Biolinks No. 4
Department of the Arts, Sport, the Environment, and Territories - January 1993
ISSN 1037 4434
Following intensive international negotiations, the Convention on Biological Diversity was finalised on 22 May and opened for signature at UNCED (see below) in June 1992.
Mrs Ros Kelly, the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, signed the Convention on behalf of Australia on World Environment Day during UNCED. She called the Convention the most significant development in the field of conservation and sustainable use of living resources in a generation. Australia played a leading role in the development of the Convention and was instrumental in influencing the final shape of many of its articles.
Over 154 countries signed the Convention at UNCED, the greatest number of signatures obtained at any one time for an international convention. This indicates considerable international support for global action to halt the alarming rate of loss of biological diversity worldwide.
The Convention will only enter into force after it has been ratified by thirty countries. To date six countries have ratified, and others are expected to ratify shortly.
The Prime Minister announced in his December 1992 Statement on the Environment that the Government will ratify the Convention early in 1993 following consultation with the States and Territories.
At UNCED, Mrs Kelly stated that Australia considered the Convention was critical because we must hand over to our children a planet in as good a shape as now, if not better, and, as Australia is the only developed megadiverse country, we have a major responsibility to conserve our biological diversity.
The primary aim of the Convention is the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of biological resources and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.
The Convention addresses the full range of biological diversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels in all environments and has global coverage, encompassing areas within the limits of national jurisdiction and the "global commons".
Key measures contained in the Convention include:
- identification and monitoring of important components of biological diversity
- establishment and management of protected areas
- sustainable management of biological resources both within and outside protected areas
- rehabilitation and restoration of degraded ecosystems
- recovery of threatened species
- control of alien species
- control of threatening processes and activities
- involvement of indigenous and local communities and sustainable customary use of biological resources
- protection of threatened species
- ex-situ conservation measures
- research and training.
The Convention provides a range of assistance measures particularly for developing countries, including funding, transfer of technology, information exchange, co-operation in research and training, and scientific and technical co-operation, while at the same time protecting the interests of developed countries in these areas.
In addition to direct measures, the Convention contains provisions which would create conditions and incentives that favour the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, for example: integration of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programs and policies; incentive measures; public education and awareness; and sharing (on mutually agreed terms) of benefits of biotechnologies with countries providing genetic resources on which those technologies are based.
The main implementation measure is through the development of national strategies, plans or programs.
The Commonwealth Government is currently examining the Convention to determine the implications of ratifying it and the manner in which it would be implemented. This process involves consultation with State and Territory Governments and other relevant organisations.
On the 4 November 1992, the Government introduced the Endangered Species Protection Bill 1992 into the House of Representatives. The Bill was a result of the Government's commitment in March 1990 to consider the enactment of endangered species legislation. The Bill was passed with some minor amendments by the Senate on 3 December 1992. The amendments were passed by the House of Representatives on 16 December. The Bill was assented to on the 21 December.
Such legislation was proposed in An Australian National Strategy for the Conservation of Species and Habitats Threatened with Extinction: draft for public comment which was released in 1989. In April 1991, the Endangered Species Advisory Committee provided Mrs Ros Kelly, the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, with an options paper on endangered species legislation.
The Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 now reflects the extensive consultation which was undertaken with all relevant interest groups including industry, conservation organisations and the States and Territories during the development of the legislation. The Act was adjusted to take account of legitimate concerns raised during consultation, while still maintaining the integrity of the legislation.
The Act provides a framework for the protection of endangered and vulnerable species and ecological communities by:
- promoting the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable;
- preventing other species from becoming endangered;
- reducing conflict in land management through readily understood mechanisms relating to the conservation of species and ecological communities that are endangered;
- providing for public involvement in, and promoting an understanding of, the conservation of such species and ecological communities and
- encouraging co-operative management for the conservation of such species and ecological communities.
The legislation adopts a proactive and co-operative approach. it will continue the co-operation between the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments for the recovery and protection of the Endangered Species Program administered by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The Prime Minister announced in his December 1992 Statement on the Environment that the Government will provide an additional $2.9 million over the next four years to ensure efficient administration of the Endangered Species Protection Act.
In early 1991, Mrs Ros Kelly, the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, established the Biological Diversity Advisory Committee (BDAC). It included scientists, representatives from State conservation agencies, and from conservation and agricultural organisations. In May 1992, membership of BDAC was expanded to include representatives of the forestry, tourism, mining and fishing industries.
The Committee was required to prepare, amongst other things, a draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity. The draft Strategy was made available for public comment from March to May 1992 and was discussed at a national Fenner Environment Conference titled, 'Biological Diversity: Its Future Conservation in Australia-. Over 170 written submissions were received from a wide range of interests during the public consultation phase (see below). The draft National Strategy was subsequently revised by BDAC in light of the submissions received.
The revised draft National Strategy identifies six target areas for action. These are:
- strengthening conservation. Current policies and programs for conserving components of biological diversity are not sufficient by themselves; new management approaches and increased co-operation are needed. Activities recommended include managing biological diversity on a regional basis; providing incentives to landholders for conservation; establishment of a comprehensive and viable protected area system; and protection of threatened biological diversity, including through ex situ means
- achieving ecologically sustainable use. The long-term viability of Australia's primary industries is dependent on the maintenance of biological diversity, and much of Australia's biological diversity occurs in areas used for productive purposes. Actions recommended include the development and implementation of national integrated policies for the ecologically sustainable use of biological resources; management plans for harvested species; and control over genetic resources.
- managing threats. The major threats to biological diversity need to be controlled and their impacts minimised. Actions recommended include control over the introduction and spread of alien species, including promoting the use of local species in rehabilitation projects; pollution control and monitoring; research into the impacts of fire; and planning for climate change.
