On Monday the United Nations put the world's leaders on notice over catastrophic global declines in nature, noting that "if we do not act now, millions of threatened species will become as extinct as the dodo". Australia must acknowledge its role as a global leader in extinction. We have the tools to end our extinction epidemic, but our politicians must act now to bring in and enforce strong nature laws to end the grim legacy of loss.
The UN's 2019 Global Assessment into the state of biodiversity found that the current rate of extinction could fundamentally impact global life support systems such as water exchange, nutrient cycling and climate. The report particularly singled out changes in land use like deforestation as the top threat to biodiversity globally. The authors of the report hope it will be a wake-up call that drives home the true extent of the extinction crisis we're in and the danger it poses to humanity.
Australia cannot avoid taking its fair share of the blame for this crisis. After all, we're a world leader in both extinction and deforestation.
Partly this is because we are a world leader in biodiversity. Australia is one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries: about 10 per cent of all species on earth occur in Australia. And most of these species occur only in Australia. Nearly 50 per cent of all our birds, 87 per cent of all our mammals, and a whopping 93 per cent of all our flowering plants are unique to us.
Our nature is magnificent, is rightly treasured by Australians and looked to by the rest of the world as unique. Yet Australia has one of the world's worst records for extinction and protection of animal species. One in three of all global mammal extinctions in the last 200 years have happened in Australia and we're ranked fourth in the world for overall plant and animal extinctions. We're also the only developed country in the world with a deforestation front.
Any Australian watching the grainy black and white footage of Benjamin, the last Tasmanian Tiger, in his cage at Hobart Zoo will feel a deep twinge of sadness and loss. In a tragic analogy for how Australia treats its endangered species, Benjamin died in 1936 just 59 days after the Tasmanian government brought in official protections for the species.
Yet Australia's extinction crisis not just is a thing of the past. We've failed to meet all our international obligations around protection of species and their habitats, and Australia was recently ranked second in the world for ongoing biodiversity loss after Indonesia.
We have lost three unique Australian species in the last decade, each a tragic echo of the Tasmanian tiger, with governments acting too little and too late to prevent extinctions that could have been avoided with proper protection and adequate funding.
A recent study found that our normal rate of extinction is likely to increase with a potential 17 extinctions over the next 20 years. Of our state and territory faunal emblems, four are listed as threatened (including the koala), with one critically endangered (the Leadbeater's possum). The koala and Leadbeater's possum, in particular, are candidates for extinction in 30 years if nothing changes, with loss of habitat the key issue driving them towards oblivion.
We have the scientific know how and capability to end this crisis. The problem lies with our governments. A recent Senate inquiry found our national environment law is incapable of stopping our extinction crisis and successive governments have put ending extinction and protecting their habitat in the too hard basket.
Yet we know strong laws and independent enforcement work to save species. In the United States, a comparable large megadiverse country, the US Endangered Species Act has to date saved more than 227 of species from extinction. In fact, a total of 39 species have been fully recovered under these protections.
By contrast, Australia's threatened species list is a graveyard - only one species has ever come off because of conservation action.
The US law works in part because it protects the endangered species' habitat. By contrast, Australia's law does not protect the most critical habitat for endangered species or stop major threats like deforestation, and protections in the act are rarely applied. An area of threatened species habitat larger than Tasmania has been destroyed since the EPBC was introduced in 2000.
Australia's threatened species list is a graveyard - only one species has ever come off because of conservation action.
The UN report is a wake-up call to Australia. This current federal election provides a key opportunity for voters to choose a party that will overhaul our second-rate, outdated laws and end the political apathy killing our species. And beyond the election, we must hold our leaders to account for every extinction that happens on their watch.
Extinction is a choice. As a developed country that plays home to 10 per cent of the world's biodiversity, much of it unique and irreplaceable, we should aim to be a world leader in conservation. We should strive for our wildlife to thrive, not just survive.
If we let our unique species be lost forever, we are failing not just our obligations to the world, but our obligations to our children to leave them a world where they can see a koala in a tree, not just the history books.
- Suzanne Milthorpe is national nature campaign manager at The Wilderness Society.