The report, conducted by scientists at Charles Darwin University in Australia and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has concluded that no other country has suffered such an extraordinary rate of land mammal extinction over this time period, with the results far worse than anticipated.
Since European colonisation in 1788, 11 per cent of 273 native land mammals have become extinct, 21 per cent are threatened and 15 per cent are near threatened, leading conservationists to proclaim it as an ‘extinction calamity’. The decline has been attributed to predation by non-native species such as the feral cat and red fox, which were introduced from Europe and are now estimated at between 15 and 23 million in number on the continent, as well as the effects of using large-scale fires as a method of managing land.
Conservation biologist John Woinarski, who led the research, spoke to Australian SBS news and urged people to take heed, stating ‘A further 56 Australian land mammals are now threatened, indicating that this extremely high rate of biodiversity loss is likely to continue unless substantial changes are made. The extent of the problem has been largely unappreciated until recently because much of the loss involves small, nocturnal, shy species with [little] public profile – few Australians know of these species, let alone have seen them, so their loss has been largely unappreciated by the community.’
Methods for reversing this decline are currently being considered – with practical measures including setting up land mammal ‘arks’ by boosting biosecurity on lands off the mainland, which have fewer feral cats and foxes. Similar methods were used in the relocation of Tasmanian devils to Maria Island, also done to protect the species from introduced predators.
More careful use of fire and control measures to wipe out foxes and feral cats are also being mooted, although careful consideration is being given at ways to avoid the risk of some native species being affected by these measures.
While doubtless a step in the right direction, Woinarski warns that these measures will mean little without increased public awareness and consideration in the way they live on the land. ‘We can learn more about these species. One of the problems is that most Australians don’t know what a bilby, or a dalgyte is.’