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2002 - secret govt report on national biodiversity exposes disastrous state of nature in Australia

May 2003. Federal govt's key report on disastrous state of biodiversity in Australia leaked to public and media.


By Charlie Sherwin of Australian Conservation Foundation

Sent: Wednesday, April 30, 2003 10:38 AM
Subject: Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002-Contents

Below is the link to the just released biodiversity report which has recieved media coverage recently (the report was commissioned from leading scientists by the federal government). The report contains masses of useful information, including the statement that
"Eucalypt woodlands are the most extensively cleared vegetation group in Australia (p. 44),
and that
"The most common threatening processes for threatened species are vegetation clearing, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales",
and that
"clearing threatens ecosystems near Darwin and is related to developments for horticulture and improved pastures".
Case studies of regions like the Tasmanian northern Midlands and the Queensland Desert Uplands are also included. Important confirmation that controlling land clearing is one of the most cost-effective things governments can do for conservation, as is protecting the near-intact ecosystems in northern Australia. Information also included on completeness or otherwise of the protected areas system, and on rivers, wetlands, birds, mammals, etc, etc.

I have also attached some ACF facts sheets drawing on the report.
It is a really good time to write to Prime Minister John Howard, with a copy to Minister for Environment and Heritage David Kemp, care of Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600, congratulating them on commissioning and releasing this landmark report, and calling on them to take urgent steps to end the clearing of remnant native vegetation in Australia.

Urge also that the budget coming up in May should include a significant increase in the environment budget, including a major increase in funding for the National Reserve System Program.

To find the new government commissioned report:

then click on "atlas and data library", then on "theme reports" in the left hand column, then scroll down to

"Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002".


Charlie Sherwin, Australian Conservation Foundation

[Charlie's group, the ACF put out the following media release]

MEDIA RELEASE - Australian Conservation Foundation
Date, 2003
ATTENTION: Political, Resource and Environment Reporters

Australia facing extinction crisis: New report

A new report prepared for the Federal Government reveals that Australia's native wildlife and bushlands are facing an extinction crisis. The biggest stocktake of the country's wildlife and natural areas ever conducted, the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment is an urgent call to stop threats like landclearing, or risk destroying Australias natural heritage.

The reports new findings include:

One third of the worlds recent mammal extinctions are Australian.
Nearly 3000 unique bush-land types throughout Australia are found to be at risk, from the Coolibah woodlands of Queensland to the heathlands of Western Australia.

Northern Australia, previously thought to be a refuge for wildlife, is now increasingly under threat with more mammals at risk than previously thought.

The report says such a record of species loss is unparalleledanywhere else in the world. Landclearing is highlighted as one of the biggest causes for the loss of species and their habitat.

Past generations may have sleepwalked through extinctions like that of the Tasmanian Tiger. We are about to do it with our eyes wide open. Unless we and our governments act now, future generations will rightly hold us responsible for the conscious loss of our natural heritage," said ACF Executive Director, Don Henry.

The report outlines clear recommendations to arrest the free-fall into extinction for our native species. Halting land clearing should be a first priority, along with completing the national system of parks and protecting Northern Australia.

Our governments need to decide right now to take this report seriously, and act on it, said Henry.

We have been acting like gate-crashers at a giant biological party Weve been reveling in the natural abundance of Australia and using it for our economic benefit. But now the hangover is kicking in, and its time to clean up.

Further information and comment:
Don Henry, ACF Executive Director, 0418501395

For state-by-state and issue specific factsheets contact:
Erin Farley, ACF Media Officer, 0407 040 085

[useful extracts follow from the federal govt leaked report]

Our species in peril: What the Biodiversity Assessment says

New evidence in the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment is the biggest stocktake of the country's wildlife and natural areas ever conducted. As the following quotes illustrate, Australia is in the grip of an extinction crisis of global significance.

Threatened Bushlands

" 2891 threatened ecosystems and other ecological communities are identified across Australia with the greatest numbers in the highly cleared regions of southern and eastern Australia" (p. vi)

"Eucalypt woodlands are the most extensively cleared vegetation group in Australia." (p. 44)

Threatened species

"The total number of threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act [is] 1595" (p. 55)

"The geographic patterns for threatened species are similar to those seen for threatened ecosystems. The subregions associated with the highly cleared areas of southern and eastern Australia have the highest numbers of threatened species" (p. 56).