- improving our knowledge. An adequate understanding of biological diversity is essential for its effective long-term conservation and management. Actions recommended include developing new rapid assessment methodologies; compiling and making readily available existing knowledge; recognising the value of traditional Aboriginal knowledge; monitoring of changes; and increased training.
- engaging community involvement. Individuals and groups in the community have an important role to play in the conservation of biological diversity. The Strategy recommends increasing the availability of relevant information; expanding biological diversity studies in educational curricula; and increasing public involvement in planning, research and management.
- promoting international action. Australia needs to conserve its biological diversity as part of a global conservation effort, and Australians should act so as to not threaten the biological diversity of other countries or areas. Actions recommended include ensuring that Australia's trade and aid programs are consistent with biological diversity conservation; and that relevant-international agreements are fully implemented.
The next steps
The draft National Strategy has now been presented to Mrs Kelly for her consideration. The Minister has sought further consultation with the States and Territories, and other Commonwealth interests. This process is still underway.
An Action Plan to complement the Strategy is currently being finalised. It sets priorities and estimates the cost of actions to conserve biological diversity contained in the Strategy.
In addition, a resource document is being prepared which outlines the significance and current status of Australia's biological diversity, the threats to its conservation and the adequacy of existing measures to conserve our biological diversity.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED or the Earth Summit) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3 to 14 June 1992.
The final three days were attended by Heads of Government and Heads of State from over 100 of the participating countries and included formal sessions convened to adopt a range of documents prepared for the Conference.
More than two years of intensive preparations involving most arms of the UN system, other international agencies and the combined efforts of all national governments resulted in the most thorough high level review of environment and development issues ever undertaken.
More than 150 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention on Climate Change was ratified by Australia on 31 December 1992.
Other major documents emerging from the Summit were:
- The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which contains a set of 27 principles to guide the achievement of global sustainable development;
- Agenda 21, a comprehensive, non-binding plan of action on which the international community will base programs and projects to address the most pressing problems of environmental degradation and human development into the next century. Agenda 21 runs to over 500 pages and is divided into 40 chapters addressing issues as diverse as poverty, population policies, trade and economic policies, conservation of biological diversity, protection of the atmosphere, the management of biotechnology, hazardous wastes, desertification, technology transfer, institutional follow-up and funding;
- A Statement of Forest Principles, which contains the global consensus on measures necessary to ensure the sustainable development, management and conservation of all types of forests.
While the latter three documents are non-binding in the legal sense, the political commitment to them is strong and countries have agreed that each will be followed-up and monitored through a new Sustainable Development Commission to be established as soon as possible under the wing of the UN's Economic and Social Commission.
UNCED provides an international reference point for national efforts. It, along with all the other aspects of international environmental law will help to ensure that a high level of environmental protection can continue to evolve in all countries.
The Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, in consultation with the Prime Minister and her Ministerial colleagues, will be ensuring that Australia continues its active involvement in international environment initiatives and takes appropriate action to follow up the results of UNCED both in Australia and internationally.
The draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity was released for public comment on 7 March 1992.
A total of I79 submissions were received, the majority of which were generally supportive of the Strategy: only 8% argued against the need for a strategy.
The issues covered by the submissions were diverse. Academics (19 submissions) were able to provide input on the scientific veracity of the issues raised in the document, amounting to a virtual peer review of the draft Strategy. Submissions received from industry (14 submissions) and professional groups (15 submissions) considered the Strategy from the perspective of the on-ground practitioner, at the nexus of biological diversity conservation and production interests. Meanwhile submissions from Commonwealth government (11 submissions), State/Territory government (28 submissions) and Local government (4 submissions) were able to provide an administrative/policy overview of the issues addressed in the Strategy, providing local, sectoral and intersectoral perspectives.
Comments from conservation organisations (44 submissions) and other community groups (4 submissions) ranged from grassroots local concerns through to the scientific arguments and national perspectives of the peak bodies. Submissions from individuals (28 submissions) covered the wide-ranging views of those who are not necessarily aligned with any advocacy group but who nonetheless were able to provide important and useful contributions and insights.
The public consultation phase was a crucial element in the development of the draft national Strategy. The Biological Diversity Advisory Committee was able to take into consideration the wide ranging views expressed in the public submissions when finalising its work on the Strategy.
A follow-up document is planned which will summarise the views expressed in each of the 179 submissions.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts has released a report on its inquiry into the extent to which Commonwealth assisted community-based programs contribute to the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems. The programs included Save the Bush (STB), One Billion Trees (OBT), National Soil Conservation Program (NSCP), and the Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resources Management Strategy (NRMS).
The STB Program is seen as being cost efficient in that most of the funds actually go to 'on the ground' projects and it aims to conserve remaining biological diversity, rather than funding costly rehabilitation. There was strong support for the STB program as the value to rural producers that remnant bush affords as shelter, windbreaks, nutrient sinks and in assisting water table balance, as well as preserving the natural qualities of the environment, was recognised.
The Committee concluded that the preparation of regional vegetation management plans would provide direction for the implementation of STB and OBT projects at a local community level. Small community projects would then be able to make an even greater contribution, both at a local level and on an integrated regional scale. The increasing need for, and value of, a regional approach which enables local community action to be an effective part of biological diversity goals over a broad region has become apparent.
The Committee found that OBT program delivery depends on community participation which favours the development of projects around centres of population. However, areas requiring revegetation may be situated well away from urban or rural population centres. This points to the need for regional vegetation plans and the use of the work force and skills available through the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers (ATCV) and jobskills programs to meet biological diversity objectives across the continent.
The Committee considered that the OBT program has the potential to make a substantial contribution to the maintenance of biological diversity and ecological processes, particularly if it plays a complementary role to the STB program in providing buffer zones around remnants as well as linkages through the rehabilitation and revegetation of wildlife corridors. Raising public awareness is recognised by the Committee as a vital aspect of the OBT program.
