By science, environment and technology reporter Michael Slezak
Posted 7 Sep 2018
An area bigger than Tasmania has been carved from the habitats of threatened species in just 17 years, prompting one environmental researcher to describe the situation as a “deep shame for Australia”.
- Federal laws introduced by John Howard’s government to protect habitats of threatened species
- Research finds 7.6 million hectares of that habitat destroyed between 2000 and 2017
- At least 90 per cent of destroyed habitat was never subject of application under federal law, study also found
Federal laws were put into place in 2000 specifically to protect the ecosystems of a host of rare species.
Now, for the first time, scientists have taken satellite data of forest and bushland that has been logged or bulldozed, and overlaid it with maps of threatened-species habitat.
They found 7.6 million hectares of that habitat had been destroyed between 2000 and 2017.
Researchers from the University of Queensland, in collaboration with three large environmental NGOs, also compared the maps with applications under federal environment law.
The law requires that any activity expected to have a significant impact on threatened species obtain federal approval.
The research found at least 90 per cent of destroyed habitat was never even the subject of an application under federal law.
The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was introduced by the Coalition government when John Howard was prime minister.
Since then, projects assessed by successive federal governments have been overwhelmingly approved.
More than 6,100 projects have been referred under the law since it was introduced — and only 21 have been rejected outright.
The biggest driver of threatened-species habitat loss was agriculture, the analysis found, with livestock pasture being the biggest agricultural driver.
Native-forest logging, urban development, and mining were also significant causes.
Among the species most affected were some of Australia’s iconic animals — koalas, cassowaries and Carnaby’s cockatoos.
Loss of habitat for selected species 2000-2017
|Likely habitat loss (hectares)
|Known habitat loss (hectares)
Source: Fast-Tracking Extinction Report
“To my mind this is something of deep shame for Australia,” said Professor James Watson from the University of Queensland, one of the authors of the analysis.
“The EPBC was something to be celebrated. People said at the time this was a landmark act.
“This act was written because we recognised the biodiversity was important to our national legacy. The fact is the underlying enforcement of it is completely lacking.”
The work was done in collaboration with the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF and the Wilderness Society.
“Despite its high aims to protect biodiversity and threatened species, our national environment law has failed to address the key problem driving extinction of Australia’s unique wildlife — the destruction and fragmentation of forests and bushland,” said Kelly O’Shanassy, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s CEO.
Professor Richard Kingsford, a conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales, said it was a “huge problem”.
“Government is hiding behind an implication that there is good management going on but we’re continuing to drive the extinction crisis by not managing habitat,” he said.
Australia holds the world record for extinctions of mammals, with 28 mammals recorded as having gone extinct since Europeans arrived.