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Expert Q&A: Dr. Andrew Burbidge

We chat with Australian conservation biologist Dr. Andrew Burbidge about the challenges of protecting ecological integrity of national park lands.

By Amy Nelson

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Dr. Andrew A. Burbidge is a conservation biologist who has dedicated much of his 45 year career to biodiversity conservation, particularly in Western Australia. His expertise is in biological survey, protected area selection and management, threatened species conservation and island conservation, working mainly on mammals, reptiles and birds. Dr. Burbidge’s research into mammal conservation led to his involvement in invasive species management and eradication, especially on islands, culminating in the eradication of black rats and feral cats from the MontebelloIslands, a group of around 100 islands, islets and rocks off Western Australia’s Pilbara coast. In recent years, he has advised the Western Australian government on island management and invasive species management, the Commonwealth government on biodiversity conservation, and Chevron Australia on the development of a quarantine management system for BarrowIsland. He is a co-author of the recent book Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change and is a member of the Board of Directors of WWF-Australia.

Tell us a little about your background. (How did you become interested in biological science? When and how did you begin focusing on the conservation of threatened mammals, reptiles and birds?)

My mother was interested in birds and I had an aunt who was a very well-known botanist in Australia, so there was a bit of background in biological sciences in the family. I used to do quite a bit of bird watching when I was a teenager, particularly migratory shorebirds. One of the world’s major flyways comes down from Siberia, through Southeast Asia, into Northern Australia and the birds spread out across Australia, and quite a lot of them come down the west coast. I grew up on the West Coast from age of five. When I went to university, I actually set out to study geology and zoology, but I soon dropped geology and concentrated on zoology. I found that much more interesting and dynamic than rocks. As I progressed through university, I became more interested in conservation issues, particularly the developing national park system and endangered species. I did my PhD on an endangered species of freshwater turtle.

Is that species still endangered?

Yes. I’ve been working on the western swamp turtle on and off for over 45 years, and it’s still an endangered species.

At any point in your career did you work directly for Parks Australia or the State government?

For most of my career I worked for the conservation agencies of the Western Australian state government. I worked as a research scientist for most of that time. I started off working on endangered species – particularly endangered mammals- and the factors that were causing species to decline and disappear and what might be done about it. That grew into looking more broadly at the protected areas system in Western Australia. I was involved in a big move to enlarge the protected area system here in the 1970s and 80s. I also got more and more involved in island conservation issues. I retired from state government more than eight years ago and I now work part-time as a conservation consultant.

I understand that Australia has 516 national parks. Based on your experience working or playing in some of these parks, which stand out in your mind as having the healthiest, most resilient ecosystems and why?

In Australia, we have several types of conservation reserves with different names. In addition to national parks, we have other protected areas like nature reserves. There are about 58 million hectares of national park and equivalent preserves that fit the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Categories I-IV.  The IUCN has a system of classifying protected areas.  Categories I-IV are usually considered internationally to be national parks and equivalent areas which are primarily for biodiversity conservation and, in some cases, also for recreation. We also have another 38-40 million hectares of marine parks and equivalent marine protected areas.

If you’re looking at total biodiversity, then only in the far north of Australia do we have areas with intact ecosystems. In most of the country, we have lost a significant degree of our fauna, particularly mammals. If you’re just looking from a flora point of view, certainly there are a lot of national parks which are more or less intact in terms of their plant biodiversity. In Western Australia, for example, we have the Fitzgerald River National Park, which has about 1800 species of vascular plants, over 60 of which are endemic to the park. As far as the flora goes, that area hasn’t lost any species.

There are some other national parks here in the Southwest which have very high species diversity and are intact with all their original plants. But those same areas do not have all their original animals.

There are a couple of national parks in the Kimberly of Western Australia, such as the Mitchell River National Park and the adjacent Prince Regent Nature Reserve, which have an intact mammal fauna so they still have the full range of biodiversity – although they do have some invasive species.

