It’s The Habitat Destruction, Stupid


The Federal Government’s Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, told ABC Radio last Friday that wide-scale destruction of habitat isn’t a ‘key’ threat to our wildlife. But the science says he’s demonstrably, dangerously wrong, writes Suzanne Milthorpe.

Australia deserves a Threatened Species Commissioner that tells the truth about what’s killing our native animals, and a Federal Government that has a plan to actually stop their extinction.

Gregory Andrews comments came one day after shocking new deforestation and land-clearing figures came out of Queensland, where 395,000 hectares of trees were bulldozed last year.

That’s an MCG-sized area of forest and bushland bulldozed almost every 3 minutes, in Queensland alone.

Unsurprisingly, all this destruction has had a devastating impact on our wildlife. The CSIRO has estimated that deforestation kills about 50 million mammals, birds and reptiles each year in Queensland and New South. These numbers don’t include Western Australia, which doesn’t publish figures on how many trees they’re pulling down.

Queensland coal seam gas fields, around the Cinchilla region. (IMAGE: Jeremy Buckingham, Flickr)
Queensland coal seam gas fields, around the Cinchilla region. (IMAGE: Jeremy Buckingham, Flickr)

But the Commissioner went even further off-track when it comes to Victoria’s state animal, the Leadbeater’s (or Fairy) Possum. Mr Andrews claims that their numbers are increasing of the back of a survey of just 29 animals. Strange, given any other scientist would tell you their numbers have decreased by up to two thirds in the last 16 years.

The Greater Glider, which also lives in the same forests as the Possum, has recently been listed as vulnerable to extinction. The Federal Government’s own conservation advice on the Glider lists the effects of habitat loss on this species as ‘catastrophic’. It doesn’t quite jive with the Commissioner’s public comments.

Even more perversely, the Commissioner suggested that Leadbeater’s Possums are “adapting” well to logging, despite the fact that logging is quite literally destroying the only homes they have. One wonders how well Mr Andrews would adapt if someone pulled down not only his home, but his whole city.

Maybe the Commissioner would be better informed if he had a peek at the recent national State of the Environment Report. The Report has been published by the Federal Government every five years since 1996, and pulls together all the best science on what’s happening to our animals, plants, water and soils.

The 2016 State of the Environment Report is clear about the threat posed by habitat loss, largely driven by deforestation and logging. It tells us that habitat loss has led to the extinction of 11 Australian mammals, and is a major threat to another 24. In fact, half of all the native species listed as threatened in Australia are considered to be at risk from Australia’s nasty national addiction to pulling down trees, and bulldozing wildlife habitat.

The Report also references a 2015 survey of leading scientists by the Ecological Society of Australia, in which habitat loss was ranked as the highest existing threat to biodiversity in Australia (with climate change quickly coming up the ranks).


The Commissioner did get one thing right: climate change and invasive species like cats are a huge threat to our native species. But nature doesn’t work in silos. It’s a system, where threats pile on threats until nature collapses under the load.

Australian emissions from tree clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, equivalent to a third of all emissions from coal-fired power generation. And cleared areas are much more vulnerable to invasive species. It’s much easier for a cat to grab an animal if there are no trees around for it to escape up.

So the Threatened Species Commissioner is wrong about the threat from deforestation, he’s wrong about the Possum and he’s wrong about the way these threats interact. The fact that the man taking taxpayer’s money to protect our native species has had a triple-credibility bypass is a big problem.

But this misstep has exposed an even bigger one: we have no real plan to fix these threats and save our native animals.

Animals like the Leadbeater’s Possum are supposedly protected under our national environment laws, as are the koalas that are being killed in droves in Queensland. But state governments around the country continue to not only allow but actively promote the activities that are directly causing their extinction.

Our wildlife is caught in a broken system, and it needs a complete overhaul before it’s too late.

Australian’s love our weird, wacky and wonderful wildlife. We always have. We deserve a government that will step up and lead the states and territories in a truly national effort to protect the environment. Because the simple truth is that without fundamental change, the destruction will not, and cannot, end.

Our wildlife will continue to die in their thousands, and threatened species will slide further towards extinction. And that is not only a tragedy for them, but for every Australian.

Suzanne is the National Nature Campaign Manager with the Wilderness Society and specialises in environmental policy and politics in Australia.