A new mammal extinction crisis - what can be done?

On the 17th November 2012 The Age newspaper reprinted an extract from an essay by Professor Tim Flannery - After the Future: Australia's New Extinction Crisis.

With a passion for helping Australia's threatened species recover, the team at cesar found this article pertinent and worth sharing.

Prof. Flannery highlights a growing concern amongst conservation biologists and mammalogists: that we are facing a new mammal extinction wave. This new extinction wave is likely to be greater than the last extinction wave that wiped out 10% of Australia’s unique mammal fauna starting at the turn of the 18th century, with the arrival of the First Fleet.

Several centuries of habitat clearing, population growth and the continuous arrival and onslaught of invasive species such as red foxes, feral dogs and cats, and European rabbits have severely impacted populations of all our mammals. Many species now exist as small isolated populations with dispersal severely limited (such as the southern brush-tailed rock-wallaby pictured above). Fragmentation, isolation and small population size generally cause losses of genetic variation in traits, the key ingredient needed for species to adapt to a changing environment. This leads to an increased risk of extinction. While these processes can operate quickly (see our news story on the mountain pygmy possum), they generally operate over decades and our failure to monitor populations adequately means that we often miss the opportunity to intercede before it’s too late. Some would say, for instance, that any government action should have occurred over a decade ago for any chance of saving the Christmas Island pipistrelle from extinction.

Prof. Flannery raises an interesting point around responsibilities for this inaction. Governments have shown through their indecisive actions that they are only interested in being a regulatory body and do not take the threat to our unique biodiversity seriously. Adequate funding to understand and correct the threatening processes, and develop programs that see species removed from the threatened species list because they are now abundant, are required.

Zoos around Australia have taken up some of the slack by increasing their role in conservation through captive breeding, but captive breeding is not the complete answer to our mammal extinction crisis as it is costly and only a stop gap solution. Prof. Flannery points out that the not-for-profit and private sectors need to play a far more active role in conservation if we are to stem the tide of this new extinction crisis. We would extend that further and say that we, the general public, need to take more responsibility. Only then will governments realise that our environment is valued by the people and address a lack of funding in this area.

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More information:

  • The complete essay - After the Future: Australia's New Extinction Crisis - was published in the Quarterly Essays.
  • cesar specialises in the application of genetic science to assist in the recovery of threatened species. Most recently, the team has undertaken a genetic rescue of the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum population at Mt Buller Victoria. Read more here.