‘The first irretrievable failure of the EPBC Act’: the case of the Christmas Island pipistrelle

By Angela Heathcote 7 September 2018
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The Christmas Island pipistrelle is poignant reminder of Australia’s extinction crisis, and how we’re failing our unique fauna.

THERE IS NO chance the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) is ever coming back, following its 2009 extinction. “It’s lovely to cling to hope,” says John Woinarski, conservation biologist and author of the new book A Bat’s End, which documents the pipistrelle’s demise, “but there’s no hope for the Christmas Island pipistrelle. It’s gone.”

John’s new book is written much like a murder mystery. “It’s a bit of a ‘who did it’ story. There are the ecological factors, but extinction is also a product of bureaucracies, laws and management,” he says. John was motivated to write the book because he deems the extinction of the pipistrelle to be “the first irretrievable failure of Australia’s environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation [EPBC] Act”.

John says there are few cases of extinction that are as clear-cut as that of the pipistrelle. On the 26 August 2009, the last individual of these microbats was sighted. In a bid to save the species, scientists frantically made an attempt to catch it but failed, and it was never recorded again. “There are people who gave their hearts and souls to save this species and this failure has scarred them, while the responses of other people involved were far more muted,” John says.


Those working on the ground and in positions of authority within government departments were well aware of the predicament of the pipistrelle prior to its extinction, John says.

“Between 2002 and 2003, it was clear to many conservation biologists that if the pipistrelle continued on its current trajectory the species would go extinct around 2009, and they communicated this to their superiors,” he explains. “The problem was that those in charge didn’t respond in an efficient amount of time to actually prevent the extinction.”

John’s new book includes a graph that shows each of Australia’s environment ministers during the final period of the pipistrelle’s decline and extinction, accompanied by the many notifications they received of the status of the pipistrelle.

He attributes the failure to act on these notifications to what he calls “higher-order problems”, those being a lack of commitment to sustainability and an unwillingness to “allocate specific accountabilities for biodiversity loss”.

Following the pipistrelle’s extinction, there was no inquest and there were no improvements made to the EPBC Act to prevent the same scenario happening again. Because of the lack of an inquest, John hopes his forensic look into this extinction will act as an informal inquiry into what happened and who’s responsible.

“If our society works without clear accountability, there will be no one held responsible for mistakes, and mistakes will happen with impunity,” he says. “The government department that was responsible for external territory; the minister for the environment, all those people, made decisions that contributed to or failed to prevent the extinction of the pipistrelle and yet none of them admit to any sense of blame or any sense that they’d failed.”

Today, the Christmas Island pipistrelle is still listed as critically endangered under the EPBC Act. “The corpse is buried, but the government is still directing enquiries to the hospital,” John writes.

What can be done?

John argues that if the EPBC Act fails as clearly as it did in the case of the pipistrelle, a formal, government inquest should be held. “This,” he says, “ is to understand the shortcomings in policy and management, to partition responsibility, to determine why they acted in a way that wasn’t sufficient and to learn from errors so it doesn’t happen again.”

He also believes we should highlight the obligation of the government to prevent extinction under the EPBC Act. “There are a series of international policies and bodies that we’re signed up to,” John says. “For example, the United Nations is very explicit about a government’s responsibility to prevent extinctions and that’s not really well entrenched in Australian legislation.

“To achieve that objective I think governments have to be more aware of the steps that will take, like recovery plans, adequate funding and monitoring, and there should be scope for emergency action for those species close to extinction, like the pipistrelle.”

In most of these respects, John says, we’re not progressing. “There was a change to legislation recently that meant that it wasn’t necessary to have a recovery plan for listed threatened species, and that was a backward step,” he says. “Conversely, the government established a Threatened Species Commissioner and they have a threatened species strategy so those are good advances — not perfect, but beneficial.”

A Bat’s End, by John Woinarski, is published by the CSIRO.