The NSCP mainly provides seed money or funds for on-farm demonstrations, field days and whole farm planning. The Committee believes that the effectiveness of such projects needs to be monitored, particularly in the case of corporate landholdings. The Committee felt that greater flexibility and other project options might be useful in these circumstances and might have greater value in maintaining biological diversity.
The Committee recommended that the NRMS be revised and refocussed to contain specific objectives for the maintenance of biological diversity and ecosystem processes, and for aboriginal culture and natural heritage.
The Committee concluded that a strategic, bioregional approach to the planning and management of all natural resource programs and individual projects is needed across the entire continent. It recommended that a national network of facilitators/extension officers based in local regions be set up.
The Committee recommended that all four programs make the maintenance of biological diversity and ecosystem processes their principle objective and that they increase co-ordination and integration so that all the programs are complementary and are implemented as part of a whole ecosystem, bioregional strategy.
The Committee recommended that projects be funded on a 3 to 5 year basis to enhance community effectiveness and enthusiasm to address biological diversity objectives, but also to allow for the strategic planning of long-term public education and awareness programs.
The conclusion of the Committee was that there is considerable scope for enabling greater access and support for Aboriginal land management and for proving greater support for land management programs specifically developed by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal communities.
Finally the Committee recommended that a Commonwealth funded community-based program that focuses on the maintenance of biological diversity and ecological processes in the maritime and coastal environment be developed and implemented. A Government response to the Committee's report is currently being prepared.
The Committee has received a further direction to inquire into the adequacy of Australia's current system of terrestrial parks and reserves to sustain biological diversity and adaptive evolutionary processes. The Committee is expected to report in January 1993.
Harry F. Recher, University of New England, Armidale
In the 200 years of European settlement of the Australian continent, only three landbirds, the Paradise Parrot and two island forms of the Emu, have gone to extinction. Twenty-one others were listed by the then Council of Conservation Ministers (CONCOM – now ANZECC, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council) as endangered. This is a much smaller proportion of the 575 species of Australia's land and freshwater birds than of mammals. Of the 250 or so species of Australian mammals, ANZECC lists 21 species as extinct and 21 species as endangered. Other lists put the numbers of endangered and threatened species much higher, but the relative proportions of birds and mammals remain similar. The impact of European settlement has been much more severe on mammals than on birds. Or, has it?
In many respects our knowledge of the status of Australian birds is much poorer than of mammals. The uniqueness of Australia's marsupial fauna, the obvious loss of species and the dominating personalities of key individuals at Australian universities produced a generation of Australian biologists committed to the study of native mammals. In comparison the study of Australian birds has been slow to develop. It is only in the last 10 years that the Royal Australasian Ornithologist's Union (RAOU) through its Atlas program and the current Australian Bird Count project has begun to put together information on the distribution and abundance of birds throughout Australia. The pattern of movements, seasonal changes in behaviour and habitat requirements of most Australian birds remain unknown.
Quite apart from the lack of information, there is another reason why birds might appear less threatened by humans than mammals. Birds are everywhere. They wake us up in the morning. They fill our fields and our forests, and are in our backyards and at school. Their songs are part of the nation's music. Birds are everywhere; loud, noisy, conspicuous, plain and spectacularly beautiful. It is hard to imagine a day without them. It is difficult to imagine that any are threatened, much less that whole parts of the avifauna are endangered.
Because birds are diurnal and conspicuous, most species are relatively easy to find. Usually all that is required is to visit the appropriate habitat or go to the spot where they were seen yesterday, or last week, or last year and with a little effort even the rarest species can be located. The abundance of common birds, particularly some of the more conspicuous such as kookaburras, magpies and silvereyes, and the ease of finding less common species creates the impression that, apart from a small number of rare species, there are few threats to the survival of the great majority of Australian birds. This impression is an illusion.
There is a growing body of evidence that the majority of bird species have declined in abundance and that a very large number of birds may be endangered. The decline in abundance has occurred across the continent, but has not yet resulted in the kinds of massive extinctions associated with Australia's mammal fauna for a few simple reasons. Firstly, birds are very mobile and, so long as there is suitable habitat, can fairly quickly recolonize areas where local populations have become extinct. Secondly, Australian birds, even quite small ones, tend to be long-lived and may persist in an area long after they have failed to reproduce successfully. Finally, small birds may require smaller areas of habitat than many mammals and can survive in a highly fragmented landscape whereas most mammals would succumb to predation or a shortage of resources. Despite their apparent capacity to persist in disturbed landscapes long after the native mammals have disappeared, the progressive extinction of local populations and the decline in numbers inevitably leads to regional extinctions, and ultimately to the extinction of the species.
Although the decline in bird numbers and the loss of species throughout Australia has occurred rapidly in the sense that Europeans have only occupied the continent for a little over 200 years and many parts of Australia have been developed intensively in the last 40 or 50 years, the changes in the avifauna have largely escaped notice until recently. Kings Park in Perth is a perfect example. Counts of birds in Kings Park made by Dom Serventy in the 1920's and 30's showed about 40 species to be common. When those counts were repeated some 60 years later, there were still 40 species in the park. However, they were not the same birds. Nearly a third of the original species and most of the birds that foraged on the ground had become extinct or uncommon, while another third had greatly increased in abundance. The remaining species had not changed in abundance. Without Serventy's pioneering counts, it is likely that no one would have noticed the changes in the park's avifauna. After all, birds remained plentiful throughout the 60 years.
The kinds of changes recorded for Kings Park have now been reported from across Australia. For example, Doug Robinson has found that 93 of 188 species of birds from Victoria and adjacent parts of Victoria that were previously considered to be 'common' have either become locally extinct or have declined in abundance throughout the region. In the wheatbelt of Western Australia 60% of the avifauna has declined in abundance. In the Mt Lofty Ranges of South Australia only 90 of 116 species that were originally present in the region could be found during a survey in the mid-1970's. On the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales many birds, including finches, robins and honeyeaters, that were abundant 20 years ago are now scarce. Even in the Northern Territory, species, such as the Gouldian Finch, that were not recorded by ANZECC in its 1988 list, must now be considered endangered.
