The koala is a threatened species. The dramatic ongoing loss of Australian animal and plant species has prompted influential scientists to call on governments to start making tough decisions about which ones to save - and which species should be left to face extinction. Photo: ABC

By Margot O'Neill
20 March 2014

The dramatic ongoing loss of Australian animal and plant species has prompted influential scientists to call on governments to start making tough decisions about which ones to save - and which species should be left to face extinction.

The proposal to triage Australia's unique species comes from some of the nation's most senior conservation biologists.

It is a radical and controversial shift from decades of hard-fought conservation victories aiming to preserve all species and wilderness.

"I'm afraid to tell everybody we're in a terminal situation. We're confronting a whole raft of species about to go over the extinction cliff," Professor David Bowman, an expert in environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, said.

Professor Corey Bradshaw, director of the Environment Institute's Climate and Ecology Centre at The University of Adelaide, says Kakadu National Park has suffered a 95 per cent decline in mammals.

"Kakadu National Park, our largest national park, is basically a biodiversity basket case," Professor Bradshaw said.

"The Great Barrier Reef has been suffering biodiversity declines for decades. Now if we can't get it right in our two biggest and most well-known and certainly the best-funded parks and protected areas in Australia, what hope have we for the rest of our national parks?"

Around Australia at least 100 unique species have already become extinct since European settlement with more than 1,500 under threat, but scientists suspect many more have vanished or are on the brink without anyone realising.

It is a worldwide phenomenon, with global extinction rates of species not seen at this level since the loss of the dinosaurs.

Australia's network of under-resourced national reserves is being overwhelmed, while sprawling urban, agricultural and industrial development, feral animals and climate change are partly to blame, scientists say.

Some believe the current focus on saving all threatened species is misplaced, and say there should be more emphasis on saving the most vital ecosystems and species.

It could mean amending laws mandating recovery plans for all species, according to a senior environmental lawyer.

"The focus on threatened species seems doomed to failure, especially because of climate change," Jeff Smith from the NSW Environmental Defenders Office said.

"We need to be looking at key species that are able to drag ecosystems and other species up by the bootstraps."

Professor Bowman says the difficulty is confronting the notion that not all species are equal.

"If you put in one corner a rare butterfly and in another corner a Tasmanian devil, I have to say as a conservation biologist that the Tasmanian devil is more important - it's a top predator, it's at the end of an evolutionary lineage, it's charismatic, it's a mammal (and) we can't afford to lose such a thing," he said.

Some environmentalists strongly oppose picking winners and losers, among them Greens Senator Larissa Waters.

"I can't bear the thought that we should give up on our iconic Australian species and I can't bear the thought that we somehow throw the towel in too soon," she said. [more]

Scientists resign 'living dead' species to extinction, call for triage debate

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