Getting biodiversity backward
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2003:
CANBERRA, Australia–At least 1,595 Australian native plants
and animals are at risk of extinction, 2,900 regional ecosystems are
imperiled, and the leading threats come from land clearing, sheep
and cattle grazing, drought, and fires, says a recently published
national Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment. Predation and
competition with native species by introduced species ranked as a
lesser threat in most parts of Australia.
Principally authored by ecologist Paul Sattler, the
assessment was commissioned by the national government. It was
presented to Parliament in late April 2003.
What, three months later, is Australia doing about the findings?
* The Cooperative Research Centre for Pet Control has
applied for permission to send a genetically engineered mouse herpes
virus into field trials–in effect, to begin yet another
introduction of a non-native species.
The Cooperative Research Centre “aims to spread the virus throughout
the exotic mouse population,” reported the Brisbane Courier-Mail,
noting that mouse plagues annually “cost the nation’s grain farmers
about $150 million.”
The developers also hope to export the virus to Asian nations, for
use against rats who consume an estimated $9 billion U.S. worth of
grain per year.
“The trials will most likely take place in northwestern Victoria or
Queensland,” the Courier-Mail said, taking no note that previous
introductions of viruses, chiefly to control rabbits, have only
temporarily suppressed the target species, while eventually
producing semi-immune populations.
Rabbit calicivirus, accidentally released into Australia while still
being tested in 1996, and deliberately released in New Zealand a
year later, is reportedly already so ineffective in some regions
that farmers have returned to poisoning rabbits. Meanwhile, the
abrupt elimination of introduced prey species through the use of
viruses has each time increased predation against endangered small
marsupials, both by non-native cats and foxes and by native raptors.
* West Australia conservationist Jack Kinnear on June 13
called for escalating the use of the controversial pesticide
Com-pound 1080 to eradicate foxes from Tasmania. Two years after a
30-member task force began stalking the seldom-seen foxes, Danny
Rose of the Hobart Mercury reported, they have only two fox
carcasses to show for their efforts. Nonetheless, urged Kinnear,
“The task force’s requirements should take precedence over all other
Australian conservation projects. The current funding, staffing,
and resource allocation is inadequate,” Kinnear said, “to complete
the eradication task.”
Poisonings of non-target species, Kinnear continued, should
be seen as “part of the cost of removing an infinitely greater cause
of death,” though there is little evidence that the few foxes left
in Tasmania, if any, are killing much of anything.
* The Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia called for
rebuilding the national fur trapping and shooting industry, whose
exports of fox pelts declined by as much as 90% during the past
decade due to lack of global demand.
* New South Wales Farmers Association CEO Jonathan McKeown
called upon the government to resume aerial poison drops to kill
feral dogs in the vicinity of Deua National Park. Mixes of dingo
with Rhodesian ridgebacks, bull mastiffs, Rottweilers, pit bull
terriers, and German shepherds, McKeown said, were forcing
graziers to remove sheep from paddocks near the park. The poison
drops were suspended in 2001 to avoid killing endangered tiger quolls.
* After rousting 28,000 rare grey-headed flying foxes from
the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne during March 2003, Victoria
state wildlife officials announced on June 10 their intent to drive
the flying foxes out of the nearby Fitzroy Gardens as well. Victoria
environment minister John Thwaites on July 2 accepted a scientific
advisory panel recommendation that the grey-headed flying foxes be
protected as a threatened species under the Victorian Flora and Fauna
Guarantee Act, “but that will not stop authorities from harassing
and hounding them from city parks,” wrote Melbourne Herald-Sun
environment reporter Danny Buttler.
* After killing 20,000 eastern grey kangaroos at the
Puckapunyal army base in central Victoria since May 2002, the
Australian Defence Department announced on June 25 that it had
secured permission from the Victoria state Department of Environment
& Sustainability to kill 15,000 more by August. The kangaroos are
reportedly starving due to drought. Royal SPCA president Hugh Wirth
said his organization had warned the Defence Department since 1999
that the placement of fences would result in just such a disaster.
