The Koala in The Coal Mine

Who: Euan Ritchie, Deakin University of Melbourne

With climate change scrutiny, the collapse of Australia’s ecosystems has received scant attention. But it is entirely possible to save them.

Australia’s iconic koala, which is threatened with extinction in the Australian regions of Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory by 2022, is sadly far from alone.

Since European colonization of Australia approximately 230 years ago, at least 39 native mammal species have been driven to extinction. The Australian continent, with its extraordinary and largely unique flora and fauna (endemics), currently has more than 1,900 threatened species and ecological communities.

Ecosystems from the tropics to Antarctica, including the Great Barrier Reef, are showing signs of collapse.

Ecologists and conservation biologists have been documenting and warning about the widespread extinction of nature for decades. Then, in 2019, an intergovernmental organization confirmed what many had predicted: We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

Using the fossil record as a benchmark for “normal” extinction rates, we are now seeing extinction rates tens, hundreds, or thousands of times higher than expected.

It is a less catastrophic crisis than climate change, but one that receives less attention.

Too few recognize the need to address climate change, environmental destruction and extinction in an integrated manner.

Tackling climate change has received a lot of attention around the world. But climate change is one dimension—albeit a big one—of the environmental and extinction crisis we’re facing.

Without a significant increase in investment in conservation, habitat destruction and modification, invasive species, pollution and disease will continue to be major threats. If we hope to turn things around, we need stronger, not weaker, environmental legislation. And, ultimately, if environmental degradation is to be stopped, we will have to deal with the main driver of these issues: consumption and unsustainable living.

Climate change, extinction and environmental health are inextricably linked.

Protecting forests, both on land and underwater, helps capture and store carbon, thereby helping to combat climate change. It also offers homes for eleven species. Restoring whale populations can increase ocean productivity because what whales leave after their meal helps fertilize microscopic phytoplankton, which capture carbon and drive food chains.

Restoring or protecting nature through the return of species to landscapes, often known as ‘wilding’, is seen as a key component in the fight against climate change and extinction.

Everything is connected and must be managed as such.

Another key component of change is investment. The more countries invest in conservation, the better their conservation outcomes will be. Money is needed to establish and otherwise manage conservation reserves. It is also difficult to control species populations and the diversity of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms within them.

Depending on the area, most land and seas are not under conservation protection, and many threatened species are on private land. Conservation initiatives that include public and private land would better protect them.

Investing in people to do conservation would have huge benefits. For example, Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Ranger programs help conserve native plants and animals, reduce invasive animal populations, manage fire, and maintain connections to culture and Country. Likewise, animal pest control, vegetation restoration, species reintroduction and other conservation-based actions can create jobs in cities and regional towns.

It is estimated that it would cost around A$1.7 billion a year to restore all of Australia’s threatened species back to health. Australia currently spends about $120 million a year on the conservation and recovery of threatened species. It recently pledged $10 million (or $100,000 each) to 100 priority species, out of more than 1,800 species on the threatened list.
Despite its high social, cultural, economic and environmental value, Australian governments and society do not seem to view the environment as a priority investment. The question we must face is why?

Euan Ritchie is Lecturer in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in the Center for Integrative Ecology and School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. His work focuses on predators and their ecological roles, invasive species, fire ecology, ecosystem management and the ecology, conservation and management of Australian mammals. He is Chair of the Media Working Group of the Ecology Society of Australia and Deputy Chair of the Science and Society Network at Deakin University. The author declares no conflict of interest.

This article has been republished to coincide with the State of Australia’s Environment report. It was first published on February 28, 2022.

Originally published by 360info™ under Creative Commons.

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