Public may have final say in extinction choices

Hugh Possingham

Which native species will survive for future generations is a dilemma that can be solved by society, not society, a leading ecologist has said.

Hugh Possingham, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) at the University of Queensland, said that world-first Australian research was showing that it was now possible to estimate how many species can be saved based on how much was spent on protecting them and their habitats.

For the first time we are starting to get a handle on the return on investment from conservation,” he said.

However, this also clearly shows that, at current levels of funding and current rates of extinction, we won’t be able to save everything.

It will come down to a public decision about what kind of Australia we really want, which native species we should strive to keep – and how many we feel we can afford to let go.”

Melbourne University’s Michael McCarthy and colleagues have shown that an annual national investment of just $10m a year could reduce the number of threatened Australian bird species from around 270 to 230 over 80 years, he said. Even then a few species would be lost.

This is the first clear evidence, probably worldwide, how much it costs to save species. The amount of $10m is roughly three times what we currently spend nationally on bird conservation.

It seems like a trivial amount to secure Australia’s avifauna. It comes down to a decision whether we lose a bird a decade – or a bird every century.”

In a situation where environmental funding remains tight it will be necessary for Australians to take hard decisions, Possingham said.

Are we wasting scarce money trying to save some species from extinction? Should we instead put more effort into saving those with better prospects of survival?

These are not questions that science can answer: they come down to our values as a society.”

We now know what it will cost to protect Australia’s last region with an intact native fauna,” Possingham said.

The question we must decide is whether we are willing to make the necessary investment.”

Given the decisions ahead, Possingham called for Australians to learn more about their native land and its animal inhabitants.

We all need to open our eyes more to the wonderful Australia that surround us. Europeans and Americans are amazed to see the wildlife that we take for granted.”