* At the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, National Parks
and Wildlife Service sharpshooters shot 60 sacred ibis and destroy-ed
100 nests from concern that the birds might carry salmonella. James
Woodford of the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the Gardens also
recently killed 30 brushtail possums–a protected species in New
South Wales, albeit proliferating in Sydney, where they enjoy the
urban tree cover.
To review: Australia is officially facing a native
biodiversity crisis. The official investigation found four major
causes, including overgrazing, about which little if anything is
being done, plus the traditional bugaboo of introduced species.
Having received the investigative findings three months ago,
Australia is proceeding with introducing a virus; extirpating or
exterminating local populations of at least three native species;
and considering action to enable farmers to graze more sheep.
Paradoxical policies come as no surprise to Richard Jones, a
Member of the Legislative Council in the New South Wales Parliament
from 1988 until early 2003.
“Australia has had the highest rate of extinctions of any
country in the world in the past 200 years,” Jones told ANIMAL
PEOPLE. He readily agreed with conventional belief that,
“Introduced species are having a significant impact on native
wildlife. Foxes are destroying rare wallabies, quolls, and so
forth,” Jones recited. “Pigs are severely damaging habitat. Wild
dogs are voracious predators of sheep and lambs. Dingoes,” Jones
qualified, citing the aboriginal dogs believed to have been
introduced in prehistoric times, “are now adapted to the environment
and protect smaller native species in the forest from foxes and cats.
Wild domestic dogs of more recent introduction are different.
“Cats are destroying birds and bilbies, which look like the
Easter bunny, with long ears and pointy noses,” Jones added. “Here
in Manly,” his home town, “we have a brush possum living in the
tree next door for the first time since at least 1965,” he said.
“We also have a blue tongue lizard in the garden for the first time
since at least 1965, when I bought our house. The reason? There
are nowhere near as many cats in the neighborhood as there used to
be–I used to have 11 here back in the sixties. You hardly see a cat
around now. Instead of habitat for urban cats, it’s now habitat for
But Jones is aware that the decline of cats was not achieved
through extermination campaigns, which were waged as aggressively in
Australia as anywhere, only to see the feral cat population rapidly
rebound to refill the emptied habitat niches.
Rather, in Australia as in the U.S., feral cat numbers
lastingly dropped only as the norms of petkeeping began to include
sterilization and keeping pets indoors, so that strays no longer
augmented the feral breeding pool. Then, at last, the feral cat
population began to recede to the light densities of other predators
–such as Asian jungle cats, their close kin.
“I chaired a Parliamentary enquiry into feral animals,”
Jones recalled, “and the committee came to the conclusion that
introduced feral species must be controlled to maintain native
biodiversity, but also said it had to be done humanely.”
That was more-or-less the position Jones started from. The
more he learned, the more skeptical he became of the nativist views
of most Australian wildlife managers.
“An intact habitat in the Australian enviroment tends to
favor those species which were there in the first place,” Jones
explained. “It has been thoroughly observed that introduced species
do not survive well in a habitat that has not been disturbed by
humans–and we are fortunate to have many of these fragments left.
Cats do not survive well, for example, in old growth forest, but
tend to do better in fragmented disturbed habitat,” such as suburbs
and land cleared for agriculture.
“In any case it has now been seen that cats do not kill
anywhere near the number of native species for which they are
blamed,” Jones continued, “and they have been here for a lot longer
than first thought, arriving [probably with Asian traders and
explorers] before the European invasion. Indian mynahs, a very
aggressive bird, do not do well outside of cities, but survive
quite well in the city ecosystem. Likewise, sparrows are not found
outside cities. Dingoes are now well established in the heart of old
growth ecosystems and have taken over the ecological niche of the
“There is no question that human disturbance of the
Australian habitat has been by far the most significant cause of the
extinction of small marsupials,” Jones said. “It is thought now
that the extinction of the Australian megafauna several thousand
years ago was the result of hunting, not climate change,” but either
way, competition and predation from introduced species was
apparently not a significant factor.
