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  • Brendan Shaw

Species extinction in Australia: time for a wake-up call

Brendan Shaw

“When Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay, the forests fringing the waters abounded with marsupials such as quolls and bandicoots, and the skies teemed with birds. The story was the same along the Yarra in what would become Melbourne and, down south, "tigers" roamed the island of Tasmania.”

- “Why is Australia a global leader in wildlife extinctions?” Sydney Morning Herald, 20/7/2020

“In the early 1800s, Hobart’s estuary was dangerous for small boats which could scarcely steer between the pregnant and calving black whales.”

- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore

"Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition, which are reducing the environmental capital on which current and future economies depend”

- Australian Government 2021 State of the Environment Report

There’s a bird that lives near our house in Canberra in Australia.

The Gang-gang cockatoo is a cheeky, intelligent bird native to Australia with a call that sounds something like a squeaky gate in need of oiling. They often fly around our house and sit in the trees looking at us. They also nest in the hollows of trees on the hills near our house. The males have an amazing red head with a crest of feathers that looks like a bad haircut.

These birds have lived here for thousands of years. One regularly sees them flying around our house and our local neighbourhood and our family has just become used to seeing them all the time.

Gang-gang cockatoo officially ‘endangered’

So, imagine my shock earlier this year when the Gang-gang cockatoo was officially declared endangered by the Australian government.

That means it is at serious risk of extinction. Forever.

Loss of habitat around Australia through land clearing and development, huge bushfires destroying its habitat and killing the birds themselves, and even the varied effects of climate change are all putting this cool climate-dwelling cockatoo at risk of permanent extinction.

Incredibly, 30% of the world’s known nesting sites for the Gang-gang cockatoo are on a nearby hill in Canberra that overlooks Australia’s national Parliament. The Gang-gangs can actually look down on the Ministerial Wing of Parliament House.

For me, it was a moment when the global trends of climate change, human development, the destruction of biodiversity and species extinction all came home to roost. Quite literally.

Gang-gangs might not be a high profile global environmental issue, but they're part of a unique ecosystem that is seen nowhere else in the world.

And they're kind of cute.

It's one thing to discuss big picture policy issues like sustainable development, ESG, environmental economics, species extinction and the Anthropocene, but it's another thing when you see them literally staring you in the face a few metres away on your front porch.

But, of course, our local Gang-gang cockatoo population is not the only native species in Australia at risk of extinction.

Koalas at risk

Perhaps even more shocking for some this year was the news that the koala has been declared endangered in the eastern half of the Australian continent. It made news around the world.

These unique marsupials, native to Australia and once hunted with the support of government bounties, are now at risk of extinction in large parts of Australia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, koala pelts were in high demand in the United States to make coats, gloves and hats and local governments supported their hunting.

Source: Wikipedia, State Library of NSW

Today things like infectious disease, extended droughts, habitat destruction through land clearing for farming and housing developments, climate change, bushfires, attacks from dogs and feral animals and being killed by road traffic are all contributing to the threat that koalas may well be extinct sometime in the not too distant future.

The announcement by the Australian government earlier this year of the koala’s perilous state was something of a wake-up call for the Australian people.

One of Australia's emblematic animals synonymous with the country's unique place in the world is now at serious threat of extinction due to unsustainable development and, frankly, neglect.

There’s nowhere else on the planet where these animals live. Once they die out in Australia, that’s it. They're lost to the world.

Far beyond its responsibility for itself, Australia has a responsibility to the world to do more to save this species.

No one else on the planet can save the koalas the way that Australia can.

Species extinction on a mass scale

Unfortunately, these are not the only examples of threatened species in Australia.

Australia carries the dubious distinction of leading the world on species extinction. Australia has lost more mammals to extinction than any other country, with 29 species of mammals becoming extinct since the arrival of Europeans. This accounts for 1/3 of all global mammal species extinction during that time.

A multitude of factors are often to blame for this since European settlement in 1788. Things like habitat destruction due to land clearing for farming and urban development, the introduction of feral animals like cats and foxes, diseases, climate change and neglect have all played a role.

The 2021 State of the Environment Report – an Australian Government report produced every 5 years and updated just a few months ago – paints a bleak picture in many areas of the environment. Species extinction, along with the destruction of Australian ecosystems and biodiversity, is increasing.

Source: Australian Government. 2021. “Biodiversity”, The State of the Environment, p. 19,, accessed 28/8/2022.

Other studies have shown that many of Australia’s unique ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.

Of course, as the numbers show, the extinction of animal species goes beyond Gang-gangs and koalas. It extends to everything from large black cockatoos and skinks through to the critically endangered Murray cod and many in between.

And while animals often get all the attention, many plant species are also at risk of extinction.

Around 10% of the world’s plants occur in Australia, representing around 21,000 species. About 4,000 species of plants in Australia were and still are used by Australia’s indigenous people for food and medicine, representing about 20% of all plant species in Australia, with evidence that the First Australians have been processing native plants for food for up to 65,000 years.

Plants comprise 73% of Australia’s total national threatened species list.

What to do?

Like many global problems, what to do about species extinction in Australia seems an almost insurmountable problem. It seems almost too huge to deal with.

And while exercises like using genomics to bring back the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, back from extinction are worthy of further consideration, they’re no substitute for protecting the species that still exist today and have not died out yet.

The State of the Environment report suggests a number of things that need to change if we are to help save the environment and protect endangered species, including:

  • Greater national leadership to foster coordinated action and greater investment in protection

  • Better data and measurement of progress

  • Building on existing achievements through innovative investment and partnerships

  • Innovative financing and multi-sectoral action, and

  • Leveraging both indigenous knowledge and the latest scientific knowledge.

As the Report overview says: “Crucially, we must expand collaboration across governments and nongovernment sectors, including through listening and co‑developing solutions with Indigenous and local communities, building on and learning from Indigenous and western scientific knowledge.”

All of this also raises broader questions of what sort of economics and development we want to pursue in the future. Whether it’s sustainable development, wellness budgets being developed by the OECD or living standards frameworks used by governments like Canada, New Zealand and Scotland, we are going to have to find an economic framework that has on eye on things like species extinction.

In the meantime, Shawview Consulting plans to donate to koala protection foundations and provide support to help protect local Gang-gang populations.

We’ve got to start somewhere.

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