"Only eight of the 384 subregions in Australia have no recorded threatened species" [the report's analysis includes dividing Australia into natural "bioregions" and subregions] (p. 56).

"The status of threatened plants is declining across much of the continent, as are threatened birds with extinctions in arid parts of Western Australia. Threatened mammal species are rapidly declining in 20 subregions and declining in 174 subregions, particularly in arid parts of Western Australia. Reptiles are declining across 119 subregions. Threatened amphibians are declining in south-eastern Australia, and are rapidly declining in South East Queensland, Brigalow Belt South and Wet Tropics bioregions" (p. 56)

" Threatened species recovery across Australia requires a more strategic approach that goes beyond planning and addresses implementation." (p. 130).


"There has been a massive contraction in the geographical ranges and species composition of Australia's indigenous mammal fauna over the last 100+ years. One third of the world's extinct mammals since 1600 AD are Australian. Such a record is unparalleled in any other component of Australia's biodiversity, or anywhere else in the world" (p. 84 ).

"Evidence suggests that the wave of mammal extinctions in Australia is continuing (p. 96). Eighty-five percent of the species in this study are endemic to Australia [found nowhere else on earth]" (p. 86).


"For birds based on analysis of six million records, 29 species over the past 20 years show significant decrease in agricultural areas where an increased proportion of the landscape has been cleared. Birds most affected are the grassland, woodland and ground-nesting birds." (p.vii)

Gum trees and wattles

"The [regions] identified as important because of their [unique] species and high irreplacability in south-west Western Australia and in the Murrray-Darling Basin coincide with bioregions which are amongst the most extensively cleared, fragmented, and salinised in Australia this is of great concern for the on-going persistence of the acacia and eucalypt species of special value in these regions" (p. 100)

Wetlands, rivers and water birds

"The trend in the condition of nationally important wetlands shows that most are static (59%) but with a significant proportion declining (37%)" (p. 32).

"Reductions in Australia's waterbird populations reflect the decline in wetland condition. Fifty percent of Australia's inland waterbirds are threatened, mainly from loss of wetland and riparian [or riverine] habitat" (p. 32).

"The trend in condition of riparian [riverine] zones shows that across most of Australia (73%) they are declining" (p. 36)

Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002:
Our species in peril

The Problem

Entire bushland ecosystems are being damaged or disappearing outright, taking Australia's native plants and animals with them. National icons like some of our gum trees and marsupials are at risk from land clearing and other threatening processes.

The New Evidence
The Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment, the biggest audit of our wildlife and bushlands ever undertaken, reveals that:

New technology has allowed scientists to map the natural groupings of plants and animals, and assess their well-being. For the first time we are able to get a comprehensive scientific assessment of the health of our wildlife and their habitats. The report finds nearly 3000 whole bushland ecosystems are at risk, from the Coolibah woodlands of Queensland to Western Australias heathlands.

The endangered eco-systems provide homes for species such as bilbies, spectacled hare-wallabies, Gouldian finches and hundreds more. At least 1595 native plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, including some types of gum trees and wattles. The report proves that in general the more land clearing there is in a region, the more threatened species and ecosystems occur there.

New information points to crashing mammal populations and declining bird species in areas previously thought to be un-touched, such as Northern Australia. Over-grazing, changed fire practices, pests and weeds and increased landclearing, all threaten areas such as Kakadu, the Kimberley and Cape York.

The Solution

Our federal, state and territory governments must renew their efforts to protect Australia's wildlife and bushlands for future generations. Nature conservation must be placed high on the agenda of federal, state and territory governments and significant funding put towards protecting intact bush lands and whole eco-systems.

Key Goals

End the destruction of Australia's bushlands and wildlife habitat by controlling land clearing;

Complete a comprehensive, well managed system of nature conservation parks and reserves to include all of Australia's species and bushland types.

Avoiding the mistakes made in southern Australia by developing a new, ecologically and culturally appropriate approach to land use and regional development across Northern Australia, in partnership with local people and Traditional Owners.

Land Clearing: What the Assessment Says

The Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment shows that land clearing is a major current cause of species loss in Australia, that requires urgent action.