This is one of the big differences between Australia and, say, North America. We’ve lost mammals from our national parks just the same as we’ve lost them from other areas. Whereas in most of your [U.S.] parks-except where there have been specific objectives to remove predators such as wolves from some of your national parks-most species remain. . That sort of thing hasn’t happened in Australia. In Australia, we’ve lost indigenous species from parks because of invasive species, not because of the direct action of humans such as hunting and removing ‘undesirable’ indigenous species.

Let’s talk about the loss of species. I read on the biodiversity section of the Australian government’s web site that “Australia is the most megadiverse developed country and supports almost 10 per cent of the biological diversity on earth,” yet I understand that Australia leads the world in extinction of mammals. Are invasive species the main reason why Australia leads the world in lost species?

Australia is the world’s largest island and it behaves like an island. The invasive species that have come into Australia have had a dramatic impact on its biodiversity. In particular, mammalian predators like European red fox and feral cats have had a major effect upon our mammal fauna. We have lost 22 species of mammals since European settlement in Australia. Unfortunately, Australia leads the world with the highest rate of mammal extinctions. That rate of extinction has only happened elsewhere in the world on islands.

Biologically, Australia is the world’s largest island, not the world’s smallest continent. It doesn’t behave like a continent at all in the way it has been affected by invasive species.

Are there other key invasive species threatening Australian mammals?

The European red fox and feral cat have had the most impact, but unfortunately, we have a whole range of other invasive species –particularly mammals-which have had major impacts on our environment. The European rabbit is a classic case, but other herbivores such as goats, pigs, cattle, camels and sheep have caused and are causing land degradation.

Generally speaking, how have these species come onto Australia?

Cats probably came in on early ships or as pets, but almost all of the others were brought in on purpose by people for food, hunting, etc., the exception being rats and mice, which have come in accidentally through shipwrecks and the like.

To help make this rate of extinction real, rather than a mere statistic, for our readers, can you tell me the stories of one or two Australian mammals that have become extinct?

Unfortunately I know of too many. I can give you a couple of examples quite easily, from a personal view from my own research. Some of my colleagues and I set out in the mid-1970s and early 80s to look at the mammal conservation status in the western deserts of Australia. Most of Australia is arid. Roughly three-quarters of the country would be considered desert in most countries of the world, although it’s a lot better vegetated than some deserts are. The arid zone had a very rich mammal fauna-mostly small to medium sized species ranging from a few grams up to five or six kilograms. There was a diverse range of wallabies, bandicoots, and possums, as well as native rodents, inhabiting the western deserts.

When we first started working out there in the mid-1970s, the conservation status of most of these species was unknown. There had been the occasional scientific collector from a museum who had collected specimens, but there been no widespread, detailed surveys post the Second World War. It wasn’t really until the advent of four-wheel drive vehicles, which didn’t happen until the mid- to late 1960s, that you could traverse most of this country because it’s pretty remote and often sandy. It was really like mounting a major expedition just to go there.

So we set out in the mid-1970s to have a look at the biodiversity values of some of the prospective areas which we were hoping would be declared as national parks and nature reserves. We found that all of the larger mammals, except the large kangaroos, the species that we call in Australia medium-sized mammals, were missing. At the same time, we started to discover species of mammals which hadn’t been collected for 30 or 40 years. But they were small ones, mostly less than 30 grams in body weight.

From that time, my colleagues and I worked with Aboriginal people in the desert who have incredible knowledge of their country. We commenced oral history research with these people, and they were very generous in sharing their knowledge. We spoke to many people who had lived as nomads in their younger years and were still very familiar with the country. We were able to show them museum specimens of some of the mammals that had lived in their country and that we hoped to still find in country, and asked them what they knew about them and whether they were still around. From that we learned an incredible amount about what species had occurred in the country and what their current status was and when they had disappeared.

