Shifting The Goalposts On Endangered Species


Peter Garrett’s announcement that the Commonwealth would henceforth put more of its conservation emphasis on saving ecosystems rather than saving individual species elicited much comment. While some thought it was an economically sensible decision that was long overdue; others thought the decision represented a loss of resolve and put conservation in this country at the top of a slippery slope. 

Taken at face value, Garrett’s new policy seems to raise the conservation bar even higher with regard to saving species, because species are components of ecosystems, and if any species even so much as declines under the new policy, let alone goes extinct, it would be an unequivocal indication of policy failure.

But governments don’t have a good track record in this area. You only need to look at the way habitat was supposed to be protected under the developer-friendly practice of land-swaps in NSW (whereby one piece of habitat is sacrificed if another of "equal value" can be secured) to realise that this latest environmental initiative needs close examination.

One glaring potential loophole in the policy is that while it is fairly clear what a species is and when it ceases to exist, it is not at all clear exactly what an ecosystem is or just how far it can be degraded before we say that it no longer exists. Ecosystems are identified by a combination of physical and biotic features. And depending on your preferences and purposes, you can think of the biotic component of ecosystems as being the actual species or just their ecological functions. In either case, the number of key or indicator units is relatively small.

If you take a "species" view of ecosystems, under the new policy an awful lot of native species can go extinct and the ecosystem can still be considered to be extant, although degraded. It is not until the indicator species start disappearing that you have to say the ecosystem is also disappearing.

And if you take a "functional" view of ecosystems, even if all the indicator species go extinct, you could still truck in "functionally equivalent" species from the other side of the planet to "restore" the ecosystem and say, with hand on heart, it is still extant.

Large predators, for example, "function" in ecosystems to keep smaller predators and their prey in check and therefore help maintain a larger number of species and individuals in an area than might otherwise be the case. Hence, a few years ago 12 "restoration ecologists" wrote in Nature calling for the introduction of lions and cheetahs into North America to replace similar species that were possibly driven to extinction soon after humans first entered the Americas some 13,000 years ago. They also suggested introducing camels and elephants (herbivores) to replace some extinct species of the same groups. And in Australia, a palaeontologist suggested introducing the giant Komodo Dragon, a member of the goanna family, from Indonesia into Australia to replace the even larger Megalania that also possibly went extinct due to early human influence.

The logical end result of this so-called solution, which is much beloved of restoration ecologists, is the ‘McDonaldsisation’ of ecosystems, wherein, for example, freshwater wetland ecosystems the world over would be composed of the same functional species. For many humans, the functionality of ecosystems is more important than the actual species, because it is the functionality of ecosystems, not the exact species per se, that supports human existence.

Herein, therefore, lies the ultimate potential sleight of hand in the new environmental policy: virtually every native species could go extinct and you could still say, under the functional view of ecosystems, that the ecosystem was intact, indeed, even thriving.

In this context it is important to realise that Garrett specifically and perhaps pointedly said that the Commonwealth would henceforth put more emphasis on ecosystems and "how they function".

Losing species is no trivial matter. Each one, including our own, is a unique manifestation of one of the most remarkable and unlikely events in the history of the universe: the origin and diversification of life. Humans share with all other species participation in this one-off, tenuous event. And while we may not understand the exact causes of most modern species extinctions, few would doubt that most go back either directly or indirectly to human activity. Therefore, to now give up all attempts to save species in nature (not in captive breeding programs, which are extinction’s waiting rooms), is not only a significant policy capitulation but also a fundamental debasement of one of our core values.

The first test of the Commonwealth’s new ecosystem policy may come with the impending decision on the proposed Traveston Dam across the Mary River in southeast Queensland. The dam would also constitute an unequivocal degradation of a major physical component of that ecosystem. As well, it would increase the danger to three already threatened species in the ecosystem: the Mary River Cod, the Mary River Turtle and the Australian Lungfish.

An ecosystem approach will be a true advance in conservation in Australia if the major performance indicator of the policy is the status of all native species in ecosystems like this one. But as it stands, the policy is poised to disguise failure as success.

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