A Legacy of Loss
Miniature nocturnal marsupials. Invisible mammals. Tiny things that leave tiny footprints. Birds that hide in plain sight, so that when they leave, it’s like they never were. Faceless reptiles, insects, fish; whose absence is no more than the absence of sounds never heard.
These are our little ‘holes’ in the landscape. Absences barely mourned. We may never miss the many hundreds of plant and animal species that no longer have a place in our fragile ecosystem. Most of us will never have encountered them, let alone thought of them as an integral part of our biodiversity.
But what is clear is the legacy of extinctions that we, a few generations of non-indigenous Australians, have left to this land; and our responsibility to slow, or stop the rate of these extinctions.
In 2015 a team of researchers from Charles Darwin University, Northern Territory reviewed 3000 Australian mammal studies, which showed that since European settlement, Australia’s terrestrial animals have shown a massive decline in species variety.
Biologist John Woinarski, lead author of the study, found that within 60 years of settlement, extinctions “…at the rate of one to two species per decade have continued unabated since, such that a total of 30 of Australia’s land mammals are now extinct – more than 10 per cent of the original endemic land mammal fauna”.
In addition to this loss, a further fifty-six Australian land mammals are now threatened, indicating that our legacy of extinctions is likely to continue if drastic measures aren’t soon taken.
Beyond major natural disasters, extinctions rarely happen without human intervention. Disease, habitat degradation and even poisoning from introduced species such as cane toads take a major toll on our wildlife; as do introduced species like red foxes and feral cats, or changes in fire management regimes.
These impacts, coupled with climate change and changing migratory patterns further exacerbate the many threats our native wildlife face.
Winning the war against nature
Sadly – we’re heading towards the top of the leaderboard when it comes to our record for having one of the highest rates of species loss anywhere in the world.
This continent is home to more than one million known species of plants and animals; many found nowhere else in the world.
According to the Wilderness Society’s summary of Australia’s biodiversity, “We have more species of mammals than 93 per cent of countries, more birds than 79 per cent of countries, more amphibians than 95 per cent of countries, and more reptiles than any other country on Earth.”
“About 85 per cent of flowering plants, 84 per cent of mammals, more than 45 per cent of birds, and 89 per cent of inshore, freshwater fish are endemic,” as stated by the federal Department of the Environment’s website.
But while Australia boasts more species of higher (vascular) plants than 94 percent of countries on Earth, and more non-fish vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) than 95 per cent of the world’s countries, we also boast one of the highest extinction rates on the planet – not an enviable position for a country which prides itself on its connection to the land, and uses this connection as both a source of national pride, and a tourism drawcard.
According to the EPBC Act list of threatened fauna 54 mammals, birds, frogs and other animals are extinct, and one fish is extinct in the wild.
Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews agrees that Australia has the highest percentage loss of mammal species in the world. In fact, 35 per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 have been Australian (30 out of 84 world-wide extinctions).
So perhaps what we’re seeing here is not just a series of ‘little holes in the landscape’, but a gaping hole in our ability and willingness to protect and conserve our land. It shows a lack of understanding of stewardship, and a lack of political will in the face of competing priorities, vested interests and election cycles.
A change in attitude and practice
While many years ago, when first we came to this land and brought with us our Euro-centric ideas of best agricultural practice, we might have been forgiven for not understanding what the impact of these, on this very different landscape, might be. We might even have been forgiven for not understanding what the impact of (some) introduced species might be on ecosystems that we barely understood.
But now, in this modern time, we can no longer hide under the cloak of invisibility, or the shroud of silence, while waiting for more holes to appear. We can no longer cry ignorance when we make development decisions that we know will have far-reaching consequences.
As a farming community, and backed by political will, support and a change in consumer attitudes, we need to start making proactive decisions that conserve and restore our degraded landscape, providing sanctuary and safe passage for our flora and fauna, so that this diverse and wonderful quilt doesn’t end up more holes than fabric.