Ecologist warns of Australian ‘extinction crisis’
A Queensland ecologist is calling for a rethink of Australia’s conservation strategy to combat an “extinction crisis”.
Professor Hugh Possingham, an ecologist from the University of Queensland and the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, says selling some of the country’s national parks is one option.
Australia has thousands of national parks and reserves, from the wilderness of the rainforests and deserts to the popular and busy beaches and rivers. Many are protecting vulnerable animals, birds and reptiles.
The parks are designed to encourage conservation but Professor Possingham says funds from the parks could be better spent on more urgent ecological projects.
“We are losing species very, very fast and we can’t invest in every national park equally well,” he said.
“There are some national parks that deliver a bigger return, that are going to deliver more conservation outcomes per dollar than others.
“Maybe some of those other national parks need to be managed in a much more cost effective fashion, and maybe they’d be better off managed by people other than governments.”
He says it is clear that Australia’s ecological protection strategy is not working anywhere near as well as it should.
We’ve got to move to a new world where … maybe more than half of all the conservation of Australia’s wildlife needs to be done … by individuals in society.Professor Hugh Possingham
“Australia’s strategy ultimately is to keep as many species as possible and keep as many habitats intact,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the problem at the moment is we’re losing species very fast.
“In fact the rate at which Australia is losing species is roughly 100, maybe up to 500 times the rate at which we would be losing species before people were around. So this is an extinction crisis in some sense.”
Professor Possingham says in half of all Australia’s species could be extinct after 1,000 years of white settlement.
“Although a thousand-year crisis sounds very, very slow, when you are in a situation when you are losing the war, one has to tend to take a triage approach, so the medical analogy follows through here to conservation,” he said.
“Some individuals are too far gone. Some landscapes, some habitats are difficult to look after and they are not a good investment. We have to accept that we can’t save everything.”
Professor Possingham also says rural landowners and wildlife groups should play a bigger role in protecting Australia’s ecosystems.
Weeds and invasive pests are the biggest problems in many national parks.
At the moment, labour intensive pest and weed management is sometimes covered by a handful of rangers in some huge areas.
Professor Possingham says that could be better done by wildlife groups.
“The fact that the Australian Wildlife Conservancy Bush Heritage Trust and Trust for Nature have emerged and prospered over the last decade is some evidence of a response to that threat,” he said.
“However I don’t think the general public is now really quite prepared.
“They thought that all conservation was done by the government. Now we’ve got to move to a new world where maybe half, maybe more than half of all the conservation of Australia’s wildlife needs to be done not by the government, but by individuals in society.”
He says Australia’s ecological funding is five to 10 times short of what would be needed to stop extinctions.
But he says years of campaigns for meaningful increases have only proven that it is not a high priority for voters, so it is unrealistic to expect more government funding.
The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Paul Sinclair disagrees, saying an increase is exactly what is needed.
“The level of funding provided for the protection of our natural life support systems is insufficient,” he said.
Dr Sinclair says ecological campaigners should not settle for the current share of government funding.
He says to do so would be selling the environment short.
“We spend more on a single desalination plant to guard against the drying climate than we do on the protection of our country that generates multiple times more water,” he said.