. However, agriculture is a crucial human activity, which, as evidence here and elsewhere indicates, can successfully coincide with the conservation of biodiversity.

This depends on very careful control of the allocation and use of our diminishing water resources, particularly because of climate change. The CSIRO predicts that by 2030 available surface water will fall by eight percent in the Macquarie, Barwon-Darling and Gwydir catchments, nine percent in the Murrumbidgee and 11 percent in the Lachlan.

However, the commercial trade in water rights, which has forced the federal government to buy back water rights from farmers and irrigation corporations (often at top prices because of market conditions), is the biggest stumbling block to wise and efficient use of the nation’s water.

Moreover, the government has exercised little control over the sale of rights to water, our most crucial natural asset, to overseas interests. Two years ago the government’s purchase of 240,000 megalitres of water rights from the Twynam Agricultural Group, controlled by a Brazilian multi millionaire, cost the nation $303 million.

There is now tremendous interest among overseas investors in purchasing water rights, particularly in Australia, which provides golden opportunities for overseas investment, with little government control and virtually no oversight from the Foreign Investment Review Board. Investors in water rights see the impact of climate change not as a threat to life on the planet, but as a chance to make huge profits from the sale of a commodity which is crucial for human life, and for which there is an inexhaustible demand.

And at the moment Australia is their favourite place, according to Guy Kingwill, chief executive of US and UK-controlled agricultural corporation Tandou. “We know that water is a scarce resource in a resource-starved world. We are long-term investors in secure water entitlements, and Australia is one of the few countries in the world where you can own these,” he commented enthusiastically.

Mining kills species

One of the biggest threats to both nature and agriculture, not to mention human health, is coal mining. The NSW Hunter Valley is now pock-marked with huge open cut mines which hideously disfigure the landscape, eliminate native flora and fauna as well as agriculture, and threaten human and animal health with coal dust emissions.

The mining industry wants to construct longwall mines under the vast and wonderfully fertile Liverpool Plains in NSW, with the virtual certainty of ruining the surface and subterranean watercourses, as well as losing at least part of the area’s beautiful topsoil. The industry’s plans to build long-wall mines beneath the Dharwal natural conservation area south-west of Sydney are a major threat to its ecology.

And, of course, the use of coal for power generation results in the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change, which is threatening the entire planet. Coal-fired power stations contribute almost half of Australia’s carbon emissions, and on a per capita basis Australia is now the world’s worst emitter of greenhouse gases.

The way ahead

The conservative coalition and ALP governments have failed to conserve native species because of their subservience to the demands of major commercial interests, particularly the mining industries.

A new federal government with the far more progressive influence of the Greens and the independents will have a far better chance of dealing with the threats to native species. It is one of their biggest challenges, because it is now clear that the conservation of native species is synonymous with the conservation of human life.  

Next article – Greens force small crack in wall of secrecy

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