An example is the Central Hare-wallaby They were called hare-wallabies because they behaved somewhat like hares. They crouched in thickets of vegetation and when you approached them on foot, they would explode from under your feet, rather like a hare does, and hop very rapidly away. There is one specimen of a skull of this species in a museum in the SouthAustralianMuseum which was collected in 1932. That’s the total scientific collections of this animal.  We talked to a lot of people who knew this animal well and could describe it in detail. They told us that it had survived until about 1960.

This was not an uncommon story. A lot of the mammals which were out there became extinct in the 1950s and 60s. In Australia, we even know of two species of mammal which were alive at European settlement but which are only known from subfossil collections in museums. They’ve never been collected alive. This is a reflection of two things. First, Australia is a large country, and there was very little scientific collecting for a long time in the more remote parts of our country. Second, we had this crash in our mammals that took place mainly during the first half of the 20th century when there were very few people out there making observations. We’ve had a dramatic decline in a lot of our mammals.

On the mainland of Australia, we’ve lost 30 species of mammals. Eight of those have survived on offshore islands around the coastline of Australia. We also have a number of species of mammals which are highly endangered on mainland Australia, but have secure populations on islands. That’s what got me so interested in island management.

Are there any plans to reintroduce some of those eight surviving species on offshore islands back onto the mainland?

Yes, there has been a lot of work in this regard over the last 15-20 years with a whole range of projects around the country. In very simple terms, most of these species have only survived when reintroduced to the mainland if they are behind predator-proof fences. By and large, efforts to reintroduce them to mainland areas where foxes and cats exist have failed. Even when fox and cat numbers have been reduced considerably, most reintroductions have still failed.

Your story of the central hare-wallaby speaks a lot about the value of traditional knowledge.

Traditional knowledge has been extremely valuable to wildlife and park managers- particularly to fire management, which is a major issue in Australia. Australia has been occupied by humans for at least 40 thousand years, probably 50 thousand. Humans have been here a long time, occupying the whole continent over that period of time. They have managed the country to maximize food production for a long period of time. The sort of management Aboriginal people have used on the country is something that park managers are now often trying to reinstate, particularly with regard to the use of fire.

Speaking of human habitation in Australia…I read that Christmas Island (nearly 2/3 of which is a national park) was uninhabited by humans until the late 19th century. What makes Christmas Island so special from an ecological perspective?

Christmas Island is an oceanic island which has been above the sea for at least five million years. It’s in the northern Indian Ocean, south of Java and northwest of Australia. It had no human habitation until very late in the 19th century when it was found to have significant deposits of phosphate. It was inhabited so the phosphate could be mined and exported for use in agriculture. It was originally run by one family, who brought in labor from Asia, so a lot of the population came from Malaysian and Chinese origins. It was a British Colony right up until after World War II. During the war, it was occupied by the Japanese. Immediately after the war, the island was part of the British colony of Singapore. When Singapore attained independence from Britain, the British asked Australia if they’d like to have Christmas Island. I think they thought it was just a bit too far away for them to do anything useful with it. It became an Australian external territory in 1958.

There are a lot of endemic plant and animal species on the island. There were five species of mammals, for example, which are endemic and did not occur anywhere else. A significant proportion of the land birds, reptiles and plants are endemic. If you get into the invertebrate levels, there is similar endemism.

Not only in terrestrial invertebrates like land crabs, but also among underground invertebrates. Christmas Island is famous for its underground fauna. There are a number of species that live completely underground, either in air cavities in caves or in the groundwater system – crustaceans, scorpions, insects, etc. This is not an uncommon phenomenon around the world, particularly in karst features. Australia has a number of areas of substantial karst geology and because Australia is such an ancient continent many species have established underground. It has been a very long time since we’ve had any major perturbations through ice or volcanic action. We also have several areas in mainland Australia with significant underground fauna. Christmas Island is one of the places around the world that has a whole range of unique things living in the groundwater and caves.

