Every year more and more Australian species are being listed as threatened or are having their conservation status upgraded.
The continent is home to between 600,000 and 700,000 different species, many of which – including 83% of mammals, and 45% of birds – are found nowhere else in the world. But once we know one of these species is in trouble, how do we actually go about saving it?
Threatened species are listed by the federal Minister for Environment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which provides Australia’s national framework to identify, protect and manage threatened native species and ecological communities.
Any member of the public can submit nominations to add or change the threat status of a species, based on, for instance, its population size, a reduction in that population or a reduction in its geographic range.
The Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) reviews these nominations and makes recommendations to the Minister who either endorses or rejects the nomination. There are a few steps involved, which are outlined in much more detail here.
The TSSC produces ‘Conservation Advice’ to establish why a species is listed and what can be done to stop its decline or support its recovery. But Conservation Advice is just that, advice, and it’s not legally enforceable.
Many threatened species need a recovery plan. It’s a critical step towards evaluating their status and identifying the pathway towards improving it.
‘Recovery Plans’ are longer documents usually made for species with more complex planning needs. They provide information on species’ populations and distributions and the threats they face, and outline the actions needed to recover them.
Importantly, unlike Conservation Advice, the Minister must not act in a way that’s inconsistent with a Recovery Plan.
This year the federal Auditor General reviewed the Government’s implementation of the EPBC Act and found that there are 1944 threatened species, 1595 items of Conservation Advice and 410 Recovery Plans, as of February 2022.
The Labor Government committed to reforming the EPBC Act in its election platform earlier this year and a full response to another independent review is expected by the end of this year.
So, we need these documents to outline what actions are needed to recover a threatened species, but who actually makes sure these actions are implemented?
This is where Recovery Teams come in; they’re usually made up of key stakeholders – scientists, non-government organisations, Traditional Owners, members of the community and government agencies, for example – brought together with this shared goal.
The Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW) established Best Practice Guidelines, a national register, and a national reporting framework for Recovery Teams to annually report on their progress in achieving the objectives of the Recovery Plan.
But putting in the work to actually save a threatened species takes resources and, unfortunately, being listed under the EPBC Act doesn’t guarantee a species’ recovery plan will receive funding.
This week the Federal Government announced the new 2022-2032 Threatened Species Action Plan, which supersedes the previous 2021-2031 Threatened Species Strategy. The new Action Plan identifies 110 priority species to help prioritise action and investment in conservation.
Read more: New Threatened Species Action Plan aims for no new extinctions, but the funding is nowhere near adequate.
However, the government will not fund every recovery plan nor always provide funding needed to do vital recovery work. Instead, efforts to raise money often rely on fundraising and attaining competitive grants. Recovery Teams and individuals are competing for the limited resources allocated to the 110 Priority Species out of the 1944 threatened species listed.
How do you save the Spectacled Flying-Fox?
First listed as vulnerable in 2002, Spectacled Flying-foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) are long-distance pollinators and seed dispersers that live in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea and north-eastern Queensland.
An initial 10-year Recovery Plan was published in 2010, but with no established Recovery Team to take charge there was very little follow-up work done. On the basis of a of a 2015 nomination, the species was then up-listed to endangered in early 2019.
But the associated Conservation Advice became immediately outdated because almost a third of the Australian Spectacled Flying-fox (SFF) population had died in an unprecedented heatwave in Cairns in late 2018.
This kicked the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) and the Bats and Trees Society of Cairns (BatSoc) into action, putting out the call to finally assemble a much needed SFF Recovery Team for the first time.
The Recovery Team got right to work putting together a new, up-to-date Recovery Plan; but there’s a problem – despite being on that list of 110 priority species, they haven’t received any funding to do this vital work.
“We’ve spent the last two years trying to get a Recovery Plan up and running and met numerous obstacles – we have no funding to do it,” says Dr Noel Preece, Lead Scientist of the Spectacled Flying-fox Recovery Team.
Preece says it’s become increasingly clear that climate change and the effect of rising temperatures on heat stress events is likely a driving factor in the SFF’s decline, but more studies are needed to properly establish this.
