Tag Archive | Extinction

Dead and dying: our great mammal crisis


Extinct: the pipistrelle.
source: The Age


Tim Flannery

IN LATE August 2009, a tiny, solitary bat fluttered about in the rainforest near Australia’s infamous Christmas Island detention camp. We don’t know precisely what happened to it. Perhaps it landed on a leaf at dawn after a night feeding on moths and mosquitoes and was torn to pieces by fire ants; perhaps it succumbed to a mounting toxic burden placed on its tiny body by insecticide spraying. Or maybe it was simply worn out with age and ceaseless activity, and died quietly in its tree-hollow. But there is one important thing we do know: it was the last Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). With its passing, an entire species winked out of existence.

Two decades earlier, the island’s population of pipistrelles had been healthy. A few scientists had watched the species’ decline with concern until, after the million or more years that it had played a part in keeping the ecological balance of the island, they could see that without action its demise was imminent. They had done their best to warn the federal government about the looming catastrophe, but they might as well have been talking to a brick wall. The bureaucrats and politicians prevaricated for three years, until it was too late.

While Australians argued about the fate of the asylum seekers who shared the pipistrelles’ home, nothing effective was done to help the bats. Indeed, except for those watching scientists, few seemed to give a thought to the passing of the species, nor what it might mean for Christmas Island or our country.

The pipistrelles’ extinction was painful for me. In an attempt to avert it I met Peter Garrett, then the environment minister, and warned him of the impending loss. I had brought offers of assistance and expertise from the Australian Mammal Society to his attention. The society was confident the species could be saved – at a cost of perhaps only a few hundred thousand dollars. But Garrett was convinced by the orthodoxy that ecosystems rather than species should be the focus of the national conservation effort, and I got the message that nothing would be done. Saving the bat wasn’t an impossible mission: it’s just that the government and the people of Australia, one of the richest countries on earth, decided it wasn’t worth doing.

What really shook me was that it was the first extinction of a mammal in Australia for 60 years, and the first in my lifetime. My original professional expertise lies in mammalogy and palaeontology, and before the pipistrelles’ demise I believed the worst of Australia’s extinction crisis was behind us – that somehow my generation was wiser and more caring, and would not tolerate any more losses of Australia’s unique mammals. It’s now clear that those 60 years were a lull in the storm, and that the pipistrelles’ demise marked the beginning of a new extinction wave.

Australia’s first extinction wave began almost as soon as the First Fleeters stepped ashore, and by the 1940s it had carried away 10 per cent of the continent’s mammal species. In 1791, a convict wrote about the white-footed rabbit rat, saying that it was a pest in the colony’s food stores. The soft-furred, grey-and-white kitten-sized creature was arguably the most beautiful of Australia’s 70-odd native rodent species, yet it was destined to be one of the earliest victims of European settlement. Two hundred years ago it could be found in woodlands from near Brisbane to Adelaide, but the last record of it dates to the 1850s.

The thylacine and the toolache wallaby were the largest creatures to succumb in the first extinction wave. These extinctions were, however, atypical: indeed, one of the most astonishing aspects of the first extinction wave was that its victims included what had been the most abundant and seemingly secure mammals in Australia.

The causes of these extraordinary extinctions were varied. The cessation of Aboriginal burning doubtless had its effect, and until the 1930s bounties were paid by many state governments for the scalps of now-extinct creatures. But the depredations of foxes (which were spreading quickly by the early 20th century) and feral cats, and the wholesale destruction of native vegetation by livestock and rabbits, must have been important causes.

While the causes are disputed, the effect of the first extinction wave is clear: it gutted the biodiversity of the drier parts of the continent, and very few native mammals larger than a rat and smaller than a kangaroo can be found on Australia’s inland plains today. It’s the absence of such species – the so-called critical-weight-range mammals (they weigh between 500 grams and 5 kilograms), which were once among the most abundant of creatures – that has led me to characterise the national parks of Australia’s southern inland as ”marsupial ghost towns”.

The gathering second extinction wave is now mopping up the few surviving medium-size mammals in Australia’s south and inland. It’s not difficult to predict which will be the next to become extinct, for, like the pipistrelles, their decline has been charted for years. There are 15 frogs, 16 reptiles, 44 birds, 35 mammals and 531 plants on Australia’s endangered species list, and among those closest to the brink are three mammals: the central rock rat, the bridled nailtail wallaby and the numbat.

All hang by a thread, and next to nothing effective is being done to halt their slide into oblivion.

