Environment

Dozens of animals and plants join Australia’s threatened species list

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What do tingle pygmy trapdoor spiders from Western Australia, silver-headed antechinus from central Queensland and Duramana fingers orchids from NSW have in common?

If youre waiting for a funny punchline, sorry – the answer is that they're among the 41 new species of Australian plants and animals that are now officially at risk of extinction.

Two species of antechinus – the silver-headed and black-tailed antechinus – were added to the threatened species list last week. The small, carnivorous marsupials are best known for their reproductive habits – males die after their once-in-a-lifetime mating frenzy.

Photo: Gary Cranitch, Qld Museum

The good news though is that this listing could, potentially, be the first step towards reversing the countrys world leading extinction rate.

Those 41 species were among 50 changes to the countrys official threatened species list after its annual update on Friday.

As well as the additions, both the Wollemi pine – noted as the botanical find of the century – and the western ringtail possum have deteriorated to become "critically endangered".

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The Wollemi pine saw its status on the threatened species list downgraded from "endangered" to "critically endangered" due to the introduction of phytophthora disease into its secluded habitat.

Photo: Royal Botanic Garden

While the phytophthora disease is driving the decline of the pine, reduced rainfall – almost certainly driven by climate change – is one of the major threats to the possum.

Australian Conservation Foundations Basha Stasak said the new listings were both recognition of the hard work of scientists and an indictment of government policy.

On one hand, Ms Stasak said the listings were an important first step in putting plans into place to protect those species. On the other, she said it was evidence of a political mindset that favoured development over conservation.

“Its just a further indication of the crisis were facing in Australia,” the ACF nature campaign manager said.

“There are now almost 2000 species on the [threatened] list and theres really a lack of money to fund the recovery efforts that are needed to get these species off the list.

“And its a sign that our national environmental laws are really failing to protect the critical habitat they need to recover.”

Ms Stasak cited the fate of the Leadbeater's possum as a “perfect example” – saying Victorias critically endangered faunal emblem was at risk of extinction due to the logging of mountain ash forest.

Victoria's fauna emblem, the Leadbeater's possum.

Photo: Ken Irwin

But it was Western Australia and New South Wales that dominated changes to the list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Fourteen plants and animals from NSW were either added to the list or saw their threatened status deteriorate. Among them are Duramana fingers orchids, an unusually tall flower restricted to a tiny area around Bathurst and Ilford, which was listed as "critically endangered".

Thirty species from WA were either added to the list or saw their threatened status worsen, among them the western ringtail possum, the black striped dwarf galaxia – a freshwater fish – two spiders and the Collie spider orchid.

University of Melbourne School of BioSciences professor Michael McCarthy said the spike in threatened species was due in part to better research, which would be needed to save the species.

But he also said it was a continuation of a concerning trajectory – he said Australias extinction record continued to be one of the worst in the world.

The western ringtail possum saw its status on the threatened species list worsen to critically endangered' this week, partly due to reduced rainfall and partly due to urban expansion.

Photo: Adrian Wayne/Parks and Wildlife

“We've done particularly badly with mammals … around one-third of the mammal species that have gone extinct over the last couple of hundred years have come from Australia,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we're punching well above our weight when it comes to threatened species going extinct.”

However, Professor McCarthy said the good news was that that trajectory could be reversed.

“To some extent, were actually pretty good at preventing extinction … if we actually know that [threatened species] exist and put in efforts to manage the threats against them,” he said.

He said disease, predation by introduced animals and habitat loss were all leading drivers of species decline – all of which could be addressed through research, policy changes and investment.

“If you look at total federal government expenditure which is roughly in the area of threatened species, its around about $70 million per year,” Professor McCarthy said.

“That might sound like a lot of money, but its tiny in comparison to proposed tax cuts of around $20 billion a year on average over seven years.

“Defence gets over $30 billion a year – so these are three orders of magnitude of expenditure more than what we are spending on a federal level on threatened species.”

Assistant Minister for the Environment Melissa Price said the majority of recent listings were a result of the federal and state and territory governments establishing a common method for the assessment and listing of nationally threatened species in Australia.

“[This] leads to better outcomes for Australias biodiversity, with the consistent and harmonised approach providing more certainty for industry,” the assistant minister said.

“By working with states and territories to get the best science and consistent protection we can target our actions for these species so that we can turn the trajectory for these species around.”

Three species from the Northern Territory were taken off the threatened species list, including a pair of butterflies – the Gove crow and desert sand-skipper.

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Joe Hinchliffe

Joe Hinchliffe reports breaking news for The Age.

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