15 July 2020
THE WORLD MOURNED WHILE AUSTRALIA BURNED, BUT DEFORESTATION IS SILENTLY TAKING ITS TOLL
Australia's catastrophic bushfires last summer attracted headlines around the world. The loss of human life and property was heartbreaking; the damage to native habitat and wildlife shocking as 12 million hectares of the continent burned.
Your generous support for WWF's bushfire recovery efforts demonstrated how much you value Australia's unique environments and animals. You stood with us to help rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, deliver emergency food and work towards restoring safe wildlife corridors.
But our native landscapes were being destroyed long before the Australian bushfires, with barely a mention. Right under the government's nose.
Australia's nature laws are undergoing a once-in-10-year review. Will you ask your local politician to protect our wildlife and their remaining homes?
The unauthorised destruction of wildlife habitats for crops and pastures poses a significant threat to Australia's biodiversity. Between 2004 and 2017, in New South Wales and Queensland, alone, WWF-Australia discovered that our most vulnerable wildlife lost more than 1 million hectares of habitat to unauthorised agricultural development. That's an area nearly twice the size of Bali.
Maps we prepared using Australian and state government data showed huge discrepancies between the relatively tiny extent of habitat destruction that went through the approval process and the far, far greater amount of threatened species habitat that was actually bulldozed.
Under the nation's flagship environmental laws - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act - anyone seeking to destroy native habitat that will significantly impact threatened wildlife must seek approval.
However, agricultural developers who destroy habitat without approval are rarely investigated or penalised for unlawful destruction. Out of sight, seems to be out of mind. But a closer look at EPBC judgments shows just what's at stake.
In the past 15 years, starting with the illegal destruction of Gwydir Ramsar Wetlands (near Moree, NSW) - wetlands internationally prized for their importance - we've seen examples of critically endangered grasslands and other threatened ecosystems destroyed. Bluegum forests that harbour the rare swift parrot, the Victorian stronghold of the vulnerable striped legless lizard, and stands of trees that provide refuge for the southeastern red-tailed black cockatoo have all been destroyed without permission.
But the instances of unauthorised destruction that the government has acted on could fit on one page. The vast majority is simply ignored.
What we do know is that habitat destruction without regard for the native animals living there causes untold animal suffering. Native animals like koalas and greater gliders not killed outright or crushed as trees are felled often experience a slow and agonising death. Those that do manage to escape are soon exposed to the dangers of vehicles, disease and dogs.
Native populations are delicately balanced. Parcels of land can only support certain numbers: it's not simply a case of moving homeless animals on to habitat that remains. Overcrowding creates its own pressures and problems - namely starvation, conflict, stress and disease.
When our forests die, the animals living there die with them. Entire species adapted to specific habitats may disappear altogether.
Of course, deforestation not only impacts the resident threatened plants and animals. It has broader effects on the environment, too, promoting soil erosion, the loss of fertile topsoil and contributing to drought, by reducing local rainfall. Globally, deforestation and forest degradation also accounts for up to 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions. It also has economic and health impacts on Australians.
It's simple. Trees mean life - for wildlife and people.
As the government undertakes its once-in-10 year review of the EPBC Act, we have an opportunity to address some vitally important questions. How adequately is habitat for our threatened animals protected under the act? How well is it enforced?
WWF-Australia has put forward detailed recommendations to the EPBC review panel. We're asking the government to commit to detailed fully-funded recovery plans for all Australian threatened species by 2022. But above all else, we're seeking assurances that critical habitats for threatened species will be systematically and rigorously identified, mapped and protected by law - that is, those habitats needed to be protected so that species can recover to the point where they can be safely taken off the threatened species list. Establishing a national, independent Environmental Protection Authority to ensure that every person, business and industry is doing the right thing by nature is a vital component of what we have proposed.
Our key environmental laws are failing to protect Australia's most vulnerable wildlife. It's time our federal government made tackling the massive scale of unauthorised destruction a major priority, before it's too late.
That means closing the gaps in our laws regarding unauthorised destruction, enforcing the EPBC Act's provisions more stringently, and applying the same rules to everyone, equally, without fear or favour. All developers – whether agricultural, mining, urban, or the timber industry – should be held to the same standard, in order to protect our threatened species.
We witness the tree-clearing in developing countries in Southeast Asia and South America with horror and condemn foreign governments for robbing charismatic animals like the orangutan and tiger of their homes. It's time we examined more closely what's happening on our own continent, to our species on the brink of extinction, like the koala and greater glider.
If we really care about ending Australia's extinction crisis, then we must all play our part. With such large swathes of native habitat and national parks burned during the 2019-20 summer bushfire catastrophe, it's more critical than ever that we protect what habitat remains. The government’s own Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel has highlighted the protection of unburnt refuge areas within burnt landscapes as a priority. Strengthening the EPBC Act is essential to achieving that and so much more.
Join us today - to push for tighter protections for the remarkable places, plants and animals we all love.