There is a common pattern to these changes in status. As with mammals, the greatest impact of European settlement has been on birds of the pastoral and agricultural regions of Australia. The birds of Australia's woodlands, mallee, grasslands, and semi-arid shrublands have been more affected than the birds of the moister forests and heaths of the coast fringes. The clearing and fragmentation of native vegetation, over-grazing by stock and rabbits, changed fire regimes, predation by foxes and cats, and competition or predation from native birds, such as Galahs, Noisy Miners and Pied Currawongs, that have benefited from human settlement are all contributing factors to the decline of the native avifauna. As Australia's human population grows and expands along the coast, and as the logging and management of forests becomes increasingly more intensive, declines in the avifauna of the coast and moist forests are inevitable.
There are other common patterns. Not all groups or kinds of birds have been affected equally. As in Kings Park, Perth, the birds that nest or forage on the ground or in low vegetation have been more seriously affected than birds which nest or feed in trees. It is not surprising, therefore, that seed-eating birds have been affected more than insect-eaters. Recent observations from New South Wales and South Australia suggest that many species of honeyeaters are declining in abundance as seasonally important sources of nectar are cleared for agriculture. Birds which require tree hollows or cavities for nesting have been affected more than species that place their nest in shrubs or on branches.
All of these changes are understandable. If we can accept the estimates that more than 50% of Australia's agricultural and pastoral lands suffer from some form of land and soil degradation affecting agricultural productivity, it should not be surprising that birds which nest on the ground and that are dependent on the soil and litter ecosystem for food will also be adversely affected. Clearing vegetation and over-grazing must inevitably deprive birds that feed on seeds and nectar of their food. As trees die of old age or are logged, there are fewer hollows and cavities for nesting birds. The fragmentation and isolation of native vegetation not only increases the risks of predation and intensifies competition for resources, but it prevents any but the most mobile species from recolonizing habitats where local extinctions have occurred.
The future for Australia's avifauna is not good. What we are now experiencing is the same pattern of decline and extinction that affected Australia's mammal fauna during the early part of this century. It has taken longer to happen for the avifauna and the changes have been largely hidden from our eyes, but it is happening. Unlike the mammals where extinction already prevents action to save many species, it is still not too late to prevent the wholesale loss of bird species. Better management of remnant native vegetation, restoration of degraded landscapes, conservation of mature trees and old growth forest,re- establishment of critical seed and nectar sources, and control of foxes, cats and some native birds are positive steps that can be taken to reverse the decline of Australia's avifauna. If action is taken now, few species will become extinct. Delay means the loss of a significant part of our avifauna and the extinctions that now characterize regions will typify the continent.
John Stuwe, Victorian Department of Conservation and Environment
Natural grasslands and grassy woodlands once covered over 30% of Victoria. They mostly occurred on the flat or gently undulating, relatively fertile plains of western and northern Victoria. These areas were also those most suited to pastoral use, being ready for immediate stocking. European pastoral settlement was rapid and thorough.
Many native grassland species are not adapted to heavy and prolonged stock grazing, the application of fertilisers, soil disturbances and other factors associated with agricultural development. Under such conditions they are readily out-competed by introduced pasture species and weeds. Replacement of native by introduced species and soil compaction were noted within a few years of European pastoral settlement.
Soldier settlement schemes involving the subdivision of large properties, intensive use of superphosphate fertiliser and sowing of introduced pasture species in the years following the second world war was the next round of rapid decline in native grasslands.
Native grasslands and grassy woodlands were reduced to usually small remnants in refugia such as railway reserves, roadsides, cemeteries and sections of properties which had escaped heavy and continuous grazing and pasture improvement. The small reserves had usually been burnt regularly to reduce biomass as a fuel reduction measure. This simulated a natural process and, combined with the lack of soil disturbances and stock grazing, lead to the persistence of grasslands and grassy woodlands which are probably similar to those existing prior to settlement by Europeans (no remnants have escaped some weed invasion and structural alterations and the pre-settlement structure and floristics are largely unknown).
The third jump in their decline is two-pronged and has been occurring over the last decade:
- Many of the high-quality smaller remnants have been destroyed. Fire prevention management of rail reserves changed a few years ago from burning to bulldozing or grading virtually the entire rail reserve. Many of the very best remnants were completely destroyed, or the thin strip remaining was invaded by the tall, lush growth of weeds resulting from the fuel reduction management. Disused railway reserves carrying native grasslands and grassy woodlands are generally being grazed under licence (or, at times, illegally) by the adjoining landowner. Several roadside remnants on the western plains have been ploughed (and at times sown to crops) following a misconception by local authorities and residents regarding grassland conservation measures.
- Over a thousand hectares of native grassland immediately west of Melbourne escaped intensive agricultural use but is now under threat from residential and industrial development.
Native grasslands in productive habitats require active management to maintain native species richness. Dominant grasses such as Kangaroo Grass can form a dense sward with a large quantity of plant litter, eliminating associated species by competition. Some form of management which reduces the size and vigour of the dominant grasses is required under such circumstances. Fire and grazing by marsupials were important natural processes which attained this. In many smaller remnants, however, neither are readily applicable. For example, fire is often not wanted adjoining freeways or industrial or residential areas.
All remnants carry some introduced plants and most are surrounded by predominantly introduced vegetation. Management which allows the persistence or spread of associated native plants also allows the ingress or spread of weeds. Some follow-up herbicide treatment (or at least close observation) is usually needed following a management burn. Data on the effects of management are not available and management has largely proceeded by informed guess-work. There is, however, little scope for error in managing the few remaining remnants.
