Another mammal is gone. When will we learn?

By Angela Heathcote 20 February 2019
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The Bramble Cay melomys was declared extinct by the Morrison Government on Monday, prompting conservationists to, again, question the effectiveness of laws and management.

“NO GOVERNMENT likes to admit failure,” says conservation biologist John Woinarski. “But the melomys extinction is a clear failure.”

On Monday, the Morrison Government quietly announced the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent living on an island in the Torres Strait.

The extinction is significant as it’s thought to be the first extinction directly linked to human-induced climate change, as its habitat became increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise and intense tropical storms.

“It was always on the brink over the course of its existence,” says John. “It lived on a single tiny island, equal to the size of two MCGs, just three metres above sea level. That fragility and the urgency of its imperilment was never really understood by those in charge.”

According to John, while there are ecological factors, the extinction is also a product of bureaucracies, laws and management.

“The most obvious thing in hindsight was that a captive breeding population should have been established and it’s pretty easy to do, but there was no real commitment by government departments,” he says.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Ian Gynther, a senior conservation officer in the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Queensland at the time, said it took conservationist five months to get approved and plan for a captive-breeding program and by then, it was too late.

The molemys was declared extinct by the Queensland Government in 2016, after which John and his colleagues analysed their fate alongside the fates of the Christmas Island pipistrelle and the Christmas Island forest skink.

The Christmas Island pipistrelle. (Image credit: Chris Tidemann)

“It was unusual to have three vertebrate extinctions over a five year period anywhere in the world. We didn’t want the extinctions to go unmourned, with no lessons learnt. We hoped that understanding those events would diminish the likelihood of more happening in the future,” John says.

Arguably the papers most important recommendation is the establishment of a coronial inquest, typical of the legal profession, to be applied to extinctions, which can determine causality and clear accountability.

In December last year, John conducted an informal inquiry of his own into what happened and who’s responsible for the extinction of the Christmas Island pipistrelle. He declared the extinction of the pipistrelle “the first irretrievable failure of Australia’s environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation [EPBC] Act”.

A Bat’s End, published by the CSIRO, includes a table 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.

John attributed 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”.

John says that good governments and judicial systems typically respond to deaths from unknown causes, multiple related fatal events, or examples of government failures with coronial inquests that seek to determine the causes, to attribute blame and to draw lessons so that similar events are less likely to recur in the future.

“We should do the same with extinctions,” John says. “One of the objectives of the EPBC Act is the prevention of extinction and the recovery of threatened species. The extinction of the melomys is a clear failure of its objectives and we need to start learning from these mistakes.”