Saving Native Species and Our Moral Code: With Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery spoke to a passionate crowd at the Wheeler Centre last night about the crisis in biodiversity. He was urgent about the need for immediate, informed and ‘businesslike’ action on the issue of halting animal extinctions.

In his new Quarterly Essay, After the Future, he shows how Australia is on the brink of a new wave of extinctions, which threatens to leave our native parks as ‘marsupial ghost towns’. He looks at why species are becoming extinct despite the tens of millions of dollars being spent to protect nature – and what more can be done.

Tim was in conversation with Jane Rawson, section editor for Environment & Energy at The Conversation.

Tim Flannery

The positive: people who care

‘If you go back 60 years, there was no national park system,’ said Flannery. ‘People didn’t care about biodiversity.’

He was positive about the rise of various social groups who want to do hands-on work with the environment, which he said has ‘swept Australia’. He mentioned groups like neighbourhood creek associations, or groups devoted to protecting particular local animals.

‘That’s foreshadowed what the next step needs to be.’

But what we’re doing is not working

Flannery said that what we’re doing now to protect biodiversity is not working; we need to change our approach. ‘National parks cover 13% of the country. We’ve had native species legislation in place for over 20 years.’

‘And yet only one vertebrate species has been taken off the endangered species register because its numbers have increased – and that’s the saltwater crocodile.’ That has happened because hunting of the crocodiles for their skin has been banned. 

'We should have a national policy that no species should go extinct. That's not too difficult or expensive to do.'

There are 72 introduced vertebrate animals in Australia – from foxes to cane toads.

Northern Australia has retained its biodiversity for longer, partly because it’s a more hostile environment for introduced animals like foxes and partly because there’s more Aboriginal land management.

The second wave of extinction started in 2009.

The saltwater crocodile: The only vertebrate species that's been taken off the endangered species list due to increased numbers.

The saltwater crocodile: The only vertebrate species that's been taken off the endangered species list due to increased numbers.

Good science driving good policy

‘The creation of native parks in this country is the greatest achievement of the past half-century, but it’s not enough,’ said Flannery. ‘Management of those parks needs to happen.’

One thing that’s ‘gone terribly wrong’, he said, is the mistaken belief that if we preserve communities, we preserve biodiversity.

‘It’s about good science driving good policy.’

Reintroducing Aboriginal fire regimes

Flannery talked in detail about the importance of reintroducing the Aboriginal fire regimes that had been discontinued, to help restore biodiversity. This land management was crucial in maintaining habitats for various species, he said.

He cited the example of the endangered Gouldian finch in the Kimberly region. They found the females were unbelievably stressed during breeding season: they were having to fly too far to find seed, because of the altered fire regime.

Aboriginal people were hired to bring back the fire regime as a result.

‘Monitoring and focusing on species is the way to go,’ said Flannery. ‘Then you can report on outcomes.’

’Something wrong with our moral code’

Why should people put biodiversity on the national agenda? Why should we care about it?

When asked that question, Flannery said that he asks people: Are you opposed to torture? They inevitably say yes. Why are you opposed to torture when it takes place in distant places, done to people you will never meet or have any contact with? He then asks.

The response will be something like: ‘Because it degrades all of us to let it go on. It’s an affront to all of us.’

‘It’s the same with species,’ believes Flannery. If we can’t hand them on now to following generations, when we’re the richest nation on earth, ‘there’s something wrong with our moral code’.

‘We need business people’

‘We need to treat this in a businesslike manner,’ he said. There’s a ‘very destructive debate’ on the right side of politics, where libertarians say that anything environmental is toxic. But traditionally, the right have a good record in acting on conservation.

‘We need results. We need business people.’

He was scathing about the actions (or inaction) or government in this area. He cited the fishing lobby as just one example.

The population of flathead in Port Phillip Bay has declined 97% in the last decade. Fishing communities are fighting the expansion of marine reserves, though this would ultimately lead to an increase in numbers – and a healthier industry for them.

‘It’s a destructive cycle. People need a dose of reality. Governments need to act.’