A survey of western plains grasslands located only 0.16% of their former extent. The conservation status of other grasslands and grassy woodlands has not been estimated but would be expected to be similar or, in the case of the Wimmera and northern plains grasslands, possibly far worse. Twenty per cent of plant species and 40% of vertebrate fauna which are threatened or extinct in Victoria occur or occurred in grassy ecosystems.
Due to the pastoral value of grassy ecosystems, only a small proportion of them have remained unalienated Crown Land. The scope for reservation, already critically limited by the tiny proportion left, is further complicated by the monetary value of most of the remnants, especially those close to Melbourne.
The conservation of grassy ecosystems is more complicated than most other ecosystems for the reasons outlined above. Four basic elements for conservation of grasslands and grassy woodlands are:
We must determine the range of variation in grassy ecosystems and determine where the various types of remnants are.
Once located and classified, a conservation strategy must be produced which will most efficiently protect the range of variation in both large and small remnants. Small, species-rich remnants may not be viable in perpetuity but need to be protected for as long as possible as a source of propagating material and for use as a model in the restoration of the larger, more viable but often degraded remnants.
We must research the effects of management to determine what is the most appropriate form under various circumstances. We must also have the practical ability to apply that management when needed.
Land managers, residents, statutory and strategic planners and the public generally need to be informed of the rarity, values and management requirements of native grasslands and grassy woodlands.
Ian Lunt, LaTrobe University,
Native grasslands have been dubbed "Australia's original gardens", where endless drifts of daisies, lilies, peas and orchids bloomed between the grass tussocks.
Today, this ecosystem has been reduced to the verge of extinction. In contrast to alpine grasslands, which are conserved in large National Parks, lowland grasslands are protected in few conservation reserves. Most remnants are tiny, and tenuously survive on roadsides and rail-lines and in places such as country cemeteries.
In Victoria, grasslands and grassy woodlands contain as many threatened species of birds and reptiles as all other habitats combined. They contain numerous threatened plants. The endangered Gaping Leek orchid (Prasophyllum chasmogamum), for example, survives in only two small grasslands beside a rail-line, where less than 20 plants persist.
Unfortunately, native grasslands are not very "sexy". They have no majestic trees or waterfalls, they look a bit drab in mid-summer and winter, and many of the tiny remnants would comfortably fit in our quarter- acre house blocks.
It is difficult to imagine the total destruction of our eucalypt forests. Yet our lowland grasslands have suffered such a calamity. Unfortunately, this destruction continues unabated. Most small remnants are threatened with further damage or destruction. We may have only one last chance to save the biological diversity of our natural grasslands-Australia's original gardens.
Penny Greenslade, CSIRO Division of Entomology, Canberra.
The trail of environmental devastation flowing from the arrival of rabbits, foxes and hoofed stock is well known and often told. What is much less well known is the disastrous effect on Australia's native flora and fauna caused by exotic insects and other invertebrates. Perhaps it is assumed that because insects are smaller they cause less damage. Any casual observation of your backyard cabbage patch should scotch that idea.
If questioned, non-biologists can usually point to honey bees and the European wasp as obvious introductions. If pressed further they might mention the American cockroach and South Australians would be aware of the Portuguese millipede. Those working on the land might be troubled by pests of exotic origin such as white snails, the green vegetable bug or Sirex wood wasp. But few Australians have any idea of the enormous number of species of exotic invertebrates which have taken up residence in Australia, most of which arrived accidentally. Even keen gardeners might not appreciate that practically all the invertebrates they come across from cabbage white butterflies to earwigs and the lowly slaters, slugs and snails came here from Europe.
For example there are 160 aphid species known from Australia of which all except 20 are introduced, nearly all are pests and some have succeeded in storming the very rigid quarantine controls we now conduct by probably arriving in the aerial plankton (blown by the wind). In my own group, the springtails, where there is a rich and diverse native fauna, about 60 species were introduced accidentally with European man out of 400 described and more than 1500 undescribed species. The largest group of insects, the beetles, include several hundred introduced species and the flies would give a similar picture.
Well known biological control agents, all introduced, are the Cactoblastis moth for the prickly pear and the Salvinia weevil, both highly successful and specific but there have been hundreds of other invertebrate species brought into the country over the last two hundred years with the object of controlling a pest or weed. For instance in the last nine years alone, 84 different exotic invertebrate species have been approved for release in Australia.
Happily most introduced species do not stray beyond the modified agricultural landscapes we have created, being unable to colonise native bush or compete with native invertebrates. But there is an unwelcome number which do, being catholic in their habitat and feeding requirements. It is these species that are the worry, they are increasing each year and are spreading. In this respect the European wasp, Argentine ant, Honey Bee and Portuguese millipede are similar to that of the better known cane toad. There is no doubt that we will be seeing more of them in future as they extend their ranges.
Nuisance as it is at picnics and the like, the European wasp is even more dangerous to our native insects as it is a voracious predator and can establish nests of a gigantic size, in the Sydney region for example, where the mild winters allow adults to persist all the year round. As long as a source of water is present, Honey Bees can establish feral (wild) colonies and overwinter even in the rainforests of western Tasmania. They can forage several kilometres from their nest and in some parts of Australia appear to be successfully competing with native insects for nectar and so may interrupt natural pollination processes of native plants resulting in hybridisation or sterility. Apart from being troublesome to farmers' wheat harvesting machinery, white snails invade the adjacent mallee in large numbers in summer for shelter and may feed there where the interference they cause to native insects is unknown but may be considerable. The Argentine ant is so abundant in parts of the bush around Sydney that other native ants are no longer to be seen and we have no idea what effect the Portuguese millipede has had on organic matter decomposition and soil fertility in the eucalypt woodlands of the Mt Lofty Ranges, where this species can dominate leaf litter on the ground.