And because 85% of the “camps” where SFFs roost during the day are outside protected areas – about a third of these on freehold land – habitat loss through the clearing of essential vegetation needs to be addressed.
“We want to identify and quantify all the camps and roosts and look at their vegetation condition types and so on, so we can work out what these bats are actually depending on,” explains Preece.
According to Maree Treadwell Kerr, Coordinator of the Spectacled Flying-fox Recovery Team and President of BatSoc, raising awareness to change negative public perceptions of flying foxes is also of utmost importance.
“One of the major reasons why we don’t have community support for the conservation of Spectacled Flying-foxes is that people don’t know about them, or they don’t like them,” says Treadwell Kerr.
But the BatSoc Save Our Spectacled Flying-fox Watch citizen science project, where residents of Cairns can submit information about where these animals are spending their days and nights, helps address both of these goals.
Treadwell Kerr says they hope to receive funding to expand the project to include the whole of North Queensland in the future.
Saving the world’s rarest marsupial: Gilbert’s Potoroo
The critically endangered Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii) came fifth in the 2022 Cosmos Magazine Australian Mammal of the Year competition and is one of our most threatened mammals – only 100-120 individuals remain.
They were initially thought to be extinct until the species was rediscovered in 1994 at Two Peoples Bay Nature reserve east of Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia.
The Western Australian Government quickly created a Recovery Team and first interim Recovery Plan for the species and according to Dr Tony Friend, former leader of the Gilbert’s potoroo recovery project, the threat of bushfires to the remaining population was immediately recognised.
So, efforts began in earnest to establish other captive bred and relocated insurance populations; initially, scientists relocated 10 animals to Bald Island over the course of three years between 2005 and 2007.
“The Bald Island population just went like a bomb: we had 49 animals just three years later. And we ended up with what seems to be the maximum we can get on that part of the island, which is about 70 animals,” says Friend, who is now a Research Associate in the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions in the Government of Western Australia.
With funding from the WA Government, a fenced enclosure was built at Waychinicup National Park and potoroos were released there in 2010, where 25-30 individuals remain now.
Without those insurance populations the species would have almost certainly been wiped out completely, because in 2015 their worst fears were realised when a fire swept through Two Peoples Bay and burnt 90% of the Potoroos’ habitat.
So, what does conserving the Gilbert’s Potoroo look like seven years on?
Another insurance population has been established on Middle Island but Friend says that repopulating Two Peoples Bay, where it appears there are no Gilbert’s potoroos left, is a crucial goal.
“That’s the most urgent thing because there’s habitat that’s already there, it’s recovering, and it was a perfect site for them before. If we can get that population re-established, then we would be back where we were before the fire,” he says.
There’s also the Gilbert’s Potoroo Action Group (GPAG), a not-for-profit, volunteer community group that was established in 2002 to help support the implementation of the Recovery Plan through three main objectives: fundraising, raising awareness and volunteering.
Dr Jackie Courtenay, who is a conservation biologist, and the Communications Coordinator and Grants Project Manager for GPAG, says that the fundraising component of GPAG has become more important in the last few years as funding for conservation has become increasingly channelled through community groups.
“We’ve raised over $1.25 million over 20 years, and the bulk of that, probably about $850,000, has been raised in the last three years,” explains Courtenay, who is also one of GPAG’s representatives on the Recovery Team.
Courtenay says GPAG’s most recent grant from the WA State NRM program will allow them to do environmental DNA work to look for underground fungi – the primary food source of Gilbert’s Potoroos – using soil sampling, to help assess vegetation suitability for potential translocation sites.
There are also plans, in collaboration with several other Recovery Teams, for a larger, mainland recovery site that multiple species, including Gilbert’s Potoroos, will be able to use as habitat.
So, it seems that saving threatened species takes a combination of a few key factors.
Having an up-to-date and accurate plan for how to tackle the recovery is a must, but to make sure these actions are actually implemented you need dedicated people willing to put in the necessary hard work. And of course, neither of these things can be possible without also receiving adequate funding to recover the threatened species in the first place.