Effect of land clearing on native species and ecosystems

"The most common threatening processes for threatened species are vegetation clearing, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales

Other threats include, continuing loss of native vegetation in Tasmania, increased fragmentation of vegetation remnants in New South Wales and south-western Australia, overgrazing and feral animals across much of central and western Australia, inappropriate fire regimes in northern Australia, and changed hydrology from various causes (p. 44, see also land clearing map, p. 59).

"Similar processes affect threatened ecosystems. Vegetation clearing and increased fragmentation of [native] vegetation remnants are the most significant threats in eastern Australia. Additional threatening processes are firewood collection in parts of southern Australia, salinity and other changed hydrology and exotic weeds (p. 44).

" clearing threatens ecosystems near Darwin and is related to developments for horticulture and improved pastures (p. 50).

"Overall, the clearing of land for agriculture appears to have had the greatest non-climatic influence on bird species, which is reflected in the reduced abundance of a number of species in the agricultural regions of Australia. The most urgent actions identified by this and other studies are to end the clearing of native vegetation (p. 79)

"The [regions] identified as important because of their endemic species and high irreplacability in south-west Western Australia and in the Murrray-Darling Basin coincide with bioregions which are amongst the most extensively cleared, fragmented, and salinised in Australia this is of great concern for the on-going persistence of the acacia and eucalypt species of special value in these regions" (p. 100)

Urgent need to control land clearing

"urgent action is required to halt the clearing of all threatened ecosystems as well as broad-scale clearing within the Murray-Darling Basin (p. 64).

"In many parts of Australia the opportunities for a fully Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative [nature] reserve system no longer exist and elsewhere, particularly associated with areas being rapidly cleared, the options are rapidly diminishing" (p. 126).

Cost effectiveness of halting land clearing

"There is a growing trend for aspirational targets for the revegetation of native ecosystems back to 30% of their pre-clearing extent proposed in some recent catchment plans. the total repair bill to achieve this target would be at least $4.5 billion across Australia. This huge cost clearly demonstrates that protection and management of existing habitat must be the priority action rather than environmental remediation of past mistakes. (pp. 136-138)

"At the broader scale of natural resource management [in the Desert Uplands region in Queensland], there is an opportunity for the community at large to consider the relative value and costs of pastoral production versus the extensive range of ecosystem services that this largely intact region provides. These values relate to biodiversity, maintenance of the Great Artesian Basin, control of greenhouse gas emissions and prevention of salinity and other forms of land degradation. Australia-wide policy initiatives upon which to base such a long-term program are required. (p. 160)

" governments have a key responsibility to provide a range of programs from effective incentives to structural adjustment and market mechanisms to ensure that land can be sustainably and viably managed whilst protecting biodiversity" (p. 144).

Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002:

Land Clearing

The Problem
The most detailed analysis of Australia's wildlife and biological diversity ever done confirms that land clearing is out of control in this country. Ending the destruction of our bushlands and the homes of our unique wildlife would be a cost-effective investment in Australia's future.

The New Evidence
Land clearing is now revealed as the greatest threat, past or present, to Australia's biodiversity:

The clearing of land for agriculture is the biggest threat to birds.

Land clearing contributes to other major threats to wildlife such as salinity, habitat fragmentation and weed invasion.

The report recommends that preserving remaining bush lands should take priority over the restoration of already cleared lands.

Controlling land clearing would be one of the most cost-efficient ways to protect Australia's biodiversity. Revegetation and restoration projects are also sorely needed, but will be more expensive than preventing clearing in the first place.

The Solution
Urgent action is required from Federal, state and territory governments to protect Australia's native bushlands, and then to restore threatened bushland types. It is up to governments to provide the policies and financial resources to do the job properly:

Key Goals
Stronger national and state laws to end the clearing of remnant (or virgin) native bushlands and control other land clearing

A commitment to a firm plan for bushland restoration and management, to be implemented once land clearing is under control

Financial incentives to re-structure the economy towards a more environmentally sustainable model For example by paying stewards to look after special areas of bush or offering financial assistance for land-holders who need to change their management practices to help protect biodiversity.

Northern Australia: What the Assessment Says
New information in the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment reveals major threats to wildlife across the Kimberley, Top End, Gulf Country and Cape York Peninsula - Areas once thought to be a safe refuge for wildlife.