One endemic species on Christmas Island that has become world famous is the Christmas Island red crab. The vegetation on Christmas Island is dominated by rainforest. The rainforests are unusual in their structure because of these crabs. There are millions and millions of these crabs living in burrows on the forest floor, so they turn over the soil. They eat the leaves that fall off the trees and turn them into good quality fertilizer. They also eat most of the seedlings that germinate underneath the rainforest, so you have a rainforest system with very open, park-like areas underneath the canopy. The red crabs have to migrate annually to the ocean in order to reproduce. Around November, at the beginning of wet season, the whole population moves down to the ocean. They lay their eggs in the water and then walk back up the island. The eggs develop into larvae, of which, for a short time, there are billions in the water around the island. As they mature into what the locals call crablings, which are minute red crabs, they come back onto the shore and walk back up into the rainforest. When they find vacant areas, they establish there. The red crab migration is one of those amazing events of animal migration around the world.

What has happened on Christmas Island with the mining is that a significant amount of the rainforest has been destroyed. Perhaps more importantly, all sorts of exotic plants and animals have been introduced to the island. This has led to dramatic changes in the island’s biodiversity. Of the five mammal species I mentioned before, four are extinct. There’s only one endemic mammal species left on the island this year- the Christmas Island flying fox – and that seems to be declining. Of the six species of endemic reptiles, five are critically endangered. It’s not a very happy story at the moment. This is all being driven by invasive species. The biggest problem at the moment is ants. There are more than 40 species of ants that have been introduced, probably in potted plants and food. One of these ants is the yellow crazy ant.

What has happened on Christmas Island is that scale insects have also been introduced, probably on fruit trees. Scale insects have started to go into outbreak on the rainforest trees, and they produce honeydew. Yellow crazy ants harvest the honeydew and rapidly increase in numbers developing what is called super-colony outbreaks. You’d have to see the density of the ants to believe it. They kill everything inside the super-colony area, including the red crabs. Rather than biting, yellow crazy ants spray formic acid. There are so many of them, they kill all the red crabs in the super-colony area. When the red crabs move down to the coast and come back up again during migration, all crabs that move through one of these super-colonies are killed. When the crablings move from the ocean to come back up the island, they also get killed by the crazy ants. The end result is that we are starting to lose the red crabs from the island. There are now significant areas of the island where there are no red crabs. Because of that, the whole structure of the rainforest ecosystem is changing. Crazy ant outbreaks are probably also responsible for the decline in the native reptile fauna and the extinction of a bat, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, only last year.

How would the ants have been responsible for the extinction of the Pipistrelle?

It’s not entirely clear. The bats roost in the rainforest trees. The ants climb up and down the tree trunks and branches to harvest the honeydew from the scale insects in the canopy. Anything the ants come across, when they are in high density, they spray with formic acid. That’s the first problem. At the same time, the ants protect the scale insects from predators and competitors. So the ants are killing caterpillars and other insects that are normally in the canopy. . Caterpillars are getting killed, so they’re not turning into moths, which were a significant food for the bat. As far as we can tell, the major cause of the extinction of the bats has been the crazy ants. The ants and the scale insects present a classic case of mutualism, where species depend upon each other and increase in number because of that interdependence.

Unlike most national parks in Australia, which are managed by State or Territory government, Christmas Island is managed by the Commonwealth. You were working with the Commonwealth government on the management of Christmas Island. Can you tell us about this work?

Under our constitution, land management is primarily the responsibility of the States. The Commonwealth is responsible for land management in the territories, and Christmas Island is an external territory of Australia. Things got so dire on Christmas Island that the Commonwealth set up an independent group of people to advise them on what should be done to better manage the island’s biodiversity. I was asked to be a member of that group.

So what should be done, or what is being done, to better manage the island?

The Parks Service has done a lot of work to try and control the ant super-colonies. There’s not an easy, straight forward method for that. There are poisons which work effectively, but those toxins also are damaging to other native animals and to the environment, so they can not be used widely. It has been a very difficult issue. They are just starting to look at biological control of the scale, which we think is a key response that should be taken because the ants are going to continue to go into super-colony outbreak as long as the scale are present. It’s only by dealing with the scale insects that the problem will be solved.

Are you seeing any positive effect in applying that approach?

