A couple of months ago I travelled to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s top end to join a team of ecologists monitoring mammal numbers in the park. I was there to report for Science [paywall] on why many of northern Australia’s small mammals are in precipitous decline, despite being in an area of largely intact tracts of vegetation. Tellingly, in the time I was there, and the 2 weeks that followed, just 3 small mammals were trapped. In the late 1980s, 30-40 per night would have been the norm.
The declines aren’t just occurring in Kakadu — right across Australia’s north, quolls, bandicoots, and native rodents are facing almost inevitable extinction unless the causes for their falling numbers are identified and addressed. The key culprits, it turns out, are feral cats and poor fire management.
In northern Australia, mammal populations are in free fall. Over the past 2 decades, scientists have documented sharp declines in quolls, bandicoots, and other native fauna. The plight of these animals has grown so desperate that in July, the Australian government appointed the nation’s first threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, a Department of the Environment staffer now tasked with devising broad approaches to stem the tide of extinctions. The solutions are not obvious, but mounting evidence points to the arch villain: feral cats, aided and abetted by fire. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy estimates that every day in Australia, an astounding 75 million animals fall prey to roughly 15 million feral cats.
Globally, fourteen percent of land is tied up in protected areas — national parks, nature reserves and the like — ostensibly to protect the world’s dwindling biodiversity. But how effective are these areas at actually preventing extinctions? Not very, according to a landmark study a decade ago that showed only a paltry 11% of threatened birds, mammals and amphibians were adequately protected. One fifth of the species weren’t found anywhere in network.
A decade on, protected areas have expanded, but a new study shows that the situation for the world’s most vulnerable species remains poor — many are still missing out.
So, what can we do? The new analysis suggests a way forward. By calculating the value of setting aside different packets of land, they found that instead of setting aside the cheapest land available — as mostly happens now — a slightly larger investment could improve the protected area network drastically.
I wrote about this study for Cosmos Magazine, so check out the full article here.
There’s an old video clip that many Australians are familiar with. In black and white, the last known thylacine – or Tasmanian tiger – quietly paces about its caged enclosure, reclines in the sun, yawns at the camera.The footage was recorded in 1933 at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, and serves as an eerie reminder of just how final extinction is.
In her latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert takes us on a global tour of extinction, in all its finality, as well as while it is happening before our eyes. The focus of the book is the latest, human-induced wave of destruction creeping around the globe, but Kolbert has widened her investigative lens to enlighten us about the processes behind extinction, as much as its victims. Disparate tales of species collapse are united by an unflinching exploration of the science – and the scientists – dedicated to understanding their demise. Continue reading “Book review: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert”→