Scientists unite against accelerated habitat loss in Australia

This article was first published on the ALERT blog, and describes the recent actions by leading scientists to slow the loss of Australia’s native ecosystems.

Hundreds of senior scientists from across Australia and the world, along with four leading scientific societies, have united to express alarm at Australia’s increasing rate of destruction of native vegetation.

Earlier this month, over 500 scientists met in Brisbane for the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Section meeting.  Unsurprisingly, one of the hottest topics was habitat destruction.

Declaration Against Habitat Destruction

The delegates of the conference voted to support a scientists’ declaration on land clearing in Australia.  Additional signatories included internationally renowned scientists, including several ALERT members, and ecologists and environmental scientists from across Australia.

“Our native vegetation is crucial to our wildlife, our climate, and the Great Barrier Reef,” said President of the Oceania Section of the Society for Conservation Biology, Professor Richard Kingsford.

“If we continue down this path, the cost to society and the economy will be enormous — and largely irreversible.  We will face higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and see iconic species pushed to extinction”.

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Habitat loss threatens most of Australia’s over 1,700 threatened species and ecological communities.

In Queensland, deforestation is returning to globally-significant levels. The scale of the problem has tripled in just three years, with woodland and forest loss at nearly 300,000 hectares per year, according to the government’s latest figures.

Global Deforestation Hotspot

These figures place Australia among the world’s worst deforestation hotspots.  Although the current minority Queensland government has introduced legislation to try to restore protections for native vegetation, there is no guarantee that it will pass.

Much of that is habitat for threatened species such as Koalas, Red Goshawks, and Glossy Black-Cockatoos.

The scientists’ statement highlighted the impacts of deforestation on climate.  In addition to the carbon emissions from tree clearing, research has shown that loss of bushland from eastern Australia hasincreased temperatures and reduced rainfall.  This makes droughts worse and reduces the ability of species to adapt to climate change.

The scientific community’s statement also reflected widespread concern over proposed changes to biodiversity laws in New South Wales.  The proposed laws will increase the opportunity to clear habitat— and risks following a trajectory similar to Queensland, where rates of habitat loss spiked under a previous conservative state government.

Widespread Impacts

Research presented at last week’s conference revealed widespread impacts from accelerating habitat loss on Australia’s wildlife, climate, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Associate Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne presented research showing that species such as the Squirrel Glider relied on the few remaining small patches of habitat in landscape such as New South Wales’ Hunter Valley.

“Important Squirrel Glider habitat in the Hunter Valley is at risk of being destroyed because so much of the habitat it needs has been lost.  The Squirrel Glider is one of many unique threatened species that rely on these rarer habitats to exist,” said Wintle.

Other iconic species continue to decline as their habitat is removed and degraded.

“Koalas in Queensland and New South Wales have declined precipitously,” said Adjunct Professor Daniel Lunney of the University of Sydney.  “Their populations have halved in Queensland over the past 20 years, and loss of habitat is a key driver.  Replacing that habitat is enormously expensive.  The most cost-effective option is to leave it in place.”

In the statement, the scientists expressed dismay that Australia had become one of the world’s worst deforestation fronts.

“Things are getting worse, not better — ever more species are being added to threatened species lists, and more native habitat is being removed every year,” said Richard Kingsford.  “The restoration work done by dedicated people across the country is dwarfed by these losses.  The battle is being lost”.

Action Needed

The statement called for Australian parliaments and governments, especially those of Queensland and New South Wales, to take action to stop habitat loss and restore fragile landscapes.

“We call for the prevention of a return to the damaging past of high rates of woodland and forest destruction, in order to protect the unique biodiversity and marine environments of which Australia is sole custodian,” the statement said.

The statement is supported by four of Australia’s Scientific Societies involved in biodiversity conservation and management, including theSociety for Conservation Biology, the Ecological Society of Australia, the Royal Zoological Society of NSW, and the Australasian Wildlife Management Society.

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