Why the world needs ecologists: a call to fight the extinction crisis

A major threat to civilisation often goes ignored: the extinction crisis. And yet it is a crisis entirely of our own making as we continue to push nature to its limits. Around one million species are on the verge of disappearing off the planet, and the rate at which species become extinct is accelerating.

Ecosystem land wheel. Ecosystem services provided to us by nature. Source: NatureScot (Scottish National Heritage)

‘Nature underpins all aspects of life,’ says Professor Brendan Wintle, the Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. Ecosystems and their biodiversity provide numerous benefits to us by cleaning and purifying water and air, buffering storms and raging fires, storing carbon, supporting wildlife and healthy soils, and supplying food, water, materials, medicines, and important cultural and recreational spaces. But their ability to do so is rapidly diminishing.

We sometimes forget that ‘it’s not all about us,’ says Brendan.

Since the 1500’s, we have experienced a dramatic, exponential loss of species. Having lost around 2% of species globally, this is up to 100-fold greater than the extinction rate expected over time as a part of natural processes. In our era, biodiversity loss is mostly driven by human activities: habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. On a global scale, 75% of land area has been significantly altered, 85% of wetland areas have been lost, and the ocean is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts from warming, acidification and plastic pollution.

Temperature Anomalies by Country. Progressing through time, there is a natural variation in whether countries are above (red) or below (blue) the long-term global average temperature, however, by the early 2000s, all countries are constantly above the long-term average temperature.

Brendan is concerned that the current response is insufficient. Transformative changes will be needed to restore and protect nature – so that nature, in turn, can continue to provide for us.

Australia is classified as a mega-diverse nation and its biodiversity is a considered a significant global asset, with more species than any other developed nation. But we also have the highest extinction rate in the developed world (and second highest in the world). Since European invasion, there have been at least 110 extinctions and the accelerating extinction rate shows no signs of slowing. It is time to restore our reputation.

The key to extinction prevention is understanding its root causes. Drivers in Australia are similar to the aforementioned global extinction drivers, with habitat loss being the worst. An additional driver, however, is introduced animal species such as feral cats, foxes and rabbits – perhaps surprisingly, the European rabbit remains the single largest threat due to its consumption of endangered plant species. Extreme weather events are also seeing mass deaths of native animal populations and adding a new type of pressure to an already stressed ecosystem. The extent and ferocity of the 2019-2020 bushfires, for example, saw habitat loss for 327 threatened species in a single event.

In the face of all this destruction, Brendan emphasises that it is important to maintain hope – because we can all make a difference. Individually, we can make conscious choices around purchasing sustainably produced timber, food and coffee, keep cats indoors to prevent the 390 million native animals killed each year by pet cats, and turn lights off to minimise light pollution that disrupts nocturnal activity.

The Threatened Species Recovery Hub advocates for more resourcing for conservation efforts – and the ask is far from astronomical.

A recent analysis of expenditure across 109 countries demonstrated that better biodiversity outcomes are directly correlated with the amount of investment. As evidence of this, 40 years ago the US government mandated a recovery budget for any species listed as threatened under its Endangered Species Act, which has been extraordinarily successful in recovering 85% of bird populations. In comparison, Australia’s budget for conservation is less than a tenth than that of the US.

A study of 109 countries (signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goals) in 2017 revealed a correlation between increased conservation spending and reduced biodiversity decline. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature24295
The average population increase of all birds under the Endangered Species Act has been 624%. Source: A Wild Success: A systematic review of bird recovery under the Endangered Species Act 2016, Center for Biological Diversity.

In the absence of government funding, Brendan suggests the integration of biodiversity protection into businesses. A shift towards regenerative agricultural practices will help to rehabilitate and enhance the entire farming ecosystem. Tiverton Farm, a 1000-hectare working sheep farm is Victoria’s largest predator-proof estate, housing Eastern Barred Bandicoots. Similarly, the Ricegrower’s Association established a project for Australasian Bitterns to use rice crops as their habitat, now supporting around 40% of the global population of these birds and producing “bittern-friendly rice”. Additionally, Wood4Good creates new timber forests on degraded, unproductive agricultural land to both sequester carbon and provide a new woodland habitat for local fauna. Brendan sees these as examples of where we can go next in our conservation efforts – with benefits to farmers and their crops while addressing the concurrent climate and biodiversity crises.

We also need two-way learning processes that engage Indigenous landowners and combine Indigenous ecological knowledge with Western scientific approaches. Having cared for this land for over 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shaped and retain extensive knowledge of the complex connections between land, plants and animals. Brendan and Dr Anja Skroblin at the University of Melbourne are working with Martu people, the traditional owners of over 14 million hectares of the western desert regions that are the last strongholds of the greater bilby. By establishing a co-designed, robust monitoring program, Martu people will be empowered to implement and evaluate land management strategies with support from academics.

Rob Gell (RSV President), Catriona Nguyen-Robertson (RSV Science Communications Officer), Professor Brendan Wintle (Presenter), Mike Flattley (RSV CEO).

‘Look at what is possible when we persist and invest,’ says Brendan. The United Nations Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and similar reports are full of bad news regarding the environment, climate, and biodiversity loss. But ecologists like Brendan are designing and implementing solutions to the extinction crisis in partnership with private land conservation organisations, Indigenous land managers, developers and governments to stop the accelerating extinction trajectory. We are all in this together and we all have a part to play.

This article follows a presentation to the Royal Society of Victoria on 13th May 2021 titled “Why the World needs Ecologists” delivered by Professor Brendan Wintle (University of Melbourne and Threatened Species Recovery Hub). All images used here were captured during his presentation.