When the majority of people think about exotic wildlife and terrain, their minds tend to wander to Africa, or somewhere else that offers safari vacations. They’re less likely to think about the Australian outback – but that’s mostly because they’ve never seen it. To an Aussie, the outback is a beautiful and dangerous place full of stunning plants and creatures that could kill you in a heartbeat. Everybody outside Australia tends to think that all that exists between the Australian cities and states is desert.
Most Australians are happy for things to stay that way – the natural beauty of Australia is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, and nobody wants half the world trampling across it looking for Instagram photos! The landscape and the creatures that live upon it are things that Australians are quite rightly proud of – which is why it was alarming to see them accused this week of failing to do enough to protect it.
If the findings of the Humane Society International are to be believed, then it takes Australian officials an average of six years to report that a habitat is under threat – and that’s after all the conditions that would demand protection under the country’s existing natural environment laws have all been met. They point the blame for this squarely at an unwillingness by the government to spend the money that would be required for regular monitoring and reporting to take place.
The rate of extinction of native species of plants and animals in Australia has accelerated recently, with some observers stating that Australia faces an ‘extinction crisis’ if swift action is not now taken. Australian Geographic believes that the crisis has already begun. During the past decade, the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat and Bramble Cay melomys have been confirmed as extinct. The orange-bellied parrot is hovering on the brink, with less than 50 of its species left. The Leadbeater’s possum has lost its habitat, and appears to be doomed. Rock wallabies and certain species of frog are now considered endangered. The list of threatened animals is wide, and grows monthly.
The number of wild creatures who roam Australia, from snakes, to kangaroos, to crocodiles, are famous around the world. They frequently appear in advertising for the county. They’re even used as a cast of characters in entertainment, for example in the popular mobile slots game ‘Jungle Spirit: Call of the Wild,” and ‘Reel Talent.’ Gambling with the creatures in a slots casino is lighthearted fun. Gambling with their very existence due to poor funding is a tragedy. The prize for correcting this behavior now would be greater than any prize any mobile slots game could offer – the continued existence of some of Australia’s most iconic fauna. It would take the smallest of financial commitments, in a country with a stable economy, to improve the situation, and yet there appears to be no willingness to do so. That leaves Australia sleepwalking into an ecological disaster.
The existence of this problem is not news to the people in charge. Prior to the election, recommendations were made for a complete overhaul (and possible replacement) of existing conservation laws, and the creation of a new national independent body to oversee the necessary work. This report came from within the Senate itself, and yet is still waiting to be actioned. The most recent budget, rather than allocate funding to support the proposals, tightened the purse strings of the environmental department. It would seem that the government is doing worse than nothing – it’s actively deciding to make a bad situation worse.
There have also been delays in providing protection to threatened areas due to industrial lobbying. Two areas of woodland in Queensland and New South Wales recently became recognized as threatened after waiting six years for recognition because industries which worked within the woodland objected, and two consecutive environment ministers (Melissa Price and Josh Frydenberg) declined to approve the protected status until the (groundless) complaints of the industrial lobbyists had been heard.
Not all of the threats to the endangered species and areas are man-made, though. Some of the areas are under threat because of naturally occurring phenomena. Feral cats are a significant threat to many endangered species, as are species of bird which have been erroneously or illegally introduced to areas where the ecology isn’t designed to cope with their presence. Dealing with natural threats to the environment is a more nuanced process than dealing with threats that are human in origin, but the process isn’t helped by a reluctance to correctly recognize threats, according to the Humane Society International’s report. Ocean acidification – which poses a threat to life to both animals and plants (and humans, if left unchecked) is not formally designated as a threatening process, even though the threat is inherently obvious. Because of this, it’s hard to achieve protected status for an area that’s desperately in need of protection.
Although successive governments and government departments have a long track record of making reassuring statements when matters like this arise, there’s a hard truth that none of them can avoid – during the last ten years, not one single environmentally threatening process has been deemed worthy of priority assessment. Each time one has been identified, the relevant department has rejected proposals to perform any assessment on the grounds that it would cost too much money.
While everyone recognizes the need to run the economy sensibly and efficiently, a failure to protect the country’s land and animals for the sake of saving cash would be enormously short-sighted. The loss of one or multiple species of plants and animals could have unforeseen effects on the food chain of other animals, and therefore disrupt Australia’s entire ecosystem. The inevitable effect of that would be further extinctions, changes in the availability of certain types of food, and most importantly of all, the loss of some of the Australian identity. We don’t want to be the generation who have to explain to our grandchildren why they can only find pictures of certain types of animal in history books. Regardless of the cost, it’s time to start listening to the experts, and make sure those same animals are still around when our grandchildren want to see them with their own eyes fifty years from now.