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Australia aims to cut its high rate of species extinctions to zero


A rescued koala in Adelaide, Australia on Jan. 31, 2018. Australia laid out a conservation plan aimed at preventing the extinction of any more of its plants and animals, an ambitious target for a country that has lost species at one of the highest rates in the world.

By Yan Zhuang


Australia has laid out a conservation plan aimed at preventing the extinction of any more of its plants and animals, an ambitious target for a country that has lost species at one of the highest rates in the world.


The government announcement on Tuesday followed years of extreme weather events like wildfires and heat waves that have threatened the nation’s unique species, as well as a sweeping new five-year survey that found its environment and wildlife were facing even greater threats than previously acknowledged, driven by climate change.


“Our current approach has not been working,” the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said in a statement announcing the plan. “These are the strongest targets we’ve ever seen,” she added.


The 10-year plan includes a commitment by the center-left Labor government to conserve 30% of the nation’s landmass, bringing Australia in line with dozens of other nations, including the United States, that have signed on to the same goal. About 22% of Australia’s landmass is currently protected, the report said, and increasing that figure to 30% would mean an increase of 61 million hectares, or more than 235,000 square miles.


It also identifies 110 threatened species and 20 habitats to be prioritized for conservation action, a focus whose benefits will trickle to other threatened species, the government said. Among the animals identified for protection are a bird known as the King Island scrubtit, the brush-tailed rock wallaby and the growling grass frog.


While the government has not announced funding for the new plan, it has previously committed $146 million (224.5 million Australian dollars) to save native species.


Scientists and conservationists welcomed the high-reaching goal of stopping extinctions altogether. But they warned that the steps outlined by the government were insufficient, with some saying that the plan did not go far enough to address key drivers of species extinction like climate change, habitat clearing and invasive species.


“What’s in the plan falls well short of what would be required to actually meet that goal,” said Basha Stasak, the nature program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation. Still, she said there was value in setting objectives. “At the end of the day, goals focus our attention,” she added.


James Watson, a professor of conservation science at the University of Queensland, said that far more money — about AU$1.3 billion — would be needed to save all of Australia’s threatened species.


“They can’t possibly achieve their goal of stopping extinctions based on the finances involved,” he said.


He said that the approach by the new Labor government was an improvement over a decade of “awful” conservation strategies from the previous conservative government. But he noted that there were more than 1,700 threatened species in Australia and added: “There’s no way, if you focus on 110 species, you’re going to capture the needs of the other 1,600 species.”


Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent over the past 200 years, the five-year survey said, and continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline among major developed countries.


Since colonization in 1788, 39 species of mammals have gone extinct, a figure that scientists say is far higher than that of any other country.


Extreme weather events like the 2019-20 summer wildfires have increased the extinction risk for many species, including those that were already vulnerable, like the koala, which was declared an endangered species earlier this year.

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