6 Sept 2019


By Rachel Lowry,

Chief Conservation Officer, WWF-Australia

Australian species feature in some of my happiest memories. I’ve been kissed by a fur-seal. Marched on by a little penguin. I’ve had a wild shearwater bird fly straight into my arms and I’ve rested under a tree just at the right moment to watch a Leadbeater's possum shyly emerge at dusk.

Rachel Lowry, Chief Conservation Officer of WWF-Australia with a hawksbill turtle
Rachel Lowry, Chief Conservation Officer of WWF-Australia with a hawksbill turtle © Rachel Lowry / WWF-Aus

To say that I like the incredible species that call Australia home is to understate the depth of awe and admiration that a 20-year career working in wildlife conservation can cultivate. I absolutely love our diverse, unusual, occasionally adorable and often elusive wildlife that put Australia on the map. It will come as no surprise then, that an Australia devoid of thriving species and the habitats they rely upon is one that I believe is worthy of an “oh-no-thank-you-very-much” response, or more specifically, active rejection. Fortunately, I’m not alone.

On 7 September each year, many people stop and reflect on the fact that on that same date in 1936, Australia’s Tasmanian tiger, also known as our thylacine, slipped over that extinction line.

Thylacine family at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1910
Thylacine family at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1910 © Public Domain

Threatened Species Day has long been a significant day for me, and this year will be my first as a member of the team that made the choice to mark the annual event on our national calendar. It was WWF’s National Threatened Species Network that inaugurated Threatened Species Day in 1996, not only to commemorate the death of the last Tasmanian tiger, but also to ensure that there was at least one day, every year, where we remind ourselves that while we’re unable to bring back the species now lost to Australia forever, we certainly can halt the decline of Australian species if we choose to.

The history of Australia’s Threatened Species Day is one that mirrors a series of choices and values worthy of reflection as we approach 7 September. Upon its inauguration, Threatened Species Day secured strong support from the Australian Government, until the funding gradually petered out in 2006. Fortunately, the day hasn’t gone completely ignored since that time by our national leaders.

Well-intended, yet under-resourced roles such as the Threatened Species Commissioner, for example, have tried to seize the opportunity that the milestone presents by promoting activities such as the annual Threatened Species Bake Off (check out #TSBAKEOFF on social media).

2018  Threatened Species Baw Baw Frog cake entry by Rachel Lowry
© Rachel Lowry

Those of us that join in on the delicious fun in an effort to encourage a public discussion on the species increasingly slipping from Australia’s grip, in our heart of hearts know that baking skink, possum or frog-shaped cakes won’t generate the step-change we need to halt Australia’s species extinctions, but it’s worthy fun all the same. And so, while I’ll never be one to turn down cake, what Australian’s need to call for, is national and state-based leadership that values, protects and invests in solutions that put nature and people at the heart of our decisions.

How far have we strayed from that reality? I’d argue, too far.

Koala mother and joey seeking refuge on a bulldozed logpile
Koala mother and joey seeking refuge on a bulldozed logpile (Homepage) © Briano / WWF-Aus

While Australia’s overall national federal budget has been on the rise over the past six years, cuts to Australia’s federal environment programs constitute more than half a billion dollars over the same period. At a time when Australia has been globally recognised as having one of the fastest species extinction rates than any other country in the world, including the fastest extinction rate for mammals worldwide, one can only assume that these decisions, or choices, have been values-based rather than needs-based. Though I doubt very much that they truly reflect the values that Aussies hold for their native wildlife. Like extinction, it’s happened gradually, slowly and often silently.

Fortunately, we do not require government funding to stop and reflect on what we value about Australia’s wildlife. We certainly don’t require strong national leadership to share stories of our unique wildlife with our children. On 7 September 2019, we can choose whether, or better yet, how, we’ll commemorate the species we have lost, and step-up for the threatened species we are yet to save.

For those seeking some step-up inspiration this Threatened Species Day, I’ve listed 10 key actions that, if undertaken regularly and on mass across Australia, will go a long way in helping turn the tide on our species extinctions:

Rachel Lowry reading Phasmid Saving the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect
© Rachel Lowry
  1. Reflect on what we have that’s worth fighting for. Share stories with our children, celebrate our native species and secure time to learn more about the current threats that our threatened species are contending with.
  2. Write to those that have secured the privileged role of overseeing the protection of our species and ask that they do so. A great place to start is by asking Minister of Environment Sussan Ley to ensure that all nationally listed Threatened Species have timebound, fully costed Recovery Plans in place. Less than 40% currently do.
  3. Keep a close eye on the upcoming Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) review. Provide comment and consultation at every opportunity to ensure that the laws designed to protect our threatened species do exactly that.
  4. Choose planet-friendly food. Locally grown, sustainably certified whenever available is a great start, for the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reminds us that the way we manage our land to produce food will be an important factor in whether we can maintain a safe climate for all. Cutting back on beef or investigating where your steak comes from is a good place to start.
  5. For those of us who own cats, let’s keep them safely indoors. Good science tells us that the impact on species that one free-roaming cat can have across just one year of its life is staggering.
  6. Identify one single-use plastic that keeps making its way into your life. Trial replacement options until one sticks. Once you have the stamina to press on, let’s work through the rest.
  7. Support every and any opportunity to shift Australia from a global deforestation hot spot (we are listed among the world’s top 11 worst offending countries) to a reforestation nation. Planting days, offsets, green gifts, let’s make a hobby out of reforesting.
  8. Find a charity that prioritises species conservation and donate. There are entire organisations filled with people that dedicate their lives to protecting our environment. Let’s ensure they are strong at a time where their strength is greatly needed. Naturally, I’ll recommend WWF-Australia when drafting that worthy shortlist.
  9. Harness the potential of social media by following political and community leaders that have the power to make decisions that benefit Australia’s environmental future, and therefore economic prosperity. Each and every time they mention the need to shift Australia from one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels to a nation that embraces a clean energy future, like, love, retweet. When it comes to addressing climate change, let’s ensure that #renewables lead the way forward, we are poised like no other nation to do so.
  10. And finally, when our government does announce an investment or intervention that benefits our Australian threatened species, let’s thank them. Publicly, sincerely and with vigour. One can only hope that positive reinforcement works on all fronts.The list above is one-third the length of the number of mammals that Australia has lost to extinction since European settlement. I hope that it has sparked some new ideas or better yet, a throng of even better ones.

This threatened species day the team at WWF will be sharing a story about hope. Because there really is plenty to seize. Upon realising that our increasing summer temperatures were causing sea turtles along some parts of the Great Barrier Reef to all hatch female, Milman Island was identified as an ideal research site to help trial climate change adaptation solutions to help us innovate and get ahead of this problem.

The take-home message here is less about turtles and more about great case studies across Australia showing that we really can generate wins and either mitigate threats or help our species adapt when we are clear on what we value and step-up to the challenges that we face.

Australia is the only nation that is home to a heart-melter of a species that sounds like a motorbike with mechanical failure when it mates. And we want it to stay that way. Yet population modelling of our iconic koala, predicts that the species is likely to cross the extinction line in NSW by 2050 if we don’t step-up our efforts to value, protect and invest in mitigating processes threatening our wildlife. With this in mind, I sincerely want to thank the number of Australians who have helped support WWF’s koala conservation work (those noisy little heart-melters), our turtle feminisation and species climate adaptation research, quoll rewilding and the many other worthy efforts that help prevent Australia’s threatened species that are at risk of extinction.

At WWF, we’ll continue to do our best to keep on stepping-up our efforts to match the need that lies ahead. We hope that we can count on you this Threatened Species Day to step it up alongside us.