Saving the world’s endangered insects: pt II

By Karen McGhee 4 June 2009
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Initiatives are in place to bring attention to less cuddly endangered species, such as insects.

It’s hoped that initiatives such as Queensland’s Back on Track program and WWF’s Flagship Species will ensure more consideration is given to some of the animal groups that have consistently evaded the conservation radar – such as insects.

“Basically, insects have an image problem, which means a lot of managers and decision-makers don’t see them as equally valid targets for conservation as the more charismatic mammals and birds,” laments Professor Tim New, head of zoology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, an entomologist and an international campaigner for insect conservation since the 1970s. “The proportion of insects on threatened species lists in this country is probably a very, very small fraction of those that are actually threatened,” he says. “What we do have are single species that have somehow been raised by individual zeal or genuine concern.”

Sharks are another group that suffers from a poor public profile in the conservation stakes. It’s a situation that underwater documentary makers Valerie and Ron Taylor have been wrestling with since they turned, decades ago, from shark-hunting spearfishers to ardent marine conservationists. Between them they have almost a century of experience as advocates for threatened animal species in Australia’s oceans and seas.

“When I first went into the ocean with a mask on 50 years ago there were so many fish, so much of everything, and I never thought it would change,” says Valerie, an Australian Geographic Society trustee. But within just 10 years she witnessed noticeable declines in numbers of fish and other marine creatures. “Now the tragedy, to my way of thinking, is not just the depletion of the wildlife in the oceans, it’s that no child in school today will ever know how rich our oceans used to be.

“Our oceans are in dire straits and people don’t appreciate it because they can’t see it, they can’t see the losses,” Valerie says, explaining that overfishing and irresponsible fishing – both recreational and commercial – are taking their toll on a grand scale. “And I can’t see any hope at all while fishermen internationally are allowed to just take, take, take. And when they’ve depleted one area, they target another.”

Marine sanctuaries will be a big part of the answer but they must, Valerie says, be no-take zones – places where all fishing activity is banned.

Ecological triage- resources restricting species survival

Some scientists are pragmatic, believing that the way to further spread limited resources is to sacrifice some animal species in order to save many more. It’s known as ‘ecological triage’, and it works just like the emergency medical system the word describes: if three species need all your resources to be saved but 20 others could be rescued with the same level of commitment, then leave the three to fate and save the others.

It’s a controversial approach, and not one that ecologist Nicholas Carlile supports. He believes the only time to let a species go without a fight is when its last individual has died. He and colleague David Priddel, both of whom work in the terrestrial biodiversity science section of the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, have had extraordinary success in rescuing species.

The energetic pair were involved in the Lord Howe Island phasmid’s recovery but the most celebrated of their ecological rescues so far has been Gould’s petrel, a small migratory seabird related to the albatross.

The species breeds almost exclusively in rock cavities on scree slopes of remnant subtropical rainforest on Cabbage Tree Island, 50 km off the NSW coast north of Newcastle, and although “great numbers” were recorded in the 1800s, by the mid-1900s less than 200 breeding pairs survived. Before beginning a recovery program, Nicholas and David identified rabbits as the primary reason for the decline.

Rabbits, left on the island by researchers during the early 1900s, had destroyed the rainforest understorey, which exposed the petrels’ nests and left their chicks vulnerable to bird predators – in particular pied currawongs, which are native to the area. Each breeding season the pied currawongs would patrol the colony, and very few petrel chicks would survive the ensuing slaughter.

The petrels’ recovery began with an intensive rabbit-removal and baiting program on the island. And, while waiting for the rainforest undergrowth to recover, Nicholas and David reluctantly undertook a culling program of the currawongs to protect the petrel from further decline.

In the 10 years since recovery efforts began, the island has become rabbit free, its rainforest undergrowth is returning and the petrels’ breeding population has increased significantly to well over 1000 pairs. A second breeding colony has been established on nearby Boondelbah Island as an insurance policy should the main site be wiped out by a natural disaster.

Downgrading from endangered to vulnerable

Without the work of Nicholas and David, Gould’s petrel would have been doomed. Instead, the species’ recovery has been so strong that its conservation status on the federal list is expected to be downgraded from endangered to vulnerable. It will be the first bird downgrading ever on the list.

“There’s not usually any one point where you know you have done your job right and that the species you’ve been working on is probably going to be okay,” Nicholas says. “It happens slowly until you realise you’re on top of things and then you keep using the knowledge you’ve gained to go further and move on to the next species and then on to the next one… it never really stops.

“The approach we took [with Gould’s petrel] has become a worldwide model of conservation in action. It’s now been written up in high- and middle-primary-school textbooks in Australia as an example of scientific research underpinning good conservation management and the sort of positive outcomes you can get from that.”

Nicholas has been working in species recovery for more than 20 years and agrees it’s an area that requires personal passion and long-term commitment. He has spent more than 550 nights on the uninhabited and often inhospitable Cabbage Tree Island during the past decade and nearly missed the birth of his first son, Jarrah, due to his involvement in the rescue operation for the Lord Howe Island phasmid.

The Australian public has become very green in the past decade, and although biodiversity is now something of a poor cousin to the issues of climate change and declining water resources, it’s still the area where individuals can play the biggest role in improving ecological outcomes.

When Hugh Possingham gives public lectures he likes to point out to his audience that as individuals, Australians have more chance than anyone in the world to save species. “We have 20 million people and more than 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity,” he says. “So we actually have about 20 people for each species, the lowest number of people per endemic species anywhere in the world.”

In comparison, the United Kingdom, with a population of more than 60 million, has so few endemic species that it’s common, for example, to get 20 people trying to save just one population of badgers. “But here in Australia,” Hugh says, “any individual who is interested can pretty well save a handful of species if they’ve got some passion for it.”

Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2007