Conservation values of northern Australia
[many of Australia's largely unmodified or near pristine river reaches and estuaries are in northern Australia] (maps, pp.29-30).

"[areas with a] high number of limited range species [include Cape York Peninsula, the Gulf Plains, the Wet Tropics, the Top End and Kimberley] (p. 72).

"Cape York is a key region as it is relatively undeveloped and still retains a large number of species that have limited distributions." (p. 84)

Emerging threats to wildlife and bushlands
"The Top End of the Northern Territory and the North Kimberley have been considered to be a refuge for a range of mammal species based on this and other studies, this belief appears to be misleading (p. 96).

"Over the last 30 years, [the North Kimberley region] has suffered significant changes in vegetation composition and structure due to increased fire frequency and the recent arrival of large exotic herbivoresRecent trends indicate that with current land use some of the region's mammals will become extinct, while others will persist only on islands (p. 96).

"Even though human settlements are sparse in areas such as the tropical and sub-tropical savannas of northern Australia, and the intensity of pastoralism is relatively low, altered fire and grazing regimes have had major impacts on bird species (p. 80)

"In the more extensively used landscapes in northern and western Australia, large numbers of threatened ecosystems are identified primarily due to grazing pressure and changed fire regimes (p. 48).

" clearing threatens ecosystems near Darwin and is related to developments for horticulture and improved pastures" (p. 50).

Cost-effectiveness of conservation measures in tropical northern Australia

"Comparatively modest conservation initiatives and investment levels will lead to significant biodiversity conservation gains in much of northern Australia such as the Northern Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula, and across central Australia. Investment in protective management in these bioregions is cost effective and a priority. (p. 130)

"Addressing some of the threats in these regions could be more cost effective than for more intensively utilised bioregions (p. 96).

"In northern Australia and across central Australia's rangelands, significant gains can be made for limited effort relative to the cost of repair in southern Australia. This includes huge gains that can be made through promoting ecologically sustainable land use and preventing degradation compared with the cost of rehabilitation (p. 144).

"The case studies show that the investment required to deliver biodiversity conservation in predominantly natural bioregions is minimal compared to that required in the highly modified bioregions. Most of Australia's natural bioregions are in the rangelands and tropical woodlands. Therefore, a coordinated Australia-wide approach to biodiversity conservation for these bioregions is an investment priority." (p. 148).

Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment 2002:

Northern Australia

The Problem
Tropical northern Australia, from the Kimberley across the Top End, Gulf Country and Cape York Peninsula contains huge areas that are relatively untouched. It is an area of immense international importance for conservation. Although Northern Australia has been spared the worst ravages of land clearing and over-development, the region is facing increasing development pressures and urgent conservation challenges. It is crucial that the same mistakes that led to extinctions in southern Australia are not repeated in our tropical north, the world's last great tropical savanna.

The New Evidence
Although it had been thought that northern Australia was a refuge where wildlife populations could survive and flourish, the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment sounds a warning that this cannot be taken for granted:

Native mammal species like bandicoots and wallabies are crashing in Western Australia's Kimberley region and the Top End of the Northern Territory. This phenomenon could be repeated right across Northern Australia and Cape York Peninsula.

Significant changes in the bushlands of northern Australia are resulting from changed fire management, grazing pressures from cattle, the impact of feral pest species and land clearing in the Top End;

Addressing these emerging conservation challenges now, could save many species from extinction. Acting now is likely to be much more cost-effective than waiting until it is too late. Current attempts to recover species in southern Australia where species are further down the road to extinction are proving very expensive.

The Solution
Australia's Federal, state and territory governments must avoid repeating the mistakes made in southern Australia. It is up to them to develop a new, ecologically sustainable approach to land use and regional development across Northern Australia.

Key Goals

A review of current decision making and management processes. The development of a consistent and coordinated approach to the planning, management, use and protection of the land and seas of tropical northern Australia is crucial. This must be in close partnership with local people and traditional owners.

A major research effort to improve scientific knowledge and community awareness of biodiversity in the north and identify the key threats to northern Australia's wildlife and ecosystems. Particular attention must be paid to burning regimes, grazing effects, the impacts of feral animals and weeds and the threats posed by surface and ground-water development and land clearing.

The integration of nature conservation goals, along with clearly stated social, cultural and economic goals, into all land use and development across northern Australia, to achieve healthy country and healthy communities.