The list of similar examples is long. However the examples given above are enough to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem and show that, even though the total number is not known exactly, there are hundreds, if not thousands introduced invertebrates in Australia.
Rod Clark, NSW Forestry Commission
One of the keys to maintaining biological diversity is the conservation of habitat. In the Central West of NSW much of the remaining habitat is small islands of native vegetation on farms. This resource faces a double threat: eucalypt dieback and progressive conversion to pasture and cropland.
The Disappearing Islands Group (DIG) is a community response to this problem. A group of about 20 members represent state government agencies, local government and community groups. They meet regularly to foster the wise management of remnant bushland, particularly bushland without a secure future.
The Group was set up in 1990, as an outcome of a seminar held at the then Mitchell College of Advanced Education the previous year. The seminar proposed a committee be established to co-ordinate nature conservation in the Central West of NSW. The National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW provided the resources to establish the committee.
Membership of the committee covers most interested State Government Agencies, Local Government and community groups. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Forestry Commission, NSW Agriculture, the Department of Conservation and Land Management, Rural Lands Protection Boards, Central West Acclimatisation Society, Evans Shire Council, NSW Farmers' Federation, Total Catchment Management Board, and local conservation groups are represented.
The Disappearing Islands Group has identified an area of about 10 000 square kilometres around Bathurst as their area of interest. Their aim is to foster the conservation of areas of remnant bushland in this area of the Central West.
Its objectives are:
- To identify, retain and protect important remnant bushland.
- To identify the threats to remnant bushland.
- To identify, understand and promote the diverse values of remnant bushland, including the value of identity understory as essential habitat.
- To develop and promote practical land management strategies for remnant bushland.
- To achieve active community participation.
The progress made by DIG has been greatly aided by the work of Dr David Goldney at the Mitchell Campus of Charles Sturt University. His research into land use and ecosystems in the Central West provided a wealth of data on the quantity and quality of distribution of remnant bushland. The area of interest for DIG extends from Wallerawang to Orange, from Stuart Town to Burraga. This is only part of the area studied by Dr Goldney.
The Group is targeting landholders and Local Government with its awareness work. An important starting point in its approach to farmers is acknowledgement of their rights to manage their land as they see fit, and of the fundamentally commercial nature of their management.
Farmers and landowners with remnant bushland on their properties are the focus of one project DIG has worked on. Recently released through the Forestry Commission of NSW is a brochure for farmers that takes them beyond the concepts of valuing their bushland for just its shelter and grazing. It introduces them to a range of management options and farm uses, and spells out the cost and benefits associated with the choice they might make.
The brochure brings together a simple system of bushland classification, a checklist for bushland appraisal, a range of appropriate management works, and recommended compatible farm uses. The farmer can also choose between sustaining the existing conservation value of the remnant bushland or working to upgrade its conservation values.
A second project is focused on roadside remnant bushland. The aim is to bring together the stakeholders, farmers, engineers, councillors, environmentalists, soil conservationists, etc. Each of these groups is looking for something different from our roadsides. DIG aims to promote mutual understanding among these diverse interest groups, as a first step towards better planned conservation of remnant vegetation.
The DIG meets quarterly in Bathurst, and welcomes the participation of local groups and agencies who share their interests. Contact with the group can be made through Steve Woodhall, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, on (063) 319777.
David Boughey, Biodiversity Section, DASET
The domestic cat, Felis catus, enjoys a special place in our society. Unlike most other pets, cats are not required to be licensed or registered, nor are they required to be restrained, and indeed it is often quite acceptable for cats to wander where and when they want (Paton, 1991). The extent to which cats are dependent upon people varies between individuals, and it is for this reason that it is hard to differentiate between the household cat and the feral cat. What is known is that almost all cats prey to some extent upon native wildlife. As cats are found in every part of Australia, this predation could be posing a significant threat to our biological diversity.
Not much is known of the ecology of feral cats in Australia. One major difference between feral cats in Australia and in northern hemisphere areas is that in Australia cats can survive all year in the wild, while in the colder northern hemisphere areas, cats are compelled to move closer to human populations in search of shelter and food in the colder months.
It is known that cats have a high reproductive capacity, although a high mortality rate in young cats makes it difficult for a population to recover quickly after culling. Feral cats are known to prey upon a wide range of animals, both native and introduced. In areas where rabbits occur, they are usually the primary food source (Coman, 1991). However, when rabbit populations crash, native wildlife populations not only suffer from the habitat degradation caused by rabbits, but also from increased predation from cats. The scarcity of some of our native species is believed to be caused at least in part by cats. To date there is no proof that cats have caused extinction of species in mainland Australia, and more research needs to be conducted in this area. Foxes (which are similar predators) have been shown to significantly impact upon native animal populations
It is known that cats can have a significant impact upon island wildlife, and in many ways, watering points and other refuges in the bush become 'islands during droughts' (Newsome, 1991). Predation by cats has also been shown to have significant impact upon endangered and vulnerable mammals, and makes it difficult for recovery programs to be successfully implemented. It appears that predation by cats was the primary cause of the failure of a recent attempt to reintroduce the Rufous Hare-wallaby (or Mala) to the Tanami desert in the Northern Territory (Johnson, 1991).
Studies have also shown that feral cats eat native mammals up to their own body weight: lizards, insects, and birds. More detailed information on cat predation in Australia has come from studies of predation by domestic cats. A survey in Adelaide (Paton, 1991) found that household cats were known to prey upon 67 native bird species, 18 mammal species, 4 snake and 3 frog species. Among other things, household cats have been known to drag in brush-tailed and ring-tailed possums, sugar and feather-tailed gliders, blue-tongued lizards, bearded dragons and green tree frogs; and this is despite being well fed and cared for by their owners.