The role of government

‘Pandering to special interest groups is not, in my view, what governments should be doing.’

Flannery said that while there is a role in the public service for monitoring outcomes, governments are no longer the place for monitoring biodiversity – due to the ‘gutting of expertise’ within them and the rise of a risk-averse bureaucracy.

‘There is a role for not-for-profits.’

Flannery’s solution? Set up an independent federal authority that would take taxpayer money and distribute it to not-for-profits that are best equipped to monitor biodiversity.

‘For $40 million a year, we could protect biodiversity in the Kimberley. It’s peanuts.’

He criticised the current government funding priorities, saying the search for the Gippsland panther ‘needs to up there with Bigfoot and the Yeti in terms of creatures we need to look for’.

The search for the Gippsland panther ‘needs to up there with Bigfoot and the Yeti in terms of creatures we need to look for’.

The search for the Gippsland panther 'needs to up there with Bigfoot and the Yeti in terms of creatures we need to look for'.

A genuine partnership: Bringing back firestick management

In the 1950s, the government took a series of photographs of central Australia, around the time that the British came to test rockets in the area.

When you look at those photographs, Flannery said, you can see the ‘marvellous mosaic’ created by firestick farming.

‘The Aboriginal people who did that moved out of the desert in the 70s and 80s to live in settlements.’

Those people were familiar with all sorts of animals thought to be extinct; in fact, they ate them on a regular basis. Scientists were very excited to hear that, but when they went back to that country to look for those animals, they had gone.

The fire pattern broke down after the Aboriginal people left that country, leaving the vegetation to grow thick – leaving it vulnerable to ‘fires that could burn down three states’, which left the country looking like ‘the surface of the moon’.

‘Aboriginal firestick management had enabled an environment where animals could survive.’

‘Among Aboriginal people I spoke to, there’s a sense of guilt that they’ve allowed these things to happen,’ said Flannery. ‘Though it’s not their fault.’

In Kangaroo Island in South Australia, they’ve reintroduced firestick management that’s allowed a range of plants to grow back, said Flannery. ‘It is really essential.’

‘To do that, we need decent science, funding and management.’

He said that bringing back firestick management involves working with Aboriginal communities, retrieving knowledge and creating jobs. ‘It’s a genuine partnership.’

Reintroducing native apex predators

Flannery said there are other solutions to biodiversity we’re not pursuing, and should be. ‘Why aren’t we reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to national parks on the mainland? Fifty thousand years ago, it was all over Victoria. It could play a role in checking foxes and cats.’

‘Why not reintroduce the komodo dragon?’

'Why aren't we reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to national parks on the mainland? ... It could play a role in checking foxes and cats.'

‘They’re scary,’ quipped Jane Rawson.

‘Rampant Queensland politicans are more scary than the komodo dragon,’ said Flannery.

Becoming serious, he said we need to think about reintroducing native apex predators despite them possibly being dangerous. We’ve learned to live with saltwater crocodiles and dingoes, he said – though we’ve learned that dingoes ‘can kill children and even teenagers’.

We expect poor people in villages in Bangladesh to live with tigers, because we believe there should be tigers in the world, he pointed out.

'Why aren't we reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to national parks on the mainland? ... It could play a role in checking foxes and cats.'

Cities: ‘Great environments for biodiversity’

Jane Rawson asked whether the expansion of Australian cities poses a threat to biodiversity.

‘Cities in Australia are one of the most interesting environments of all,’ said Flannery. ‘When I grew up in Melbourne, you didn’t see native birds at all.’ Now there are ibises in Sydney and owls in St Kilda.

‘I’ve seen a brushtail possum eating souvlaki on a bin. Cities can be great environments for biodiversity.’

There’s not necessarily a conflict between biodiversity and the growing human population, he said. ‘It doesn’t cost a fortune to fix. We just need policies in place to manage it.’

‘We should have a national policy that no species should go extinct. That’s not too difficult or expensive to do.’

‘It’s not a resources issue. It’s about policy and process and will.’

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