Australia: Land of the Unusual, or the Homogenized?

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The island nation of Australia has a long history of newcomers landing on its shores — beginning with the first indigenous people, who arrived over 40,000 years ago.

With them they bought what was probably the first introduced animal to Australia – the dingo. While it is highly probable this canine had a significant impact on Australia’s unique wildlife, today the dingo is thought to help suppress some of the more damaging new arrivals that are threatening a new wave of mammal extinction in this country.

Australia is a country renowned for its unusual creatures – more than 83 percent of its mammals, nearly 90 percent of its reptiles and about 45 percent of its birds are found nowhere else on earth.

However, in the last 200 years, it is also a country seemingly overwhelmed by introduced species — from cats (such as the one in the image above, photographed by a camera trap) to donkeys, camels, pigs, rabbits, water buffalo and horses and the less obvious bees, ants, mussels and even cockroaches. Each of these species’ populations now numbers in the tens of thousands and often in the millions, including the larger animals such as the camels, pigs and cats.

These larger animals in particular are having a disastrous effect on Australia’s ecological balance. Feral animals are one of the key threats — along with land clearing, over-grazing and altered fire regimes — that are undermining native species survival here. These stresses are partly why Australia lays claim to the unenviable title of having the world’s worst rate of mammal extinction.

Many formerly abundant animals such as the Northern Quoll, Golden Bandicoot (image below) and Black-footed Tree Rat are declining, and doing so very rapidly. The declines are being reported from ranchers, indigenous communities, scientists and national park rangers alike.

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The situation is feared to be growing even worse, with northern Australia facing a new and potentially catastrophic wave of mammal extinctions. The Nature Conservancy’s Australia Program has been working to address this issue through a range of mechanisms, including feral animal control on conservation reserves it has established with its partners. It is also working to raise the profile of the issue through public education and by working collaboratively with scientists from partner organizations to identify the fine-scale cause of the decline.

Regardless of the cause, however, what is undeniably needed is a concerted effort to avert an international tragedy. Government, conservation organizations and the science community need to urgently come together and implement a coordinated plan of action that on one level engages the broader community to raise their awareness of the impending extinction crisis yet also addresses key threats on-the-ground (such as cats and cane toads) through effective — and widespread — feral animal control.

(Images: (1) Feral cat photographed by a camera trap, Picca Plains, northern Australia; (2) Golden bandicoot, Northern Territory, Australia. Credit: Alaric Fisher.

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Comments

  1. hmmm… now, i know this isn’t strictly a matter of empiricism but, conventionally speaking – and in terms of sheer land area, and biological and geological distinctiveness – shouldn’t australia be properly referred to as a continent rather than as an island?

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