Reductions by cats in the population of common species can also be significant – for example, by reducing the number of honeyeater birds, pollination rates of many native plants will also be reduced (Paton, 1991). Native predators such as Quolls may be affected by cats competing for the same prey (Jones, 1992). Cats can also carry and transmit diseases which can kill native animals, livestock, and humans.
Interaction between domestic and feral cats is a two way relationship. Domestic cats in urban and rural areas are a source of recruitment for feral cat populations, and feral cats are not averse to seeking food and shelter in difficult times.
Various methods have been used to control feral cats. Cage trapping can be useful in small areas, baiting has been used as part of concerted efforts to eradicate cats from islands in New Zealand, and shooting is really only useful in open country. Biological control is an option that is currently being considered for other feral animals such as rabbits and foxes. In the case of cats, the selection of an effective pathogen would also have to be combined with a vaccination program for our 'wanted' cats.
If attempts to control feral cats are to be successful, we all must change the way we regard domestic cats. With the pleasures of cat ownership also comes the responsibility of ensuring that the cat does not pose a threat to out native wildlife. Owners can ensure that their cats are confined to their property and kept indoors (or in the garage) at night. Cats can also be identified with a collar and tag or possibly a microchip implant or tattoo. A bell on the collar is also a good idea. Cats should not be dumped, but instead rehoused, or humane euthanasia arranged. Requirements for the registration and control of cats may in the future become similar to those of other pets such as dogs and encourage cat owners to desex their cats.
Predation of wildlife by cats in Australia is a subject that requires further research before we have the information we need. A workshop on 'The Impact of Cats on Native Wildlife' was held in May 1991 by the Endangered Species Unit of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service as the beginning of a serious effort to understand and manage the problem. The Endangered Species Program is currently funding projects on: research into the ecology of feral cats in order to better understand how to control them; testing of possible methods of control; the impact of cats on Tasmanian fauna and the collation of information on the impact of cats; and public education programs in Victoria and South Australia about responsible cat ownership.
The Federal Government has allocated $1.5 million this financial year to develop and implement a range of projects aimed at reducing the impact of introduced species such as the cat, fox and goat on native wildlife. The money will fund control projects in most States and Territories, concentrating on areas containing critically threatened wildlife; the continuing development of a biological control agent for foxes; and the development of an education project on the impact of feral pests on native wildlife.
In addition, the Prime Minister's Statement on the Environment in December 1992 allocated a further $15 million over the next four years for the control of feral animals and weeds.
'The Impact of Cats on Native Wildlife - Proceedings of a workshop held on 8-9 May 1991-, Endangered Species Unit, Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, 1991:
Coman, B.J., 'The Ecology and Control of Feral Cats in Australia'.
Johnson, K., 'Feral Cats: The Northern Territory Perspective'.
Newsome, A., 'Feral Cats: An Overview'.
Paton, D.C., 'Loss of Wildlife to Domestic Cats'
Jones, E. 'A Purr-fect Predator!-, in 'Wildlife Australia', vol. 29, no 1, March 1992.
Trueman, J. 'The Impact of Domestic Cats on the Wildlife of Hobart', Thesis, Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, 1990.
(Note: the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonwealth Government or the Department.)
Henry Bell, Hidden Valley Plantations, Queensland
Few people are aware that Australia's only 'native' food crop Macadamias – which are indigenous to the rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland, are also Australia's second highest export earner in Horticulture. In 1991, Australia's Macadamia crop had a farm gate value of approximately $25 million. After processing and value adding, most of this was exported, giving a return to Australia of approximately $50 million.
The edible species of Macadamia are native only to the sub-tropical rainforests of north eastern New South Wales and south eastern Queensland. They were first discovered by the botanist/explorer Alan Cunningham in 1828, south of Brisbane and were described and named by Baron Ferdinand von Muller and Walter Hill in 1858. The first commercial plantings were at Rous Mill near Lismore in the early 1880's. At about the same time nuts were taken to Hawaii and commercial plantings were developed there in the 1920's.
Discussion about the preservation of fauna and flora often becomes an emotive issue, particularly if it concerns a rare species. One cannot say that Macadamias are an endangered species – there are over twelve thousand hectares or three million trees planted in Australia. However Macadamias were originally indigenous to the coastal regions of northern NSW and southern Queensland, a rapidly expanding highly populated area, much of which now has more people than trees.
The map opposite shows the approximate distribution of Macadamia species at the time of European settlement. Native stands now only remain in isolated pockets of rainforest within the areas depicted on the map (less than 1% of their original area). The commercial plantings also remain largely in areas where the Genus was indigenous. This means that the remaining germplasm in our forests is at risk.
Germplasm is the genetic material responsible for the genetic diversity or variation within a species, including all the shapes, forms colours and characteristics that are contained within the species. If we wish to retain leadership against our overseas competitors, it is imperative that this germplasm is preserved for future breeding of improved varieties. The preservation and collection of germplasm from the remaining areas of uncleared rainforest should be a top priority, because it increases the number of potentially valuable genes that may be utilised in the future, particularly in the areas of disease, insect resistance and increased tolerance to climatic variation. For this reason I feel that the concept of a National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity is no longer an option but a necessity.
With increasing pressure on the industry to keep agricultural spraying to a minimum, it may be possible to develop disease and insect resistant varieties and methods of biological control. There is also a need to extend the present area of production by breeding varieties that are more tolerant to temperature stress.
Where Macadamias now grow commercially is a very different environment from under the canopy of a rainforest and they are very different looking trees. In a short space of time we have taken Macadamias out of the rainforest where the light levels are much lower and the trees are much taller in order to receive sunlight, the roots are cooler because of shade and leaf litter, the temperature less extreme and the humidity higher. It is difficult to imagine greater changes. However because of its adaptability, there are obviously new areas that can be exploited in breeding superior genotypes, if we can utilise the untapped areas of germplasm that still remain.
