Saving the world’s endangered insects

By Karen McGhee 4 June 2009
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Survival is hard enough for furry and lovable endangered animals, let alone the small and unattractive ones. Thankfully, Australia’s small but passionate army of conservationists is here to help.

It was 4 a.m. and Patrick Honan, Melbourne Zoo’s invertebrate specialist, was battling to bring one of the planet’s most endangered animal species back from the shadowy brink of extinction.

A female Lord Howe Island phasmid, one of perhaps just 16 left in the world, lay across his palms in a comatose-like state. Weeks earlier she and a mate had been flown to Melbourne in the cabin of a commercial jetliner, sealed in PVC cylinders. Their minder was armed with special dispensation to avoid X-ray machines and invasive customs inspections. Zoo staff had optimistically named the phasmids Adam and Eve.

A giant flightless stick insect from the Age of Dinosaurs, the phasmid was believed to have been hunted into oblivion by introduced black rats that, in 1918, reached Lord Howe Island, 780 km north-east of Sydney, by supply ship. But in 2001 a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service expedition discovered a few adults clinging to Balls Pyramid, a rugged, 562 m volcanic spire that juts from the ocean 20 km south-east of Lord Howe.

Related: Lord Howe Island stick insect

As soon as he heard of the rediscovery, Patrick offered the zoo’s invertebrate expertise to help secure the species’ future. After two years of political and bureaucratic wrangling, a second expedition retrieved two adult pairs. One went to a private facility and managed to produce eggs that hatched, but no offspring survived. Patrick was entrusted with the other pair and warned: “You get one chance only.” But Eve soon deteriorated and, despite global SOS calls to experts, no-one could help.

“She curled up in my hands and stopped responding, even to light,” recalls Patrick. “We were devastated.” After five days and with nothing left to lose, he followed gut instinct, mixed a calcium and glucose concoction, and eased it into Eve’s mouthparts with an eye-dropper. Hours later her legs unfurled and she was up walking. With no humans around to help celebrate, Patrick shared his pre-dawn elation with the zoo’s bemused possums.

Eve went on to lay 250 eggs before dying a year later. The zoo now has 700 healthy individuals and, following years of local and international interest, finally feels secure enough about the phasmid’s future to put it on public display.

The phasmid is one of dozens of Australian animal species listed under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as either endangered or critically endangered. And Patrick is just one of an overextended and under-resourced but committed army of professional and amateur conservationists trying to save them.

The EPBC Act currently recognises 399 threatened animal species under various categories, including 54 declared extinct. The declines and losses have all occurred during the two centuries since European settlement and are part of a wider global phenomenon labelled by many scientists as the Sixth Mass Extinction. The fifth such event claimed the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all species alive on earth at the time. The present extinction crisis differs from the previous five in that it’s caused largely by human activity and is progressing at an unprecedented scale and rate.

“Even if we behave really well from now on, we are going to lose at least 10 per cent of the world’s species this century,” explains Professor Hugh Possingham, director of the University of Queensland’s Ecology Centre and new Research Hub for Applied Environmental Decision Analysis. “If we behave badly, we’ll probably lose 50 per cent.”

A close-up photograph of a cassowary. Related: Building a future for our birds: what we are doing right, and wrong

Australia’s current losses for most animal groups are on par with the wider global experience, but when it comes to mammals we have the world’s worst record. The loss of 27 species during the past 200 years means almost 10 per cent of our original mammal fauna – more than any other nation’s – is gone forever.

A major threat comes from introduced feral animals such as foxes, cats, pigs and cane toads, which either eat native animal species or out-compete them for resources. The accepted theory is that, because much of our fauna’s long evolution has occurred in isolation in an environment with very few large carnivores, most of our animals are defenceless against introduced predators. Africa, by comparison, has many large native carnivores, which has forced herbivores to evolve behavioural and physiological ways of fending them off and escaping.

But the biggest threat to Australia’s unique biodiversity – and the world’s – is habitat destruction and fragmentation. All our States and territories now have legislation aimed at preventing unauthorised land-clearing and, as a result, terrestrial habitat loss in Australia has slowed. “The estimated 325,500 ha of land cleared in 2004 was about 17 per cent less than that cleared in 1994,” according to the Bureau of Statistics report Measures of Australia’s Progress, released in April this year.

Unfortunately, much of the area on which native animal species originally relied for survival has already gone forever: half of all forests; all but about 10 per cent of mallee and temperate woodlands; and more than 60 per cent of coastal wetlands in the southern and eastern States alone. It’s a legacy of loss that will continue to haunt the continent and surrounding islands for a long time yet. Ecologists call it our ‘extinction debt’.