The second extinction wave is emptying vast swaths of the continent untouched by the first wave. Australia’s Top End and Kimberley were, until recently, a paradise for medium-size mammals, among them a close relative of the white-footed rabbit rat. The past two decades have seen this fauna all but exterminated in the Top End, even in our most valued and best-resourced national parks.

Perhaps it is excusable that Australians are unaware of the extinctions occurring in distant places such as Arnhem Land and other regions of our far north. But astonishingly, we also seem blind to the perils facing species much closer to home – for example, the sand flathead of Port Phillip Bay. A fish familiar to every Melburnian who has ever dangled a line, its population has declined by 97 per cent over the past decade.

Why should the extinction of Australian organisms concern us? The answer, I think, is almost precisely the same as to the question of why human rights are important, even when they concern people we’ll never meet. First and foremost, it is a matter of values. The demise of a bat may not weigh greatly in the balance of human wellbeing, but it speaks volumes about the human soul.

As with human rights, extinctions raise the question of where we draw the line. If we can stand by as a species of bat is snuffed out, then why not other species as well? Can we really expect poor Indian villagers to heed our pleas to conserve the tigers that menace their livestock if we do nothing to prevent the extinction of Australian species?

At the heart of this nation’s efforts to save its endangered species is a register of subspecies, species and ecological communities that are threatened with extinction. By law, each entity included on the list should have a detailed recovery plan written for it, which when implemented should save it from extinction. These plans classify species on a sliding scale – from vulnerable to critically endangered or extinct. The federal legislation governing these plans states: ”Recovery plans are binding on the Australian government – once a recovery plan is in place, Australian government agencies must act in accordance with that plan.”

What a wonderful reassurance! It’s a pity, then, that the system underpinning the promise is as rotten as Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. By their fruit ye shall know them: since the legislation mandating action plans was enacted in 1992, only a single vertebrate species has become so abundant as to merit being taken off the threatened species register. But saltwater crocs are atypical of Australia’s endangered species in that the threat they faced was simple: when the shooting for skins was stopped, the species recovered.

Why are we failing so abjectly in protecting our threatened species? The pitifully slow rate at which recovery plans are being drafted is one factor. In New South Wales, for example, in the past 20 years recovery plans have been completed for only about 10 per cent of all species listed as vulnerable to extinction.

Things get worse. In 2006 the federal government excused itself from the obligation to draft plans for species listed as vulnerable to extinction. As a result, if the environment minister decides for whatever reason not to draft a plan, then it simply isn’t done. And even if a plan is completed, there’s no guarantee that it will receive funding.

Why are action plans so often failing to help species recover? The glacially slow development of the plans, along with the lack of obligation to fund and report back on them, are clearly major impediments. But there are other problems. Some plans do not describe how species might be saved. Instead, they often state that more money is required for research before appropriate action is taken.

Such is the depth of public ignorance about Australia’s extinction crisis that most people are unaware it is occurring, while those who do know of it commonly believe that our national parks and reserves are safe places for threatened species. In fact, the second extinction wave is in full swing and it’s emptying our national parks and wildlife reserves as ruthlessly as other landscapes. This is disturbing: national parks exist explicitly to conserve biodiversity, and their failure to do so is a failure both of government policy and our collective will to protect our natural heritage.

The problem lies not with the parks’ staff, who are often dedicated and skilled at their work. Nor does it lie solely with budgets, although more funding rather than more cuts would always be welcome. Instead, the difficulties are at least threefold. First and foremost, the problem stems from the delusion that the simple act of proclaiming a national park or nature reserve will result in the protection of biodiversity. Parks must be proclaimed and effectively managed if biodiversity is to be protected.

Second, the various government agencies responsible for biodiversity protection have allowed their scientific capacity to erode to the point where it’s hard to be sure how many individuals of most endangered species survive; and third, the attempt to save endangered species involves risks that bureaucracies are increasingly unwilling to take.

The first duty of the bureaucrats these days seems to be to protect their minister from criticism: thus it often seems preferable to let a species die out quietly, seemingly a victim of natural change, than to institute a recovery program that carries a risk of failure.

Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations: the conservation of our natural heritage. The times also suit cynical self-interest: cash-starved state governments, ever more desperate for income and political support, are rolling back even the inadequate present protections, and economic pressures are making it difficult for not-for-profit organisations that focus on nature protection to make ends meet.

What to do? As this saga of ignorance, folly and malice unfolds, it has become clear that those working outside government have a crucial role to play in conserving our biodiversity. Indeed, I believe that it is action by the private and not-for-profit sectors, working with government, that holds the key to protecting our endangered species in a competent and affordable manner. Australians need to take a look at ourselves.