It is ironic that the Australian Macadamia industry has been built largely on top Hawaiian varieties that were originally selected for a totally different environment. They have not performed as well in Australia. However it is interesting to note that some recent Hawaiian selections that have not performed well in Hawaii are included in current Australian regional varietal trials and are performing well in some areas.The Hawaiian Macadamia breeding program has been conducted by the University of Hawaii and has been operating for more that sixty years. It started from a small beginning with a handful of nuts from Australia. Perhaps for this reason, the Macadamia industry in Australia will set the standards in the future for production and efficiency.
The Hawaiian varieties were selected from a very small gene pool, because of this they are more homozygous and the progeny do not have a great deal of variability to select from. It has been stated that 60,000 seedlings were screened in Hawaii in order to produce one variety, however because this was not done early in the breeding program, mathematically it was too late to have much impact on variability of progeny. Australia on the other hand, has the only large gene pool to draw from and has the capacity to produce a much more heterozygous population of genotypes. In the numbers game, in Australia it is possible to produce a superior selection from less than 1000 seedlings, providing that suitable parent trees are chosen.
If we wish to play a dominant rather than a dormant role in this new industry, which has spread to many countries which have much lower production costs, we must remain leaders in the technological field. One of the greatest areas for potential improvement lies in plant breeding, because of our gene pool. It becomes increasingly important that this is retained and enlarged, before the remaining rainforest areas where germplasm is still growing disappear for all time. Even in a rainforest environment, because of the high oil content of Macadamias they are more readily destroyed by bush fires and few seeds germinate because of rodents. It is therefore imperative that we retrieve samples from and try to preserve the remaining localities to give us greater diversity in the future and a lead into the twenty first century. Our only native food crop, is a rapidly expanding industry in a number of overseas countries where production costs are much lower than ours. If we ignore these signs, we do so at our peril. Between 80% and 90% of our crop is sold on the overseas markets and unless we can maintain superior technology in all areas, we will eventually be another casualty of a changing world.
On 7 December 1992, Heads of Government endorsed and agreed to release of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). The National strategy for ESD sets out the broad strategic and policy framework under which governments will co-operatively make decisions and take actions to pursue ESD in Australia. It will be used by governments to guide policy and decision making, particularly in those key industry sectors which rely on the utilisation of natural resources.
This ESD Strategy has evolved over several years and through extensive consultation with all levels of government, business, industry, academia, voluntary conservation organisations, community-based groups and individuals. A fundamental part of this process was the establishment in 1990 of nine sectoral Working Groups, involving government officials, industry, environment, union, welfare and consumer groups, to examine sustainability issues in key industry sectors. Their purpose was to provide advice on future ESD policy directions and to develop practical proposals for implementing them.
In November 1991, the nine sectoral ESD Working Groups produced reports covering agriculture, forest use, fisheries, manufacturing, mining, energy use, energy production, tourism and transport. In January 1992, the three Chairs of the Working Groups presented further reports on intersectoral issues and greenhouse. In all, these eleven reports contained over five hundred recommendations on ways of working towards ESD.
The reports of the ESD Working Groups provided the foundation on which governments have developed this Strategy. A draft Strategy was released in June 1992 as an official's discussion paper, to promote discussion and obtain community views on future policy directions. This was primarily in recognition of the nature, range and significance of many of the issues covered by the ESD Working Group Report's recommendations. Over two hundred submissions were received in that period. The changes in structure and content of this Strategy are largely in response to these comments. In addition, a Compendium of ESD Recommendations has been produced as an accompanying document to this Strategy. The Compendium describes in tabular form how this Strategy and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, agreed by Governments, together with examples of relevant existing policies, relate to the over five hundred recommendations.
The Prime Minister announced in his December 1992 Statement on the Environment that the Federal Government will develop a national conservation reserve system to protect Australia's flora and fauna. The Government will provide $16.85 million over the next four years and work with the States and Territories to develop a system of protected areas that is representative of Australia's full range of plants, animals and habitats. This would include examples of our major habitats such as deserts, woodlands and coastal regions.
Old growth and wilderness forests are to be surveyed and adequately protected by 1995 and all major ecosystems are to be surveyed and comprehensively reserved by the year 2000. However, some areas will need to be protected earlier than the year 2000. The Government will complete the National Wilderness Inventory by the end of 1993. This will be upgraded and maintained as one of the key indicators in developing a reserve system.
Incentives will be provided to States and Territories to co-operate in developing a comprehensive system of protected areas. The objective is to have reserves that will be managed on a nationally consistent basis, in accordance with internationally accepted classifications and standards.
The Nature Conservation Act 1992 was assented to in May. It represents the first integrated approach to nature conservation law in more than 120 years of Queensland conservation legislation. The Act is being phased in and is likely to be operating fully in the first half of 1993, once regulations have been drafted.
The Act has the purpose of conserving nature in the broadest sense, not just in national parks or for certain species. It stresses the need to protect habitats and recognises the role that private individuals can have in nature conservation, from urban backyards to farms and grazing properties.
The Act was framed with input from 22 major interest groups including industry, conservation and rural producer groups.
A key feature of the Act is voluntary agreements to protect and manage lands for nature conservation. The Act creates 11 classes of protected areas based on international criteria - four types of national park, conservation parks, resources reserves, nature refuges, co-ordinated conservation areas, wilderness areas, World Heritage management areas and international agreement areas.
[From Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage News, Issue 8, July 1992 ]
The Biodiversity Section, Department of the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, has produced a beautiful colour poster showing a large range of Australian plants and animals, both terrestrial and marine. The poster is available free of charge (see address and phone number below). Resource materials on biological diversity for teachers and students to accompany the poster are also being developed and should be ready by May 1993.
Biolinks is published by the Department of the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories. The views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonwealth Government or the Department.