Research into biological control is only just starting now. It’s too early to say whether or not that is going to be effective.

Under the Australian Constitution, the management of most national parks and equivalent reserves is the responsibility of State and Territory governments. Only 15 parks and reserves are administered by the Commonwealth government. How does this management structure affect overall ecosystem protection and restoration throughout the parks?

That’s been the normal system in Australia since it was settled by Europeans. We had a number of individual colonies in Australia which each developed independence from the UK one after the other and operated under some control from Britain up until 1901 when we federated and formed the Commonwealth of Australia. So right from the earliest days, land allocation, management and ownership was all controlled by the colonial governments and then by the states. That’s been the norm. The federal government has really only come into conservation in the last 20 years or so. Prior to that, there was practically no involvement by the federal government in conservation issues in Australia. It was entirely state run. The states have much bigger parks and reserve systems than the federal government does. They’ve had a much longer history. The structure doesn’t make it more challenging or less challenging. It’s just the way it’s been and it’s the way it runs. It has been effective.

The Australian government has declared 15 areas within the country to be “biodiversity hot spots,” meaning they support natural ecosystems that are largely intact, with native species well represented and they have a high diversity of locally endemic species. More than half of these hotspots are in Western Australia. Tell us about one of your favorites.

The southwest of Western Australia is a global, megadiversity hotspot. There are three Mediterranean ecosystems in the world which have very high species diversity in plants: South Africa, Southern California and Southwest Australia. They are all considered to be global biodiversity hotspots. South Africa has the largest number of endemic species of vascular plants, followed by Southwest Australia and then Southern California.

In the Southwest of Australia, we have roughly eight to ten thousand species and subspecies of vascular plants-80% of which occur nowhere else. Many of them have spectacular flowers. Some of the genera we have here are very high in species diversity. For example, we have one species of terrestrial orchid with 120 species in that genus. There’s one species of Proteaceae called Banksia, which has about 150 species in the genus. Banksia is named after Joseph Banks, the botanist on Captain Cooke’s voyage of exploration to Australia in 1770.

So the Southwest of Western Australia has this incredible plant species diversity. There’s very high species richness in the Fitzgerald River National Park. That park has over 1,800 species of vascular plants-about 60 of which occur nowhere else.  This is not uncommon in other areas of southwestern Australia. You can get 2,000-hectare reserves which have more than 500 species of vascular plants in them.

One national park where I have done a lot of work is Lesueur National Park, located north of Perth. This park has over 900 species of vascular plants in an area of about 25,000 hectares. While these two national parks, plus StirlingRangeNational Park, have very high number of species of vascular plants, many smaller parks and reserves in the southwest also have high numbers of flora species.

Another area is the Kimberley, is the northern tip of Western Australia. It has a monsoonal tropical climate. We’ve got what we call the wet/dry tropics up there. There is a distinct wet season from December through March, and then a distinct dry season from April through October. In parts of the Kimberly, rainfall exceeds 1,500 mm and that falls in three months. In that high rainfall part of the Kimberley, we have a lot of small patches of tropical rainforest, major river systems (most of which are still wild), an extensive coastline with a lot of mangroves and that’s the only part of Western Australia where we have fully intact ecosystems where all the mammals are still present. I have worked up there on and off since the early 1970s. My colleagues and I established a series of biological surveys in that high rainfall part of the Kimberly which was very poorly known then. We have been able to get a pretty good idea of what species of animals and plants occur up there. We are still describing species in the Kimberly at a rapid rate, particularly plants and invertebrates, but also vertebrates such as reptiles. Last year, two new species of frogs from the Kimberley were described.

Are there other parks or other unprotected areas that should be considered biodiversity hotspots?