This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 48After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis by Tim Flannery, published on Monday by Black Inc




Will 6 Species Perish? Asia’s Conservation Crossroads



On Sept. 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon on earth died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. The species, once numbering in the billions, had been hunted to extinction.

Around the same time, another iconic North American species, the bison, was also being hunted past the point of no return. But the bison didn’t die off steadily until the last one perished in an enclosure. The species rebounded, and today shaggy herds meander through Yellowstone National Park, blissfully unaware of how close they came to being wiped out.

This week, the story of the passenger pigeon and the bison is being highlighted halfway across the globe, at a conference organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Jeju, South Korea. The Wildlife Conservation Society has circulated a list of Asian species that are at a “conservation crossroads” and are desperately in need of the sort of concerted effort that prevented the bison from going the way of the passenger pigeon.

The list includes the tiger, orangutans, Mekong giant catfish, Asian rhinos, Asian giant river turtles, and Asian vultures. Some of the biggest threats to those species are the conversion of land to palm oil plantations and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade.

Joe Walston, executive director of Asia programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the conference comes at a critical moment for the region. “Asia is going through many of the changes that took place in North America a century ago and is fast becoming a global economic powerhouse,” he said. “But along with that comes the impacts of development.”

Action by governments will be critical to success, he added. “As a region, Asia now really has total control over what happens to the species in the area. Governments finally have the capacity and financial means to turn the tide on extinctions, if they choose to accept the responsibility,” he said.

India is receiving recognition at the conference for an explicit high-profile commitment that it made in 1972 to protect wild tigers within its borders. “India took full responsibility for the fate of its wild tigers,” Dr. Walston said. “As a result, India is now the global center of tiger conservation.”

What conservation officials long for are parallel commitments from other countries in the region, including tough crackdowns on the illegal wildlife trade.

“Currently, Asia is one of the leading consumers of wildlife and wildlife products,” Dr. Walston said. “Asia will thus define not only the destiny of local species but species from around the world.”


Sumatran Orangutan Relocated as Forest Clearing Continues

Sumatran Orangutan Relocated as Forest Clearing Continues

An adult male orangutan is captured for re-release after it’s home forest has quickly been cleared for palm oil plantations in Tripa, Aceh Province, 18 April 2012. The Tripa Peatswamp forest supports the highest density of Sumatran Orangutans anywhere on earth, but are still being cleared by palm oil companies who think they are beyond the reach of the law, the situation is urgent and requires action according to Dr Ian Singelton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. Photo: Paul Hilton

David Gilbert – Environmental Anthropologist, Stanford University
Published June 4, 2012 08:45 AM
Environmental News Network

An imperiled orangutan was rescued from a small patch of the Tripa peat swamp rainforest in Sumatra last month, in an effort to save this large adult male from starvation. But experts fear he could be among the last of his kind in what was once prime habitat for these graceful, shy great apes.

The orangutan had become trapped in the area when the forest around him was cleared by developers to make way for the planting of palm oil. Yenny Saraswati, a veterinarian who specializes in the care of orangutans at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, was alerted of the orangutan by villagers in the Tripa rainforest, who sent him a text message: “Another orangutan needs help.”

Yenny dispatched a local member of her field staff to find and monitor the orangutan. They found the forest creature in a small oasis of surviving forest, created as palm oil companies cleared the surrounding forest for new plantations. The orangutan was running out of food, like wild fruits and insects, according to Dr Ian Singleton, the orangutan expert and Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program imperiled orangutan was rescued from a small patch of the Tripa peat swamp rainforest in Sumatra last month, in an effort to save this large adult male from starvation. But experts fear he could be among the last of his kind in what was once prime habitat for these graceful, shy great apes.gramme who oversaw the rescue.

Orangutans are highly intelligent animals. They make umbrellas using forest leaves to hold over their heads when it rains, they engineer complex and cozy sleeping nests capable of supporting their bulk high up in the canopy, and in Sumatra’s peat swamp forests, like Tripa, they fashion tools out of sticks to extract honey from bees nests and the seeds of hard Neesia fruits; Indonesians call them orang hutan, or “people of the forest.” And, just like most of us city dwellers, orangutans suffer when they are removed from their lifelong homes.

But Singleton, Yenny and their crew decided they had to move this starving orangutan, despite the trauma of relocation, after watching him lose thirty percent of his body weight over the last three 3 months.

The IUCN lists the Sumatran Orangutan as Critically Endangered — the highest threat level on this organization’s “Red List” of imperiled species. In 1950 the Sumatran orangutan population probably well over 30,000. Today, only around 6,000 remain. Every Sumatran orangutan counts in their efforts to save these great apes from extinction, Singleton says.

