Native species are at risk as the ecology of the Northern Territory is being “torn apart”. (Flickr: Pierre Roudier)
From climate change to renewable energy and threatened species, many Australians have environmental issues at the forefront of their minds as they vote at the federal election.
None more so than people in the Northern Territory, who fear they have a lot to lose.
Just last week an alarming UN-backed report stated one million of the world’s species were under threat of extinction with humans, climate change, pollution and invasive species to blame.
A number of Territory voters have contacted the ABC’s You Ask, We Answer project wanting to know how the election candidates plan to support the NT’s biodiversity. One asked:
“What do each of the parties plan to do about the loss of native species through invasive species and land clearing across Australia?
“Introduced species like cats, foxes and pigs are just eating their way through our native species, and it seems that year after year, nowhere near enough is done.”
Who are the killers?
A report commissioned by the Invasive Species Council revealed that four of every five threatened Australian native species were being driven towards extinction by feral animals, weeds, loss of habitat and climate change.
Council chief executive Andrew Cox said the unfortunate truth was that eradicating invasive species was near impossible.
“We live with many of these animals and they are spread across the country causing havoc to our native mammals and reptiles,” he said.
“Rabbits, feral pigs, cats, goats, foxes and weeds are causing massive displacement and are in the top 10 of Australia’s worst invasive species.”
This year has already seen a new Top End species added to the extinction list.
“The Bramble Cay melomys from the Torres Strait has just been added to the extinct list — this makes two mammal extinctions and five other animal species in the past 10 years.”
According to Graeme Sawyer, a former Darwin lord mayor and now president of the NT chapter of the Association of Environmental Education, the Territory’s native species had been pushed to the side.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric coming from politicians about actions around biodiversity loss and implications from feral animals, but when it comes to actually doing something about it, nothing is done,” Mr Sawyer said.
“The cane toad issue in northern Australia really put our systems around biodiversity to the test and they failed miserably.
“Kakadu National Park has had nothing done to manage cane toads and yet the ecology of the park has been torn apart.”
Is our biodiversity at risk?
In the Northern Territory, 45 per cent of the land mass is taken by pastoral land, of which only around 1 per cent has been cleared.
Although this suggested minimal impact to natural habitats, Shar Molloy, the director of the Environmental Centre NT, said the Territory needed a federal framework to better assess how land was being used, with a hope of supporting conservation.
“The Northern Territory has the weakest regulations in the country governing land clearing,” she said.
“There really hasn’t been much scientific research that can identify the flora and fauna being affected in our regional areas.
“We are currently in the transformation of the Environmental Protection Bill to hopefully provide better support.”
Shar Molloy is calling on local government, pastoralists and land holders to better protect the Territory’s biodiversity. (ABC: Marty McCarthy)
If elected, federal Labor has promised to improve state governments’ native vegetation or land clearing laws in an effort to reduce carbon emissions.
Ms Molloy, however, said species on land already stripped were unlikely to return.
“Clearing our native species of flora paves way for invasive species — this upsets the balance of our ecosystem,” she said.
“Once you have taken apart an ecosystem, you can’t put it back together,” Mr Sawyer added.
“It takes many years to recover even just small areas of country. Even then, getting your native animals and invertebrates to return just takes forever.
“If you start these processes in the Top End, it’s irreversible damage.”
Graeme Sawyer says Darwin’s goanna population is depleting as cane toads repopulate the city. (Supplied: Graeme Sawyer)
What have the candidates got to say?
Timothy Parish, the Greens candidate for Solomon, told ABC Radio Darwin’s Liz Trevaskis that his party wanted to increase funding for a national invasive species action plan.
“We want to increase funding for the federal environment department and establish a fund to manage issues like gamba grass,” he said.
“There is a lot of science and research that needs to be done into the present state of our native species in the Territory.
“Feral camels are on our radar; we need to come to a cohesive effort between Western Australia and the Territory to work out how to best manage the feral animal situation.
“We have some very delicate ecosystems — land and sea management practices are in place but better regulations are needed.”
The ABC sought comment from the CLP and ALP and received a statement from each party in response:
- “Labor’s Protecting The Environment plan includes $100 million towards the Native Species Protection Fund, $62 million to the Beaches And Coastlines Climate Adaptation Plan, $50 million towards environmental law reform and $200 million for the Urban Rivers And Corridors Program.”
- “According to the CLP’s environment policy, a re-elected Morrison Government will allocate up to $10 million under the Environment Restoration Fund, provide up to $6 million for a major koala initiative in northern NSW, up to $3 million to protect native species in WA, and commit $1 billion for phase 2 of the National Landcare Program.”
What if nothing changed?
Mr Cox said if it remained business as usual regarding protecting native species, Australia would be a very different place.
“It sounds a little apocalyptic, what we would see if we lost our natives — we will mostly see weeds and feral animals,” he said.
“The sound changes. After an invasive species erupts, natural areas fall silent because birds and insects are gone.
“When do we wake up to what we are on the edge of losing?” Mr Sawyer said.
“Sadly, I think the reality in Australia is that dollars are put well ahead of the environment.
“There have been significant cuts to environmental projects and research over time and I don’t see that being reversed any time soon.”