“The consequences of habitat loss play out slowly, over 100 to 500 or even 1000 years,” Hugh says. “In SA, for example, although now there is virtually no land clearing at all, some places have already been pushed so far that there are a lot of tiny populations of plants and animals scattered around the landscape that exist now but have no future. We call them the ‘living dead’, and they will continue to wither until they eventu-ally disappear.”

The ecological rule of thumb is that when 90 per cent of a habitat is cleared, 50 per cent of its species will be driven to extinction. Signs of our extinction debt are already evident. While the rate of land clearing has declined over the past decade, species losses haven’t. According to the Australia’s Progress report: “Between 1996 and 2006 the number of bird and mammal species assessed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable rose from 119 to 171, an increase of 44 per cent.”

One of the big issues for species conservation during this emerging biodiversity crisis is how to allocate limited funds to the expanding numbers of species needing help. As well as the federal list of threatened animal species, each State and territory has its own register. These inventories and the categories into which they are divided are mostly modelled on the famed IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, an international document maintained by the World Conservation Union.

In most cases, a species needs to be included on one of these lists to have any chance of attracting government funds for recovery work – but it must first be nominated, and that is usually done by either a scientist or amateur enthusiast with much knowledge of the species. It’s an onerous process that can often take more than a year.

When allocating resources, government conservation units usually start with the most threatened on their lists and work their way down. But this has two major flaws. First, sufficient research must be completed to prove a species is worthy of listing, otherwise it will be recorded as ‘data deficient’, or not recorded at all. This means that sometimes a species is disappearing while scientific information on it and its decline is still being gathered. Second, unless an animal or animal group is well known or much loved, or has a passionate supporter to champion its cause, it will slip unnoticed through the conservation cracks.

Related: ‘Time to stop hitting the snooze button, Australia!’ 

Sara Williams, manager of the Threatened Species and Ecosystems Unit of the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been overseeing the State-wide implementation of a radical new program called Back on Track, which aims to plug the conservation cracks and find a better way to assess the worthiness of species to be protected.

“I wanted a species prioritisation process that actually started identifying the less-loved animals and the less-popular species and gave them a little more of a focus, because there is quite a bit of a bias in species recovery towards mammals and birds,” Sara explains.

Back on Track gives a species a score using three sets of criteria: their probability of extinction, which is based on IUCN criteria; the consequences of extinction, which allows for the social value of a species and its role in an ecosystem; and the potential for recovery, which assesses the level of effort and resources it will take for species management and protection.

Species are given a rank: ‘critical’, ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ priority; or ‘poorly known’ (data deficient). Armed with the rankings, the EPA and natural-resource management groups throughout Queensland are now developing on-ground management actions that target key threats affecting multiple species. It’s a more holistic, habitat-protecting approach than has previously been taken and conservation agencies elsewhere in Australia and overseas are watching closely to see how it works.

WWF-Australia is also taking a broader, habitat-width approach to species conservation through its recently launched Flagship Species program. WWF is the largest non-government organisation providing direct support for species, and for the past 17 years has administered community-based grants for the Federal Government through the Threatened Species Network. The Flagship Species initiative aims to step up the organisation’s commitment in response to Australia’s escalating biodiversity losses.

The program unashamedly exploits the fact that it’s easier to secure public support for a furry mammal than a beetle. It highlights the plight of 10 groups of “charismatic” species, ranging from bilbies to marine mammals, which will be used to fly the flag for threatened habitats throughout Australia. It’s hoped these species will attract funds, particularly from corporate sponsors, that can be used to recover whole suites of less-loved but equally at-risk species, by saving the places in which they all live.

After working in animal conservation in Africa for almost a decade, zoologist Dr Tammie Matson, who is overseeing the Flagship Species program, understands the enormous pulling power of charismatic species. “You do have to be a bit marketing-wise when you’re trying to sell conservation programs,” she says. “I was working on elephants in Africa and that was a much easier project to sell than work on Australian species, particularly on the international scene.”

Tammie returned home this year after becoming increasingly concerned about the extinction crisis she heard was playing out in her homeland. “Most of the losses we’re experiencing here are of global significance because they’re species that are found nowhere else in the world,” she says. “There’s a lot of good work being done but we’re still losing species and that was my inspiration to come back. I thought it’s time to come home and start applying some of what I’ve learned abroad.”

Related: ‘Australia’s Most Endangered’: Introducing Australian Geographic Society’s new fundraisers