“Introduced plant species also do not appear to survive in or
invade intact forest,” Jones added. “They thrive at the interface
of old forest and cleared areas or damaged forest. Often these
introduced species are actually beneficial to the habitat. For
example, lantana has been regarded as a real pest to be eliminated.
I don’t pull out my lantana–and I don’t kill or discourage my cane
toads either,” Jones interjected in the spirit of ecological heresy.
“Lantana provides great habitat for small nesting birds,
protecting them from larger predators such as currawongs,” Jones
pointed out. “Lantana provides nectar for butterflies and birds,
protects bandicoots from foxes, and also nourishes the soil.
Lantana is found at the interface of forest and cleared land. Same
story with camphor laurel, which has been declared a pest species in
many parts of northern New South Wales and designated for
eradication– fortunately not where we live,” Jones noted. “This
tree, which has taken over large areas of former rainforest cleared
by dairy farmers, has provided almost the sole habitat for certain
native pigeons and for rainforest possums, and is also a food tree
for koalas,” when eucalyptus leaves are unavailable.”
In addition, Jones said, the camphor laurel has filled a
vital transitionary role in helping native rainforest tree species to
recover. This occurred when roosted native pigeons defecated
undigested seeds from perches among the limbs of camphor laurel.
The camphor laurel nourished the native species with leaf mold and
provided protection against storms until the native trees were strong
enough to survive unaided.
“Many people are now re-planting native species, providing
much-needed habitat–in particular for birds,” Jones said. “This is
why several thousand grey-headed flying foxes are now resident in the
Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. There are millions of native trees
now in Sydney which weren’t there twenty or thirty years ago. Other
flying fox colonies which used to be highly mobile are also currently
resident. I have talked to the people in the Botanic Gardens and
they say they [unlike their Melbourne counterparts] are prepared to
lose some of their old trees to the flying foxes, even rare ones,
as flying foxes are likewise an integral part of the Australian
environment, particularly good at pollinating trees and spreading
seeds. Survival of the flying foxes depends on retaining habitat,
planting more, and of course upon stopping orchardists from shooting
them” as alleged threats to fruit crops.
“Habitat, habitat, habitat is the key to survival for most
species,” Jones emphasized, “whether native or introduced. Change
the habitat and you change the mix of species. Some habitats
clearly favour non-native species; others favour natives. City
habitats are sometimes extraordinarily favorable to some species,
such as rats, mice, possums, hardy birds, foxes, and certain
insects–even flying foxes.”
As to the kangaroo culling, Jones observed, “The
‘sustainable use of wildlife’ concept is a nightmare and has never
been successful. The ‘sustainable use’ concept is keeping the
kangaroo-killing industry going, but this year we have a situation
in which kangaroo populations are reduced by as much as 80%, under
one of the largest slaughter quotas ever, based on counts completed
before severe drought killed huge numbers. Even the kangaroo
slaughter industry is concerned about the dearth of large kangaroos
to the extent that representatives asked the Minister for the
Environment to institute a lower weight limit on the kangaroos shot.
They say the shooters are bringing in joeys.”
Unlike in New Zealand, where hunting is ubiquitous outside
the cities, and despite the aggressively bioxenophobic policies of
the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, Jones believes
hunting “really is not part of the culture” of Australia.
Therefore, Jones hopes, Australian wildlife policy can be
reformed, away from the seemingly reflexive recourse to massacre to
attempt to solve all problems.
“Almost every Australian group is opposed to the commercial
killing of wildlife,” Jones said, though he acknowledged that “very
few oppose culling wildlife when species are out of balance, e.g.
when predators are few and animals breed beyond the carrying capacity
of the environment.”
Jones hinted that his major project post-politics may be
founding a new national organization which will at once promote
native biodiversity and “champion animals’ rights” and work to
“persuade people to stop eating animals and stop treating animals