There are a lot of areas in Western Australia-and Australia as a whole-that require protection. Our protected areas system is still a developing one. There are three movements to expand the protected areas system at the moment. One is through the State governments declaring land areas which are owned by the States or in some cases purchasing land for declaration as parks. Second, there are a number of private groups which are buying land back from private ownership for declaration in the same way The Nature Conservancy does this in the U.S. There are a number of groups in Australia doing this, such as Australian Bush Heritage and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is active in Australia supporting some of these groups. The third main stream is what’s called Indigenous Protected Areas. This is where we have Aboriginal-owned land which the Aboriginal people want to declare as conservation areas. They want to retain ownership and management, but get help from governments and universities to try to manage the land better for conservation purposes. So those three streams are still moving the national park and reserve system forward in Australia.

Some of Australia’s national parks have become World Heritage Areas, such as Purnululu National Park. This means they are deemed to have “outstanding universal value.” Have you worked in any of these parks? If so, tell us about them.

There are two such areas in Western Australia. Purnululu and Shark Bay.  I have worked at SharkBay in two major areas. One was with endangered mammals. There are two islands in SharkBay that have five species of mammals on them which became extinct on the mainland. They both have been declared nature reserves and their management is a high priority. One of the things I was involved in was removing goats from one of these islands. Goats were introduced on the island before it was made a nature reserve and they were eating out the island at a rapid rate. I was involved initially in control, and then eradication of the goats.

My other work on SharkBay involved sea birds. I was involved in documenting which islands in SharkBay are used by which species of sea birds in an effort to improve the protected status of the islands. The Bridled Tern breeds on 10 or so islands in Shark Bay, while the Australian Pelican breeds on one island. There are 15 species of sea birds that breed at Shark Bay.

As someone from an island nation, I imagine you have some strong thoughts about the oil spill.

We’ve had our own major oil spill, not very long ago. We had the Montara spill event in the Timor Sea. It was a similar event to what you’ve had in the Gulf of Mexico where a company was drilling a well, there was a blow out, the safety systems failed and the oil had gushed into the ocean for a long period of time. It was only stopped when they drilled an intercept well, which took two to three months. There are a lot of similarities to what happened in the Gulf, but the depth of the ocean wasn’t so great. The amount of oil that actually spilled in the Gulf of Mexico has now way exceeded what we had in the Timor Sea.

My understanding is that oil drilling in Australia is much better regulated than it is in the U.S., but notwithstanding that, we still had this failure. It was an oil well that was in federal waters and it was a long way from Canberra. (Some people thought that was part of the problem.) The government has set up an inquiry into the causes of that and whether the regulations can be improved to stop something like that from happening again.

Fortunately, none of this oil came ashore in Australia. A little bit came ashore in Indonesia. There has been a significant loss of fishing grounds in Indonesia. There was a lot of damage to high seas species like dolphins, turtles, sea birds and many fish.

Many of our readers are actively engaged in conservation planning and ecological restoration/regenerative design. Are there any powerful success stories or “lessons learned” involving ecosystem protection/restoration on Australian national parks that you can share with our readers?

We certainly have some success stories. In terms of the mammal situation, which I discussed earlier, there’s a major program we’ve been running in Western Australia called Western Shield. It involves controlling foxes and managing mammal populations, including reintroduction of mammal populations. The foxes are controlled with poison baiting, most of which is applied from aircraft. The toxin that is used is 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate). If you Google 1080, you’ll find that lots of people are opposed to its use, partly because it affects other animals apart from the target species. The advantage we have in the Southwest is that 1080 occurs naturally in one plant genus, Gastrolobium. Our native fauna has co-evolved with this chemical, so they are highly resistant to it. It actually can be used as a selective poison here and it is extremely effective on foxes without affecting the native animals at all.  This program developed after a lot of research into both the causes of decline of the mammals and the possible effects of this toxin. It has been a pretty successful program. We bait about 3.5 million hectares (about 8.5 million acres) of conservation lands-national parks, nature reserves and state forests-in the Southwest. A lot of work is going on to monitor the native mammals we’re trying to protect and to refine the program.