Cik Rini, a communications manager at World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, says it is difficult to protect even the most important orangutan habitats from destruction. The relocated orangutan was found in a fragment of the Tripa forest once home to as many as 2,000 orangutans. These peat swamps contain the highest densities of orangutans in the world but, today, only about two hundred still live in the area, said Rini. Much of the forest has been heavily cleared to make way for the 5 palm oil plantations that operate there. Rini sees the plight of the relocated orangutan as representative of an ongoing trend in Indonesia, where the country’s last remaining rainforests are rapidly being replaced with big plantations to grow palm oil, almost exclusively for foreign markets. “If we cannot save a forest as unique and valuable as Tripa, what can we save?” Rini wondered.

Oil palm trees, originally from West Africa, are grown in Indonesia to produce palm fruits, harvested by workers and then pressed in large processing mills distributed throughout Sumatra and Borneo to create palm oil. Indonesian, Malaysian, American and European agribusiness companies like Sinar Mas, Wilmar, Cargill and London Sumatra are among the largest growers of palm oil in Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of the commodity, exporting about 45 percent of all palm oil sold worldwide to be consumed as cooking oil, processed foods, cosmetics and even biofuels.

In April I authored a report, Truth and Consequences: Palm Oil Plantations Push Unique Orangutan Population to the Brink of Extinction, released by the San Francisco-based environmental activist group Rainforest Action Network. As a political ecologist, I have lived in Indonesia’s forests since 2007, studying the environmental changes and community responses that result from palm oil expansion. Tripa is a particularly stark illustration of the dangers of palm oil plantations; working with Indonesian colleagues, I have watched the plantations grow as deforestation and fires lead to the death of hundreds of orangutans that can not be found and relocated before they starve, are killed by palm oil plantation employees, or are captured for the illegal pet trade in the remaining scattered forest patches.

For now, the starving orangutan has been successfully relocated to a conservation area some distance from Tripa — a location that holds enough food for him and that is safe from palm oil development, for the foreseeable future at least. But there’s a very real chance he will be among the last survivors from these once-teeming forests. According to Singleton, the pace of destruction in Tripa is so great that its orangutan population will be extinct by the end of 2012, if the current wave of business-as-usual palm oil development there is not halted immediately. “This is a tragedy on a global scale,” he said.

Saving Leuser. Tripa. A film by Carlos Quilles

The video is a short story of a bigger documentary project Saving Leuser. We need the maximum support not just for Tripa but to save the Leuser ecosystem, the only place in the world that hosts four endangered mega fauna as tigers, rhinos, orangutans, and elephants.

For any kind of comments or ideas to include in the video contact carlosquiles@carlosquilesfoto.com or add in facebook by the same mail. Thanks

Are we witnessing the end of the icons?

Orangutans may be wiped out – warning


  • The Autralian. Breaking News

CRITICALLY-endangered orangutans in a protected area of Indonesia will be wiped out by the end of the year if land clearing is not stopped, a coalition of environmental groups warned today.

The government must immediately halt the clearance of forest in the 13,000-hectare peat swamps in Tripa, Aceh province, the groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth said.

They also called on the government to investigate the use of fire by palm oil companies for land clearing and reinforce existing laws protecting the ecosystem.

Ian Singleton, conservation director of Swiss-based PanEco, one of the groups making up the Coalition for Protection of Tripa Swamp, said the roughly 200 orangutans left in the peat swamps will be gone in months if the fires continue.

“The speed of destruction, fires, burning and everything has gone up dramatically in the last few weeks, let alone in the last year, and this is obviously a deliberate drive by these companies to clear all the remaining forests,” he said.

“If this is not stopped right now, then all those orangutans, all those forests, will be gone before the end of 2012.”

Experts believe there are about 50,000 to 60,000 of the two species of orangutans left in the wild, 80 per cent of them in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia.

They are faced with extinction from poaching and the rapid destruction of their forest habitat, driven largely by palm oil and paper plantations.

Most of those left are the endangered Bornean orangutan species. And Singleton said that based on 2004 figures there are only 6600 of the critically-endangered Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces.

“We suspect that up to 100 orangutans may have perished in forest clearing and peat burning in the last few months in Tripa,” said Graham Usher of local group Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem.

Satellite monitoring found at least 87 fire hotspots between March 19 and 24 in three palm oil concessions.

Footage and images captured large clouds of white smoke and patches of burnt peat.