Parks, reserves and protected areas: What the Assessment Says

National parks and nature reserves are the keystone of any nature conservation strategy. Although Australia has made some progress towards building a comprehensive reserve system, the most detailed analysis ever produced the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment reveals that there are many important natural areas and native species which remain unprotected. It also shows that opportunities for reservation are decreasing rapidly as many species and ecosystems head towards extinction. The following quotes illustrate this:

The importance of nature conservation reserves

"The development of a Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative reserve system is the central strategy to conserve biodiversity [but] reserves need to be complemented by ecologically sustainable management of other lands and waters. (p. 117)

"Australia's national parks and protected areas are its premier investment in biodiversity conservation. Adequate management [and monitoring] of these areas is essential. (p. 125)

"In all case studies, a mix of reserve consolidation, threatened species and ecosystem recovery and integrated natural resource management measures are identified as essential to achieve effective biodiversity conservation. (p. 148)

"Management priorities and investment strategies [for rivers, estuaries and wetlands] will need to include programs for protection through reservation - such as the near pristine estuaries, river reaches and wetlands" (p. 40)

Australia's reserve system is incomplete

"Forty-two bioregions are poorly reserved and/or are under significant threat leading to the irreversible loss of opportunities for a fully Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative reserve system (p. 121)

" approximately 67% of [Australia's] regional ecosystem diversity is protected by national parks and formal reserves Seventy-one subregions have no protected areas. These figures are a measure of the comprehensiveness of the reserve system and demonstrate that the reserve system is incomplete or biased in terms of ecosystems reserved (p. 116)

"An identified 1500 ecosystems that are poorly conserved and in many cases threatened should be the focus of further reservation (p. viii).

"The standard of protected area management is classed as fair for 53% of the 57 bioregions assessed. Whilst improved management is needed, there is not irretrievable resource degradation occurring in most protected areas." (p. 116)

Urgent action to improve the reserve system required

"In parts of Australia, the opportunity to implement a comprehensive reserve system has been lost or is rapidly diminishing (p. 123)

" a major commitment is required to consolidate the reserve system. action to consolidate the reserve system is urgent. In many parts of Australia the opportunities for a fully Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative reserve system no longer exist and elsewhere, particularly associated with areas being rapidly cleared, the options are rapidly diminishing. (p. 126)

"The status of biodiversity and extent of threatening processes detailed in this report implies that there is an urgent need to implement a strategic plan for consolidating Australia's protected areas (p. 116).

"Reporting on the improvement in the protected area system and the reduction in number or priority bioregions should be undertaken as part of Australia's State of the Environment reporting" (p. 126)

Australian Biodiversity Assessment 2002:

National Parks and reserves

The Problem
There are major gaps in Australias system of nature conservation reserves, which are placing our wildlife and bushlands at risk. With land clearing and other threats rapidly eating away at bushland areas, urgent action and a major funding commitment is required from our governments to preserve what we have left.

The New Evidence
The Biodiversity Assessment, in the most thorough audit of conservation reserves ever conducted, identifies some major gaps in and threats to Australia's nature conservation reserve system:

Australia's conservation reserve system is incomplete: Forty-two major regions in Australia have only a poor conservation reserve system, and seventy-one sub-regions have no protected areas at all;
Significant on-going threats, including land clearing and degradation mean that the chance of including many species and ecosystems in new reserves is slipping beyond our grasp;

There is an crucial need to complete and correctly manage Australia's conservation reserve system.

The Solution
Australia's Federal, state and territory governments must reinvigorate their commitment to completing a comprehensive, well managed system of nature conservation reserves including all of Australia's species and ecosystems.

Key Goals

A major increase in funding is needed to buy land through the National Reserves System Program, in order to complete Australia's reserve system. Bush land types which have only a small proportion protected in parks should be the principle focus of investment;

Increased funding for the management of National parks and reserves, including systematic monitoring and reporting on the health of protected eco-systems.

Detailed auditing of improvements to Australias national parks and reserve system to ensure they are comprehensive and representative. This should be conducted every two years, and made publicly available on the internet and through regular inclusion in State of the Environment reporting;

Ensure National park and reserve systems are designed to maintain natural processes like evolution and water flows.

Policy measures and funding must be provided to ensure conservation is incorporated into land management as a whole.

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