Another success story is the Noisy Scrub-bird, which was thought to be extinct for a long time but was rediscovered in the 1960s. When it was rediscovered, there was one population of about 35-40 pairs in a very small area. The area was declared a nature reserve and research started on the bird. That culminated in a series of translocations to sites where the bird formerly occurred and to an island offshore where it had never occurred (as far as we know). So we have gone from that one population to eight populations of more than 700 pairs. This involved scientists working on the bird itself, its habitat requirements and food. It involved park managers and a lot of volunteers.

Would you attribute the success to the fact that it was such a collaborative effort?

That is certainly part of the reason it has been such a success.

What about a case where useful knowledge was gained from a failure?

We’ve had failures with attempts to reintroduce mammals back to arid parts of Australia. They have failed, but from that we have learned just how critical it is to not have any cats in areas where you want to reintroduce mammals from islands. There was a belief that if you were to reduce cats to quite low densities, that would be sufficient [for mammal reintroduction to succeed] but in most cases, it has been shown that you can’t even have one cat left. They learn. They switch onto the reintroduced mammal and they just stick with it until they take them all out.

Are there particular nations that you regard as leaders in terms of the protection, enhancement and restoration of ecological integrity of their park land?

There are a lot of nations around the world now which have good, well-managed and developing national park systems. Your country [U.S.}, of course, founded the whole idea of national parks. We weren’t far behind. Six or seven years after Yellowstone was declared, the first national park in Australia was declared. It was pretty quick. That was near Sydney. Not long after that, the first national park in Western Australia was declared near Perth. The national park movement has been strong in Australia right from the early days, and it has spread around the world. The majority of nations have got national parks these days, haven’t they?

You recently co-wrote a book entitled “Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change.” Can you give me a brief description of this book and let our readers know how they can purchase it?

In Australia, we have the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council which consists of the federal and each State’s ministers for conservation. They asked for a group to be set up in Australia to report back to them on what the effect of climate change might be on Australia’s biodiversity. I was asked to be a member of that group.

We produced three products. One is a book. The second was a 50-page technical summary. The third was a short summary for policymakers.  The technical summary and summary for policymakers can be downloaded free.

We looked at climate change very much as a threat that is compounding and interacting with all the threats to biodiversity we already have in Australia. I haven’t talked about land clearing in any detail, but we’ve cleared a lot of land for agricultural use. We’ve also got very large areas where we have open range grazing, which has led to land degradation and loss of species. I have talked about invasive species. Those major threats are already with us and are proving very difficult to manage.

Climate change is going to come in on top of those threats and has to be seen in that context. We are already seeing significant changes in rainfall in southern Australia. In the Southwest where I live, we have had a 20% reduction in rainfall over the last 25-30 years. We have had increasing incidence of very hot summer wildfires. We had a major wildfire in Southeast Australia in Victoria about a year and a half ago, which resulted in a massive loss of life. That occurred on a day when the temperature and wind conditions were extreme. We seem to be getting more of those days. Climate scientists are telling us that those sorts of things are going to be more common.

Rainfall across the whole of southern Australia is declining, and rainfall in the far north of Australia is either static or is slowly increasing. On top of that we’re seeing temperature increases as well. We’re seeing the sorts of things you see elsewhere in the world: changes in distribution of species, changes in arrival and departure dates of migrants, changes in ocean temperatures and tropical species moving farther south. We’re getting increased coral bleaching events in places like the Great Barrier Reef, where the ocean temperature is getting too high for the coral to survive. We’re getting salt water inundation into some freshwater coastal wetlands. Those are just a few of the things that are happening.

The general conclusion we reached is that if the world doesn’t agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions considerably over the next few years, we’re going to see very significant problems in Australia with biodiversity conservation.

What has the reaction been to your book and report? Has it prompted any movement toward policy change?

Unfortunately, the Australian government and the major opposition party have both pulled back from doing anything substantial about greenhouse gas mitigation. Pre-Copenhagen, the opposition conservative party was opposed to any action on climate change, whereas the government was trying to do something about it. Post-Copenhagen, the government has pulled back from active climate change mitigation. As far as responding to climate change is concerned, we are very backward.

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