At least 2800 hectares of peat were destroyed in the latest fires, and the number of animals, including Sumatran orangutans, Malayan sun bears and Sumatran tigers that perished was “immeasurable”, the local group added.

Palm oil is a key ingredient in soap and everyday foods ranging from peanut butter to sweets but its cultivation is considered one of the biggest threats to the world’s dwindling rainforests.

Orangutans could perish in weeks

Forest fires and land clearing by palm oil firms could kill the 200 orangutans remaining in a western Indonesian forest.

Forest fires and land clearing by palm oil firms could kill the 200 orangutans remaining in a western Indonesian forest.

Photograph by: Roni Bintang, Reuters Files , Reuters

Forest fires and land clearing by palm oil firms could kill off within weeks about 200 orangutans in a forest in western Indonesia, an environmental group said on Wednesday.

The orangutans, part of a population of around 6,600 on Sumatra island, used to live in a lush forest and peatland region called Rawa Tripa on the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. But more than two-thirds of the area has been divided up into palm oil concessions, said the Coalition to Save Tripa.

Graham Usher, a member of the coalition and a landscape protection specialist, said satellite images showed forest fires had been burning in Tripa since last week, and if allowed to continue they could wipe out orangutans already forced onto the edge of remaining forests.

“If there is any prolonged dry spell, which is quite likely, there’s a very good chance that the whole piece of forest and everything in it, so that’s orang-utans, sun bears, tigers, and all the other protected species in it, will disappear in a few weeks and will be gone permanently,” he told a news conference.

The palm oil industry has expanded to make Indonesia the world’s top producer and exporter of the edible oil, used to make goods ranging from cooking oil and biodiesel to biscuits and soap to feed growing Asian consumer demand.

Deforestation has threatened animals like the Sumatran tiger and Javan rhino and pushed up carbon dioxide emissions. The Bali tiger and the Java tiger have disappeared in the last 70 years. A two-year moratorium on new permits to clear primary forests came into effect in Indonesia last year, part of a $1-billion deal with Norway to cut emissions and slow expansion of plantations. But the moratorium was breached in Aceh on its first days, an environmental group has said.

The last Aceh permit for palm oil was issued by former Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf in August last year to PT Kallista Alam, prompting environmental group WALHI to file a legal suit against Yusuf. A court verdict is expected next week.

“If Kallista Alam win the case they will burn it and that whole bit of forest will disappear and we can say goodbye to the orangutan of Tripa peat swamps,” Usher said.

Kallista Alam could not be reached for comment.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Indonesian fires threaten Sumatran orangutan

By ALI KOTARUMALOS, Associated Press – 2 hours ago  JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) —

Hundreds of critically endangered orangutans in western Indonesia could be wiped out by the year’s end if palm oil companies keep setting land-clearing fires in their peat swamp forests, conservationists warned Thursday.

“They are just barely hanging on,” Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said of the Sumatran orangutans who live in the Tripa forest on the coast of Aceh province. “It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears.”

The forest — though officially protected — is hemmed in by palm oil plantations, including one that was granted a permit just last year

Land clearing fires, several set inside the perimeters, have sent orangutans fleeing. Some risk being captured or killed by residents, Singleton said. Others will simply die, either directly in the fires or of gradual starvation and malnutrition as their food resources disappear.

“We are currently watching a global tragedy,” he said.

There are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild.

The Tripa forest — which in the early ’90s was home to around 3,000 of them — today has just 200. But with eight individuals every square kilometer, its the densest population in the world.

Cloud-free images from December show only 12,267 hectares (30,311 acres) of Tripa’s original 60,000 hectares (148,260 acres) of forest remains, said Graham Usher of the Foundation of a Sustainable Ecosystem.

The rest has been broken up and degraded as palm oil companies drain the swamp, he said, adding a total of 92 fire hotspots were recorded between March 19 and 25 in several of the surrounding plantations.

A half-century ago, more than three-quarters of Indonesia was blanketed in plush tropical rain forest. But half those trees have been cleared in the rush to supply the world with pulp, paper and, more recently, palm oil — used to make everything from lipstick and soap to “clean-burning” fuel.

Governments are now trying to find ways to convince the sprawling archipelagic nation to keep trees standing.

As part of a $1 billion deal with Norway, Indonesia recently put in place a two-year moratorium on issuing new permits to clear primary forests.

But conservationists say that deal was violated when the government gave a license to PT Kallista Alam last year to convert 4,000 acres of the Tripa peat swamp. Three other companies are already operating in the area.

An environmental group has filed both a criminal complaint and a lawsuit against the government. The Aceh Administrative Court is expected to hand down a verdict on the lawsuit next week.